Warren De La Rue was another amateur astronomer and it was him who was the man responsible for the
solar photography at the Kew Observatory. He took the solar camera that he financed to Rivabellosa in
Spain to observe this eclipse. This was the first time anyone had ever attempted to take a picture of the
fully eclipsed Sun. They had no idea whether they could do it. In fact, they thought they would probably
fail. Warren De La Rue reasoned that the full Moon was probably about the same brightness as the solar
atmosphere and so made test shots with his camera to see if it would work, and he registered not a
single thing on the photographic plate. But he still went and took the chance.
They had to construct a makeshift observatory out of wood and covered it in tarpaulin to make a dark
room. Over this they had to constantly throw buckets of water, because it is so hot that the photographic
film simply fogged if they did not keep everything cool, and then they had to prime it, expose it, and
develop it rapidly.
I am very pleased to say they got the picture. It sits today in the Library of the Royal Astronomical
Society. This is the first image ever taken of the solar atmosphere, and its important feature was a solar
flare launching a big eruption of gas into space, like we can see on the SOHO images.
The track of the eclipse passed from the East Coast of America, across the Atlantic, across Spain, across
the Mediterranean, and down into Africa. It is interesting when you compare the descriptions of the solar
atmosphere from observers at all these locations. On the Eastern seaboard of the States, an observer
saw a bright flash that he could not be certain was real or not. Suddenly there was a boom, which was
the flare gone. Then, as it comes across Spain, people saw this bubble opening up to become a tulip
shape and moving off into space. The trouble is nobody knew really what they should be looking for in
the solar atmosphere. They did not know if they could believe these stories of what was seen, and the
fact that different observers saw different things. They were not sure they were all seeing the same
The photograph was a double-edged sword in a way, because it said here's a photograph, here is
something, in black and white, literally, that we can all agree on, but of course it did not take into
account the fact that this structure changed and moved, and so they did not recognise the true dynamism of the solar atmosphere. Also, importantly, they did not link this up with a similar event to the
bright light that Carrington saw.
Our story takes a little bit of a leap here, because Carrington didn't live long enough to pursue this
research. What seemed to do for Carrington in fact was that he was a gentleman of leisure, had a very
healthy living and income from his father's brewery in Brentford, but his father died prematurely and
Carrington had to take over the family business. Working for a living seemed to come as quite a shock to
the system for Carrington, but I do have some sympathy for him. He had begun an unbelievably
punishing regime of scientific research. First, he catalogued stars, and he then also started cataloguing
the sunspots, as we have talked about, and it was not just a case of making sketches and doing a few
timings. He then had to reduce all his measurements into hard numbers that everybody could agree on,
because he realised that he was seeing the sunspots as seen on a globe and he was projecting those
onto a flat surface, so he had to make corrections and allowances, and he had to do all of this work by
hand. So for every day that he observed, he had days' worth of mathematics to then do.
Essentially what happened to Carrington is that in trying to run the family brewery and trying to keep up
his scientific research resulted in him having a nervous breakdown and he abandoned everything. He sold
the brewery, he sold his observatory, and he tried to retire. He then made the most disastrous marriage
you can possibly imagine. I had always wondered why Carrington seems to just disappear from history.
You read about this amazing astronomer whose proposal to the Royal Society reads like a 'Who's Who' of
Victorian astronomy. He was in the top echelons of science, and yet, you hardly ever hear about him
today. After a little bit of digging, you find that this marriage resulted - I am not kidding - in scandal
beyond belief. In fact, I joked at the very beginning of wanting to write this book, I said, 'I know what
the title is: it is 'Sex, Drugs and Solar Flares'! Obviously, I will not air Carrington's troubles in public, but
in the spirit of fair and complete journalism, I researched it and put it all in the book!
Interestingly enough, in the year that Carrington dies, under suspicious circumstances, Walter Maunder
was just taking a job at the Greenwich Observatory. Walter Maunder was one of the first to be employed
in an open and fair system based on ability and not the old-boy network, and this drove George Airy
absolutely mad! The Astronomer Royal could not stand Walter Maunder and seems to have terrified him.
Maunder was carrying two vials of photographic developing fluid one day through the Observatory,