The little box labeled August 21 on the calendar at my desk has had a note on it for months now. That was the date of the total solar eclipse. I’ve been pretty jazzed about the day for awhile. Eclipses are just one of those rare events that holds our attention, inspires a sense of awe and reminds us our lives are as brief as a tick or a tock on the giant clock of creation.
Friday rolled around and I still hadn’t even ordered a pair of viewing glasses for the occasion, even though I’d had it marked on my calendar for several months. Then I stumbled on a video titled “Five Ways to View the Eclipse.” Ah, fun times. Simple, homemade gadgets, like a cardboard camera obscura, are always fun to me. I originally decided to test out the Ritz cracker approach and see how well it worked.
The idea there is that the holes in a Ritz, or any cracker, work exactly like a pinhole camera. A cracker has multiple holes, so you’ll get multiple images, but I cleverly thought I’d plug up the extra holes with peanut butter before viewing the eclipse and have a snack for afterward.
I forgot to buy crackers over the weekend.
Rather, I changed my approach. Somehow it’s easier for me to get ahold of a pair of binoculars than it is to buy crackers at the grocery store. Binoculars and telescopes can be used as sort of reverse projectors and, in the case of an eclipse, can make the sun safe for indirect viewing on a flat surface.
Sunday night, I dusted off (literally) a pair of binoculars my great uncle had picked up shortly after his service during World War II. The words “Made in Occupied Japan” are stamped right on them and still in very good shape. I traced the outline of each barrel on to a piece of cardboard I pulled from the recycling bin and began to cut out the two circles. It was at this point that I wondered if the last North American eclipse had happened before or after these binoculars were made. The answer was somewhere in between. The last eclipse was in 1979. The last eclipse to cross the entire continent, like this year’s did, was in 1918.
I tried to think of the significance of an event so rare that even this cold, black piece of equipment hadn’t seen such a thing in all its years. I wondered if I should try to somehow attach it to my camera tripod, but shuddered at the idea of the black barrels cracking against a hard cement surface. Rather, I gently pushed the binoculars through the holes in the cardboard and tested it by hand on my back porch. It took some adjusting while I held the simple contraption over my shoulder, but I was projecting two circles of light onto my own shadow in a matter of minutes. A few seconds more and I was focusing the eye pieces for a clear image.
I was careful to not even bump the settings as I drove to work Monday. I checked the skies a couple of times as the noon-hour approached. It was obvious I wasn’t going to get to use the binoculars for their new purpose. I watched out an office window as dark, rainy skies turned to darker, rainier skies. I knew the eclipse was happening somewhere behind those clouds.
A second shot may come back around for me and my antique lenses. Another eclipse is expected in about seven years. I’m not sure if it will be partially visible from Iowa like it was this year, but I did learn how to safely watch it when I get the chance again. Now I can use it for solar transits or other starry happenings. I suppose that’s the real reward here.
And next year I’ll be sure to buy some crackers.