“We all pray for a cloudless day:” The solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 in Québec, part 1

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The solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 as it could be observed in its totality, from a country road in Maine. Anon., “Souvenir d’éclipse.” La Presse – Magazine illustré, 24 September 1932, 9.

Hello, my reading friend. To be precise, hello. Yours truly’s long association with the wondrous Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, leads me on this day to pontificate on a subject of a highly celestial nature.

I must admit that I am not an umbraphile / eclipse hunter. This being said (typed?), a total solar eclipse is definitely a sight worth seeing. Indeed, I seem to recall seeing a partial annular eclipse in Ottawa, in May 1994, but I digress.

A solar eclipse or, more precisely, I think, a solar occultation is an astronomical phenomenon which occurs when the satellite of our blue planet finds itself in front of our star or, to be more precise, when it finds itself between that star and our planet. If the Moon and Sun are perfectly aligned, our satellite totally obscures our star, which means that, in the region of the Earth affected by that phenomenon, it suddenly turns dark in broad daylight. In that region of the world, the solar eclipse was said to be total.

Would you believe that, generally speaking, a total solar eclipse occurs at point X on the Earth’s surface every… 375 years?

If the Moon and Sun are not perfectly aligned, our satellite partially obscures our star. In that region of the world, the solar eclipse is said to be partial.

And what about a partial annular eclipse, you ask? An annular eclipse occurs when the satellite of our blue planet finds itself in front of our star. The distance between the Moon, Earth and Sun being mismatched, our satellite does not completely hide the Sun. Our star thus appears as a very bright ring surrounding the dark disc of the Moon. If the Sun-Moon-Earth alignment is not perfect, the annular eclipse is said to be partial, but back to our total eclipse of the heart.

Sorry.

Still, I must admit to a certain fondness for the 1983 song Total Eclipse of the Heart, made famous by Welsh singer Gaynor Sullivan, born Hopkins, but known professionally as Bonnie Tyler, but I digress. Again. Back to our total eclipse.

Such a disappearance of the Sun in broad daylight certainly did not / does not go unnoticed. In ancient times, solar eclipses could cause real panic among populations who did not understand what was happening. Worse still, people who observed the Sun a tad too long, before or after the total phase of the eclipse, seriously damaged their eyes. In extreme cases, a total loss of vision was / is to be feared.

This is still the case today. Prolonged observation of a solar eclipse without protective equipment, before or after its total phase, can lead to a total loss of vision. That warning, however necessary it may be, should not, however, preclude the observation of the magnificent astronomical phenomenon that is a total solar eclipse.

This being said (typed?), the fact is that it was possible to take advantage of the lack of astronomical knowledge of a population to terrorise it. And yes, Hank Morgan, the ignoramus protagonist of the satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889 by the American writer / essayist / humorist Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, took advantage of a total solar eclipse to avoid being burned at the stake.

And yes again, Tintin, the bande dessinée hero created by a giant of 20th century bande dessinée, the Belgian Georges Prosper Remi, known as Hergé, took advantage of a total solar eclipse to avoid being burned alive at the stake with his companions. The title of the album where that episode was located was obviously Prisoners of the Sun. Said album came out, in French, in 1949.

As you know very well, my reading friend, Tintin and Hergé were mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee, since July 2018. Clemens, meanwhile, was mentioned in a November 2017 issue of, and…

Do you have a question, my reading friend? When will the solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 mentioned in the title of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee come up, you say? Ah, I see. Yours truly will not abuse your somewhat limited patience any longer. Yes, yes, limited. Anyway, let us move on.

The good people of Québec learned that a total solar eclipse would take place very close to home long before August 1932. They were also quick to learn that the south-east of the Belle Province would be one of the best places to see and observe it, with caution of course.

Approximate view of the area in which the solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 could be observed in its totality. Anon. “L’Actualité à travers le monde – Québec.” Le Samedi, 3 September 1932, 10.

It should be noted that the weekly Le Samedi, published in Montréal, Québec, was not the only publication which published the map above, on 3 September 1932 by the way. Nay. The daily Le Soleil of Québec, Québec, offered it to its readership on 26 July. That same daily published one of the first articles devoted to the solar eclipse of 31 August published in Québec, and this as early as mid-February.

La Tribune, the main daily newspaper of Sherbrooke, Québec, my homecity, published a most interesting article in February 1932. One learned therein that some (foreign?) learned societies had just contacted the municipal council of the small town of Magog, Québec, in the Eastern Townships, today’s Estrie. The Royal Astronomical Society of London, England, for example, wanted to restrict access to a hill near a cemetery, I kid you not, to the sole members of its team. And what a team… The British learned society was indeed considering sending about 200 (!) people to Québec to observe the eclipse from every angle.

