Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 40

The Solar Eclipse of August 11 1999

The Great Hungarian Eclipse

It was 1967 when I first heard about eclipses, in particular the one due in 1999. Since then I have seen many lunar and partial solar events but I decided to wait until 1999 to see my first total solar eclipse. Originally I thought about Cornwall, but "Providence" (to quote a letter to me from Mrs Jeanette McDonald Noble of Carnoustie on the eve of the expedition) took me to Hungary for after all this was a land in which I had planted seed, so to speak. My son, Marci Ewan (surnames first in Hungarian) lives with his mother in the centre of Hungary just north of Kecskemét, inside the band of totality. I had, on the other hand, decided it would be best to get into the centre of the shadow zone to take advantage of a maximum duration of 2 mins 21 secs. Not far away in Romania was the point of maximum eclipse of 2 mins 23 secs so I decided to go to Szeged near the Romanian-Serbian border. Helping with this was my friend from Miskolc, Padi Ferenc (Feri) and his pal Radnai Gábor (Gabi) came along too. We joined a party from Miskolc led by Baksa Lászlo (Laci). I was the only foreigner but felt more Magyar than Scottish. Also I was the only amateur astronomer in the group with set intentions. My priorities were to photograph the partial phases and vary exposures during totality with a telephoto for the prominences, corona and perhaps any earthshine on the Moon. With a standard lens on another camera I would try to capture the planets and the Moon's shadow two cameras, two tripods and a 550 mm Maksutov with a "14" welding glass; and Mylar glasses for Feri and Gabi. Feri videoed the event with a camcorder and Gabi took photos with a hand-held 35 mm lens. Laci observed the event with naked eye during totality.

The eclipse was unique in that, not only was it the last of the Millenium, but it crossed over so much land and was accessible to a very large proportion of the world's population. It was to become a unifying force. The totality track first brushed the Earth at sunrise in the Atlantic south of Nova Scotia, first touched land at the Scilly Isles, then over Cornwall, Devon, Alderney (the only Channel Isle), France (just missing Paris), Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany (right over Stuttgart where it was rained off), Austria, NE Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Transylvania, Romania, Bulgaria, The Black Sea, Turkey, Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India, skipping off the world in the Bay of Bengal. Parts of USA and Canada, and SE Asia would see a partial, as would the whole of Europe, the Middle East, N. Africa and Central Asia as far as Mongolia and part of China. It was 80% in Dundee, as it had been at the 1954 eclipse.

The night before the eclipse the four of us had a few beers in Szeged. The atmosphere was great, with live music. We all "crashed out" in the hostel. I woke briefly at 6-30 AM with the sun shining through the window. 'Great', I thought. Half an hour later I woke up again to the sound of thunder the sun had become watery. We went to breakfast at 9 AM in pouring rain with lightning flashes. I was still optimistic because I knew these kind of storms in Hungary only last 2-3 hours at that time of year and there was a good wind from the west. I took photos of the grey clouds and noted the time - 11-30 EST (9-30 UT), the eclipse hasn't reached Cornwall yet. I hoped everyone I knew across Europe would see it even if we didn't. In late morning the euphoria began, we decided to walk through the city centre to a site beside the river. A bridge was packed with locals holding Mylar specs and the atmosphere was both electric and optimistic (typical of Hungarians) with music booming. A watery sun appeared then a blue patch in the west - at least we'll see something. I had resigned myself to total darkness under the clouds. I checked my watch - 12-12 (11-12 BST) total in Cornwall, I thought about Dave Gavine, Patrick Moore and the BAA crowd. 12-20 EST I hope Brian Kelly has got it in France. 12-34 EST Stuttgart - John Burgess of Dundee AS, Alex, Harry and Tony Higgins of Leeds AS and my German friends Winfried and Roland. 12-44 EST it must be in Austria - Fiona and Roger from St Andrews?

It entered Hungary at Szombathely and got to Balaton by 12-50 where an estimated 400,000 had congregated. We were seeing the partial phase going in and out of clouds - I was managing to photograph with the telephoto. Soon we were in the last four minutes - a thin sliver of light, still dangerous to view direct. When will we see the Moon's shadow? One minute - decided to remove the filter to prepare for totality. We were lucky - only high cirrus. Feri began to video the western sky for the shadow. It came. Already it was very dark. Cheers erupted from the bridge. The sliver was now a string of beads, a shiny chain of pearls, easily seen, no proper Diamond Ring effect but saw a golden-red flash of the chromosphere. Suddenly the whole brilliant inner corona appeared and I realised this was IT totality! I saw prominences around the sun and a depressed, round, bright corona, confirming the high solar activity. I made various exposures with the 550 mm telephoto then moved on to the other camera for wide-angle shots - saw Venus but not Mercury, too much cloud in the wrong place. It was very cool, a dramatic temperature drop - I wasn't sure whether my hair standing on end was the cold or psychological. Music was blaring in the distance, traffic had stopped. I had time to simply observe through the telephoto it was unreal, I couldn't believe it.

I originally intended to go for at least a 20 second exposure of the totality with the telephoto to try for earthshine but I knew this would be impossible due to the high cloud. The moving clouds gave the effect of shimmering across the corona. It was a pity it was not completely clear because perhaps this was a good opportunity with such a depressed corona to have been able to record the earthshine on the Moon, but then again I took comfort in the thought that the corona was as bright as the full Moon. I could not see the earthshine on the lunar surface at all - the sky was not dark enough, the contrast was too low. Time was passing so quickly I did not look for other stars, and Jupiter and Saturn would probably have set, and Mars was not up yet. Suddenly it was daylight on the clouds in the west, the Diamond Ring appeared and totality was over. Feri risked continuing filming directly at the sun just after totality to see the effect and later we found it had worked. I had to replace the filter on the telephoto and point the other camera to the east to try for the receding shadow. I took some photos of the partial phase, it was getting warmer, time to pack up. It was now 13-30. total in Turkey. Time to celebrate, but it took a while to sink in on how lucky we had been. We could not find a place to eat at first because everywhere was full of celebrating people. Crescents appeared under the trees but because of the cloud it was not possible to see shadow bands. But at least the clouds helped to identify the lunar shadow moving in and receding. From Szeged totality lasted from 12-53 & 22 secs EST to 12-55 & 43 secs, and 1st contact was at 11-30, last (4th) at 14-17. The sun was at about altitude 59 degrees. Then we had a meal and the best couple of beers in a long time. Contentment on the long bus trip back north to Miskolc and during my last full day there, the train back to Budapest, the flight to London and the overnight coach to Dundee. The future had now become the past. Providence.

Graham Young, Dundee Astronomical Society