Solar Viewer, Eclipse, 11th August 1999, 20th Century
Berwick Museum & Art Gallery
11th August 1999 was an extraordinary day for many of us. For the first time since 1927 we had the opportunity to see a visible solar eclipse over mainland United Kingdom, exactly 72 years after the previous one.
Today we are celebrating the Eclipse of 1999, sharing with you a pair of solar viewers that witnessed the day the UK was plunged into darkness for 143 seconds. Exactly 21 years ago to the day, this item would have been worn by a person eager to view this spectacular lifetime event safely.
From that day, another solar eclipse would not be seen for another 91 years – in 2090.
Do you remember where you were at the time of the last solar eclipse of the 20th century? Across the UK, friends and families came together on the 11th of August to watch the spectacular lunar event that ranged from Europe to Asia, beginning its course over the Atlantic (over a hundred miles east of Boston in the United States) and ending in Bangladesh.
At the time, the British government urged employers to allow employees time off to enjoy it during work hours. After all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event for all generations!
Shortly after 11am, an eerie darkness fell across the country. Crowds watched the moon slowly cover the sun for just over two minutes and confused wildlife, such as birds, assumed that dusk had set in.
The BBC followed the first landfall of the shadow across the western end of Cornwall, from St Ives to The Lizard, recording large crowds of residents and holiday-makers watching the event. Understandably, many local authorities were worried about policing the event, such as at the Stonehenge landmark in Wiltshire, and in Devon, where the tourism board considered closing the roads into Plymouth to cope with the influx of tourists. Early reports suggested that the best view without cloud forecast would be in the West Country and by 6pm on the evening before, a staggering 335,000 vehicles travelled there for the big event. Sadly, on the day, typical British weather prevailed and most of the UK was covered with clouds making the event difficult to see, if at all.
The lead up to the eclipse also saw the production of lots of merchandise to commemorate the historic day, including thimbles, t-shirts, badges and banners. Nations across the world celebrated the event in different ways: in Romania, a special bank note was produced, Jordan and Syria declared a national holiday, and in the UK a special postage stamp was sold to remember the special event.
The solar viewers in our collection are an example of this memorabilia and they were produced by Swan Packaging Ltd. They are protective glasses that come with a thin layer of aluminium, chromium or silver deposited on their surfaces. These commemorative glasses were sponsored by the confectionery giant Nestlé and came with strict safety instructions on the back.
Much of the media coverage concerned safety instructions, advising spectators to refrain from looking directly at the sun during the time of the eclipse as it would indeed burn the retina and cause irreversible damage. Concerns were even raised by the policing authorities to be aware of scammers selling counterfeit glasses.
When an eclipse takes place, it allows for scientific opportunity, with scientists measuring the impact on the Earth’s atmosphere and observing the violent magnetic storms in the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as the corona. During the 1999 eclipse, astronomers were able to record data with ease due to the clear skies across much of the world (except for most of Britain!)