Also in February, Sherbrooke’s industrial commissioner, Robert G. Davidson, indicated that he was going to organise a publicity / propaganda campaign with the aim of bringing to Sherbrooke and the Eastern Townships as many Canadian and American tourists as possible. Mayor Albert Carlos Skinner, the municipal council and the Chambre de commerce de Sherbrooke enthusiastically supported that initiative. Let us not forget, the eclipse would occur in the middle of the tourist season – and in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis.

Indeed, the Bureau provincial de tourisme of Québec’s Ministère de la Voirie provided information during the summer of 1932 concerning the municipalities from which the eclipse could be observed.

The interest of certain elements of Québec society grew over the weeks. The major Montréal daily La Patrie, for example, published a well-illustrated one-and-a-half-page article in its 9 April edition, entitled, in translation, “Montréal in the darkness of the eclipse,” by journalist Jean-Marie Gélinas. La Patrie had another go on 13 August, publishing a well-illustrated one-page article, entitled, also in translation, “The Babylonians Knew the Secrets of SOLAR ECLIPSES.”

In another vein, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) formed a committee to prepare an expedition even before the end of January 1932. Some of its members then thought of going to northern Québec – to James Bay or Labrador perhaps. An astronomy enthusiast mentioned in a July 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, Harold Reynolds Kingston, head of the Department of Pure and Applied Mathematics at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, suggested using at least one aircraft to observe the phenomenon.

Incidentally, the RASC was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since December 2018.

Would you believe that a French aviator by the name of Michel Mahieu took off with Georges de Manthé, a minor poet and playwright who happened to be the son in law of French aviation pioneer Clément Agnès Ader, from an airfield in the suburbs of Paris, France, to observe the solar eclipse of 17 April 1912? While these 2 individuals were apparently the first Home sapiens to do such a thing from an aeroplane, at least one individual had observed a total solar eclipse from the air before them. On 7 August 1887 (Julian calendar), or 19 August 1887 (Gregorian calendar), the great Russian chemist Dmitriy Ivanovich Mendeleyev lifted off in captive balloon not too far from Moscow, Russian Empire, and made some very interesting observations, but back to our story.

In April 1932, the RASC sent a resolution to the Premier of Québec. Signed by Louis Vessot King, professor of physics at McGill University, in Montréal, and seconded by the rector of that institution, Sir Arthur William Currie, said resolution stressed that the members of that learned society as well as all, uh, if not all, at least many people interested in astronomical phenomena, would like Louis-Alexandre Taschereau to issue a proclamation according to which, as far as possible,

- all employees of offices, shops and factories whose places of employment were near or inside the total eclipse zone would have the opportunity to observe that impressive and remarkable phenomenon, and

- all lights in the total eclipse area would be turned off 5 minutes before the eclipse peak and would remain off until the sun’s rays reappeared.

The RASC justified that somewhat unusual request by the fact that residents of the area affected by the total solar eclipse would not be able to witness another phenomenon of that type before the end of the 20th century. Indeed, it would not be possible to witness such a phenomenon on Canadian soil before 1954 and 1972, more precisely in June 1954 and July 1972. Worse still, the eclipses in question would only affect sparsely populated northern regions of Canada.

The RASC pointed out that, in January 1925, the new Governor of Connecticut, John Harper Trumbull, the flying governor as he was often called later on, invited teachers in his state to allow their students to observe the total solar eclipse of 24 January, after having provided them with information about it during the previous days.

The proclamation of Trumbull, a very conservative politician, let us not forget, pointed out that residents of New England only witnessed total solar eclipses on two tiny occasions between January 1925 and November 1620, the date of the landing of the first English settlers / invaders, in present-day Massachusetts.

The proclamation of Trumbull aroused such interest, it was said, that many banks, offices and factories closed their doors on the fateful day so that their employees had the possibility of observing the eclipse.

Yours truly would like to be able to inform you that Taschereau demonstrated an openness of mind comparable to that of Trumbull. However, that was not the case. Dare I say that this lack of interest in science among Québec’s 1932 political elite was not surprising?

This being said (typed?), in August 1932, La Revue moderne, a monthly which published texts of an intellectual and popular nature, published a text by a certain André Lespérance in which the latter underlined that the period of leave proposed by the RASC had not pleased everyone. Lespérance quoted an excerpt from a letter to the editor of an unidentified person published by an equally unidentified newspaper. Once translated, it read: “It is good for an astronomer who has nothing to do to talk about a vacation to see better the eclipse. But for a worker who earns 30 cents an hour when he works, what does it matter to him?”

By the way, that 30 cents an hour corresponded to approximately $ 6.20 in 2022 currency. By comparison, in September 2022, the minimum wage in Québec was $ 14.25 an hour or $ 29 640 a year (assuming 40 hours/week and 52 weeks/year) – which was certainly not El Dorado.

By comparison, a simple member sitting in the Assemblée nationale du Québec pocketed around $ 95 700 a year. And yes, unless I am mistaken, it is the members themselves who decide on their salary and luxurious pension plan. Would one dare to suggest that there is a slight conflict of interest there? Anyway, let us move on.

