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About this collection

By Katie Rapp, NIST Librarian

NIST researchers have studied many eclipses over the past century. In 1936 NIST (then called the National Bureau of Standards or NBS) researcher Irvine C. Gardner traveled to the then-Soviet republic of Kazakhstan with a team from the National Geographic Society and brought back the first natural-color photos of a solar corona during a total eclipse.


Gardner designed the special camera: “The National Bureau of Standards within its own plant conducted all processes necessary for the conversion of sand and the other required ingredients into a finished lens. This construction included the production of the optical glass, the computation of the curvatures of the different surfaces, and the grinding and polishing of the four components of the lens.”


Everything was checked and re-checked onsite and after a cloudy morning, the skies cleared, and the expedition enjoyed picture-perfect weather for the 1936 eclipse. That first color photo (which looks oddly black and white to us today) was published in an article by Gardner in National Geographic magazine (“Observing an Eclipse in Asiatic Russia,” February 1937).


The NIST Archives has a sizable collection about Gardner, a Department of Commerce Gold Medal awardee who retired in 1959 as the Chief of the Division of Optics and Metrology. Of special interest is a photo album chronicling Gardner’s 1936 journey with his wife to and from Kazakhstan, with many stops along the way, including pre-war Berlin and Warsaw. The album contains numerous photos taken at the eclipse observation site, an ancient burial mound near Ak Bulak, Kazakhstan. Photos include the unpacking and set up of the telescope and camels pulling water wagons to the scientists.


Image of NBS instruments installed in Patos, Brazil for the 1940 eclipse. Credit: National Geographic Society

Pages from Gardner’s photo album detailing the joint NBS/National Geographic Society expedition to Kazakhstan in 1936. Credit: NIST Archives


In the ensuing years, Gardner continued crossing the globe photographing and studying eclipses in exotic locales including the South Pacific and Brazil. The 1937 expedition to Canton Island placed the researchers very near to the location where Amelia Earhart disappeared less than a month later.


With fantastic timing for the 2017 Great American Eclipse, earlier in August the Library accepted an additional donation from Gardner’s family. The newly-received items include the beautiful, and obviously color, photo of the solar corona taken by Gardner in 1937 on Canton Island with the same camera used previously in Kazakhstan (see image at top of this article).


Gardner made bigger and better plans for the 1940 eclipse expedition to Brazil, which moved beyond regular photography to include spectrography. NBS Director Lyman Briggs said in a monograph devoted to this expedition: "It can be said that no eclipse expedition ever set out with better equipment, much of it having been specifically designed and constructed under the personal supervision of Dr. I. C. Gardner with particular reference to accuracy, automatic operation and ease of transportation and assembly.”


Imagine the disappointment when cloud cover suddenly appeared! According to Gardner, “The veil of clouds suppressed detail and robbed the photographs of any great scientific value.” Still, the radio observations of the ionosphere proceeded successfully and much good science came out of the 1940 expedition.


Gardner knew the odds couldn’t always be with him, as he wrote in 1936 in the National Geographic, “After elaborate and highly specialized apparatus has been built, taken possibly a third or halfway around the world, and set up with meticulous care, the best that can be hoped for usually is two or three minutes of observing time. Even that outcome is entirely dependent upon the caprice of the weather. A tiny cloud over the sun may spoil everything. Dame Nature must have been in a truly sporting mood when she provided the eclipse-producing mechanism for the earth.”





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