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Back in the ’90s, This Eclipse Webcast Put the Cosmos on Demand

TechBack in the ’90s, This Eclipse Webcast Put the Cosmos on Demand


On Feb. 26, 1998, hundreds of people gathered to watch a total solar eclipse.

The crowd gasped as the moon gobbled up the sun. They oohed and aahed as the feathery streams of the top of the solar atmosphere burst into view. Applause erupted moments later, when the sun peeked back out from behind the lunar surface.

“Saved again by the laws of celestial mechanics,” a host of the event said in a video recording with scenes from Aruba, one of the places where the eclipse crossed land.

Except that crowd wasn’t actually in Aruba. They were thousands of miles away in San Francisco, clustered in front of a screen at a museum called the Exploratorium. For what might have been the first time in the history of the internet, a solar eclipse was streamed live. The crowd in the auditorium wasn’t the eclipse’s only remote audience. Potentially millions of users of the young World Wide Web watched “Eclipse ‘98,” creating a moment of digital wildfire years before the public was overcome by viral videos like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” “Charlie Bit My Finger” or “Gangnam Style.”

Technology has brought space down to Earth for decades. The public was left in awe as NASA broadcast humanity’s first steps on the moon in 1969; years later, they watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded on television.

But the rise of the World Wide Web offered a new way to encounter the cosmos. Anyone with a computer, a fast enough internet modem and a monitor could partake on demand in the ethereality of standing under the moon’s shadow — no longer reserved for those who could make it to the eclipse path.

And just as audiences in the late 19th century were amazed to see moving images projected on screens for the first time, the crowd at the Exploratorium seemed struck by what they saw on the livestream.

“Even remotely, people can have that emotional connection that is so important for an eclipse,” said Robyn Higdon, the Exploratorium’s executive producer.

Scenes from the Aruba webcast gathering depict peak 1990s. There is no shortage of turtlenecks, pixie cuts and colorful windbreakers in the crowd. Hosts of the event donned now-vintage wired headsets and stood next to bulky, white computers.

The internet was just taking off: YouTube would not be founded for another seven years and fewer than half of Americans were going online, many frustrated by dial-up’s lagging speeds. In spite of the technological obstacles, the eclipse livestream — pulled off with the help of NASA and the Discovery Channel — was one effort by the Exploratorium to establish an online presence. Part of the goal was to share what was inside with people who couldn’t visit in person, said Rob Semper, the chief learning officer of the museum, who helped launch its website over 30 years ago.

“But at the same time,” Dr. Semper added, “the web was also a way to bring the outside world in.”

What the staff members did not expect was just how many people its webcast would reach beyond the museum’s walls. Among the first live, high-resolution videos of a solar eclipse, the stream was quickly picked up by major news networks. Museum spokespersons say four million viewers tuned in directly online.

Years later, the digital audience for eclipses and other astronomical events has only grown. The online audience was giant for the total solar eclipse of 2017, which cut across the United States, and by then many organizations other than the Exploratorium were streaming the solar spectacle. NASA streamed a live show from 12 locations; the Science Channel, which went live in Oregon, also attracted a large number of views. Both plan to do it again for the eclipse on April 8 this year.

“As with so many aspects of our lives that the internet has changed, it’s all about accessibility,” said Jeff Hall, a solar astronomer at Lowell Observatory, who narrated parts of a 2017 webcast. Images of eclipses have long been available, he added, but “it’s another level of experience being able to watch the event unfold in real time.”

Livestreams also offer the chance for viewers to learn about the different cultural beliefs of the places situated under the moon’s shadow. Last October, the Exploratorium streamed the “ring of fire” eclipse from the Valley of the Gods in Utah, where giant, rocky red spires emanate from the earth. Because the land is sacred to members of the Navajo Nation, the museum partnered with Navajo astronomers who shared traditional knowledge of the cosmos.

Not everyone thinks the internet is a worthy substitute for real life. “It is a poor way to experience an eclipse,” said Paul Maley, a retired NASA engineer who has seen 83 of them and counting.

Eclipses, Mr. Maley explained, are more than what you see: During totality, the winds shift, temperatures drop and the horizon glows. “Watching a livestream provides none of that,” he said.

Patricia Reiff, a physicist at Rice University, somewhat agrees. “The live feed is cool, but it’s basically only visual,” she said. “It’s like the difference between seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon, and going down it in a canoe.”

Still, Dr. Reiff has set up webcasts of some of the solar eclipses she travels to see — so far, 25 of them — and thinks that at least part of the experience can be transmitted through the screen. The 1991 solar eclipse is one of the last memories she has with her mother, who watched a television broadcast of the event while Dr. Reiff saw it in Mexico.

“It was a moment that we shared, even though we were a long way from each other,” she said.

Beyond livestreams, the internet has vastly widened the reach of information about eclipses, including locations, safe viewing practices and weather outlook, for the public. Eclipse chasers use it as tool to connect with one another, organize trips and describe the visceral reactions they have to totality. Researchers even analyzed social media activity from the eclipse in 2017 to study the tourism trends it drove in rural communities.

In April, the Exploratorium will be back at it again, this time with production crews in Texas and Mexico to stream the last solar eclipse that will touch the contiguous United States for 20 years. They’ll host programs in both English and Spanish, and also provide what Larry Kenworthy, the technical director of the museum’s eclipse expeditions, calls “the nerd feed” — a three-hour stream for organizations to use for their own watch parties, or for those online who want to immerse themselves in nothing but the views.

Dr. Hall, who will be hosting a live show on the Science Channel on April 8, hopes that these online feeds ultimately inspire viewers to someday see an eclipse in real life.

“Put it on the bucket list to go see one at some point,” he said. “Because as cool as the internet is, you cannot replicate the experience of actually being in the path of totality.”



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