The Map: Before your eyes
They have stopped wars, quelled restless natives and helped prove Einstein's theory of relativity. On 11 August, the last solar eclipse of the millennium will be visible from Cornwall. And this time round, it will be used as an excuse for a massive party
Saturday 31 July 1999
Possibly the first recorded solar eclipse. Legend has it that the emperor of the time, Chung K'ang, lost his rag when two royal astronomers failed to give any warning of the eclipse because they were drunk. The astronomers were beheaded. The Chinese believed solar eclipses were an attack on the Sun by a hungry dragon, and they ran around beating drums and shooting arrows to try to scare the dragon away.
2. Asia Minor, 28 May 585BC
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the philosopher Thales predicted this total solar eclipse, possibly making it the first to have been foreseen. Herodotus also recounts that the eclipse took place while the Lydians and the Medes were at war, and the armies were so freaked out by the sight that they made a hasty peace.
French astronomer Pierre Janssen noticed something strange in the spectrum of sunlight from this total solar eclipse. He told the English scientist Sir Norman Lockyer, who realised it was the "fingerprint" of a previously unknown element. Lockyer named it helium, from the Greek helios, meaning Sun. It was not until 1895 that helium was identified back here on Earth.
4. Jamaica, 29 February 1504
Christopher Columbus took advantage of an eclipse of the Moon to con the locals in Jamaica. He and his crew had been stranded on the island for more than a year. Food was running out, and the natives refused to give the crew any more. Columbus told them that God would make the Moon disappear if they weren't more hospitable. Right on cue, the Moon disappeared and the natives promptly provided more supplies.
5. Northern England, 29 June 1927
The last total solar eclipse visible from mainland UK. It was total in the north of England but lasted less than 25 seconds. Up to three million people are reported to have travelled to see it, making for the biggest movement of people by train on record in the UK.
6. Bergamo, Italy, 5 May 840
A writer who saw the total solar eclipse in Bergamo records that people expected the world to end: "There was great distress, and while the people beheld it, many thought that this age would last no longer." The same eclipse supposedly made a king die of fright. Louis of Bavaria had linked his father's death to an eclipse, and when he saw one happen himself, he predicted his own death - sure enough, he died one month later.
7. Cornwall, 11 August 1999
The last total solar eclipse of this millennium will be visible from the southwest of England. Cornwall is battening down the hatches in anticipation of the arrival of anything up to four million eclipse fanatics. They might be disappointed - Nasa scientists predict that the chances of clear skies on the day are 45 per cent.
8. Jajai, India, 24 October 1995
This recent solar eclipse proved that astronomical superstition is far from dead. People living in the village of Jajai smeared pregnant women and cows with red sand, hoping to avert any birth defects which they believed could be linked to an eclipse.
9. Jedburgh, Scotland, 15 May 1836
English astronomer Francis Baily discovered what are now known as Baily's beads. Just as the Sun reappears from behind the Moon after a total eclipse, sunlight shines between the lunar mountains, breaking the light up into small shining "beads".
10. Sobral, Brazil, and Principe Island, West Africa, 29 May 1919
The eclipse that sealed Albert Einstein's fame. Scientists went to Brazil and Africa to test his general theory of relativity - which predicts that the gravity of the Sun should bend the light from stars which are near to it - as viewed from the Earth. Normally these stars would not be visible because of the Sun's brightness, but in an eclipse they are, and the gravitational effect of the Sun on the stars can be observed. Einstein passed with flying colours.
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