Also in April 1932, a Canadian astrophysicist and lecturer at McGill University, Alice Vibert “Allie” Douglas, gave a presentation on the eclipse to members of the Montreal Centre of the RASC. And yes, you were absolutely right, my reading friend, Douglas was indeed the first Canadian female astrophysicist and one of the first in North America.

In May 1932, a Montréal learned society founded in 1923, the Société de mathématiques et d’astronomie du Canada, offered a series of 3 lectures open to the general public devoted to the eclipse in the great hall of the École polytechnique de Montréal, an institution affiliated with the Université de Montréal – two places of higher learning located in… Montréal:

- the first on the prediction of eclipses, given by Eugène Desaulniers, land surveyor and professor (surveying, mechanics and geodesy) at the École polytechnique de Montréal,

- the second on the relationship between eclipses and astronomy, given by Brother Robert, born Maurice Robert, of the Congrégation des Frères des écoles chrétiennes, professor of science (physics, mathematics et astronomy) at the Collège Mont Saint-Louis of Montréal, and

- the third on electrical phenomena that might be influenced by eclipses, given by Arthur Villeneuve, engineer and professor (electrical engineering) at the École polytechnique de Montréal.

 At the risk of busting your chops, please note that the Collège Mont Saint-Louis was mentioned in a July 2022 issue of our you know what. The École polytechnique de Montréal, for its part, was mentioned in December 2018, April 2019 and March 2021 issues – which goes to show how small our world is.

Incidentally, Desaulniers presented a second lecture on the eclipse, on 18 August, under the auspices of the Société de mathématiques et d’astronomie du Canada.

A young Montréal researcher who had returned home in May 1932 intended to study a region of the Earth’s upper atmosphere during the eclipse. John Tasker Henderson had a doctorate in physics from the prestigious King’s College London, one of the constituent elements of the University of London, in… London. Yes, the one in England. His stay in the United Kingdom, not to mention a postdoctoral fellowship at the Université de Paris, in… Paris, was made possible by a scholarship from the Secrétariat provincial du Québec, a kind of ministry of the interior, then headed by Louis Athanase David, a gentleman rightly considered to be a minister of culture before the letter.

Does the name of Henderson mean anything to you, my reading friend whose erudition often leaves me speechless? It should. That physicist employed by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) from 1933 onward laid the foundations for Canadian research and production in the field of radars during the Second World War. An officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force for much of the conflict, Henderson was then as well known and respected in the United Kingdom as he was in the United States.

Around mid-July 1932, the (honorary?) secretary of the expedition organised by the University of Cambridge, in… Cambridge, England, carried out a reconnaissance mission in the Eastern Townships. Jacob Waley Cohen prepared the ground and collaborated in the choice of an observation site, near Magog. The dean of the Graduate Faculty of McGill University and director of the Department of Physics of that institution of higher learning, the Anglo-Canadian physicist Arthur Stewart Eve, accompanied him.

And yes, you were correct, my assiduous reading friend, Stewart was mentioned in a September 2022 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Indeed, McGill University was so interested in the eclipse that two of its people, the Anglo-Canadian physicist Albert Norman Shaw and the aforementioned Douglas, published a 16-page illustrated brochure on that subject no later than mid-July. Total eclipse of the sun, 1932 August 31: Explanations and details about this spectacular phenomenon: When, where and how to see it was / is obviously extremely rare, if not impossible to find as of 2022.

A professor at the same university, British zoologist Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards, planned to study the behaviour of birds during the eclipse. You see, our winged friends were / are indeed affected by eclipses. Indeed, the German astronomer Ernst Zinner, director of the Dr.-Karl-Remeis-Sternwarte, an observatory located in Bamberg, Germany, published a text in the American monthly Popular Astronomy in which he asked that the behaviour of various animals be accurately noted.

The main scientific research organisation of the federal government, the aforementioned NRC, also intended to make the most of the opportunity offered to it. A group led by Colonel William Arthur Steel of the Canadian Army’s Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, seconded to NRC as head of its radio division, planned to travel to Kingston, Ontario, to the site of Queen’s University at Kingston, to observe the impact of the eclipse on the reception and transmission of radiotelegraph signals.

The aforementioned Eve led a second group which would do the same in Magog.

A third group, consisting of engineers from Northern Electric Company Limited and, possibly, Canadian Marconi Company, both of Montréal, respectively subsidiaries of American Telephone & Telegraph Company, via Bell Telephone Company of Canada, and Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Limited, firms which were respectively American and British, planned to observe the aforementioned impact from Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

And this might be a good place to end this first part of our article on the solar eclipse of 31 August 1932, after pointing out that Canadian Marconi was mentioned in October 2020 and November 2021 issues of our you know what, of course. You do not agree, my reading friend? Too bad, so sad.

See ya next week.

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Rénald Fortier