How a Loyola research team witnessed a solar eclipse in 1954
August 16, 2017
In 1954 a group of Loyola faculty and students traveled to conduct research on a total solar eclipse. Benedict J. Frederick, Jr., ’54, shares these memories from the journey.
On June 30, 1954, there was a total solar eclipse across the North Atlantic Ocean. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the United States Air Force was very interested in this eclipse for the purpose of more accurately charting distances on the Earth’s surface for use in intercontinental ballistic missiles.
To aid in this project SAC retained services of several universities and colleges in forming teams to make observations along the path of totality.
Loyola College was chosen to provide one team to be located at Torshaven on the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and the Shetlands in the North Atlantic. Because of my radio and electronic experience I was chosen, together with one other student, John Tormey, ’56, a pre-medical major, as part of the team which included Fr. Edward Hauber, S.J., head of the chemistry department, and Fr. Vincent Beatty, S.J., who became president of Loyola in 1955.
After receiving instructions our adventure began at the air force base in Dover, Del. From there we flew to Iceland on military air transport service (MATS) stopping in Greenland to refuel.
Parenthetically it was here that I learned Greenland actually has ice and snow; Iceland has none! We spent several days at the military base at Keflavik Iceland. At this time of year days in Iceland are very long, there are only a few hours of darkness. Due to the necessary time of our departure, I did not attend my own graduation. At a time that coincided with the graduation taking place at Loyola College I received my diploma from Fr. Beatty in the form of a real sheep skin.
From Iceland we took a small boat to the Faroe Islands. We unloaded several crates of equipment and proceeded to a site at the top of a hill overlooking the harbor.
We pitched a tent here and set up our equipment which include a gasoline powered generator, a shortwave communications radio, a crystal clock, and an instrument which recorded on graph paper the intensity of light by a photoelectric cell.
Interesting to note is that the crystal clock was housed in a metal rack measuring about 20 inches square and three feet high to performed the precise measurement of time which now is duplicated by today’s advanced electronic wrist watches!
To run the generator I requested from the local residents a supply of gasoline. After preparing the generator for service, I pulled the starter rope several times but it would not start. After checking the spark plug for spark, I looked at the carburetor and noticed that the “gasoline” did not smell like gasoline. I conveyed this one local residents who replied “Oh, you mean petrol!” What he had brought me was kerosene. Such is the nuance of language.
From our hilltop site we looked down on to a fairly large building on the water, which we were told was a whaling station.
What was curious was that there were two large chains from the ground on one side of the building over the roof to the other side. Well, we weren’t set up more than a day or so when along came a driving windy rainstorm which blew our tent down. Now we knew the reason for the chains over the roof of the whaling station, to keep the roof from blowing away! We ended up moving into the whaling station for the duration of our stay.
The object of our trip was really pretty simple. We were to ascertain the exact time of totality and mark the spot from which our measurements were taken.
In order to record the exact time on our recording chart there were two lines: one measuring the intensity of light from the photoelectric cell; the other recorded the exact time as received on the shortwave receiver from the National Bureau of Standards radio time signals in Boulder, Colo.
On the day of the eclipse, June 30, we had 100 percent cloud cover, so we really did not see the eclipse. However, this had no bearing on recording the time of totality since the photoelectric cell would indicate the time of minimum light which would coincide with a total eclipse of sun.
Having successfully completed our mission, we planted the brass marker supplied to us in concrete at the precise point at which we took measurements, packed up, and left by boat for Europe, where we had free passage on any MATS flight with room for the four of us.
Being in the company of two Jesuit priests sure helped us in receiving preferential treatment. For the balance of the summer, we visited Air Force installations in Copenhagen, Germany, France, and Italy. As a date for my wedding had been set for Nov. 6, I was somewhat anxious to get home, and we returned around the end of August.