Of all the places along the path of the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States next August, Columbia, South Carolina has some of the most interesting attractions for astronomy buffs. Beyond the spectacle of the eclipse itself, the South Carolina State Museum has a new planetarium due to a recent expansion, in addition to an observatory with a vintage telescope and a 4-D theater. Its exhibits also include telescopes and other artifacts from the collection of Robert B. Ariail, a University of South Carolina alumnus and longtime amateur astronomer and collector who donated his holdings of some 5,000 books and several hundred telescopes to the university and the museum.
“We have a really wonderful collection of antique instruments—six thousand square feet of historic telescopes—which I think will be great for some of that audience who will come to see this type of thing,” said Tom Falvey, director of education at the museum, which has declared itself solar eclipse headquarters for the August 21, 2017 event. Falvey said Ariail was particularly interested in American-made scopes, and the collection includes 11 Alvan Clark instruments and a couple of Henry Fitz telescopes, one of which dates to 1849 and is believed to be the oldest surviving American instrument made specifically for use in an observatory.
“It’s just a beautiful collection of American instruments totaling 26 telescopes,” Falvey said. In addition, the exhibit has a number of European scopes, including some by John Dollond, early Gregorian reflectors, and some rare Zeiss instruments.
“It’s a great collection, beautifully displayed,” Falvey said. “I think it would be really nice for folks who come with that specific type of interest.”
The museum is planning several days of events leading up to the eclipse, which is on a Monday. They’ll hold a Saturday-night gala, with a guest lecturer or entertainment not yet determined. They’ll be doing tours of the telescope collection and staying open late every day leading up to the eclipse.
“Being open late for us means we would have the observatory open every night; an opportunity for people to look through the big 12-inch Clark telescope and get excited by doing some observing beforehand,” Falvey said. The observatory’s telescope is a 1925 Clark instrument with Zeiss glass that was originally made for Columbia University. Ariail helped bring it to the museum back in the 1990s.
The museum is also the focal point of efforts to prepare others to see the eclipse, and has been working with city officials urging them to create city-wide events next August.
“Plans are truly under way for the next steps for the city to do something all-out to make sure that when folks come here they’ll really see how much fun the city can be and how many great resources we have and the types of things you can do here,” Falvey said.
He notes that Columbia has some beautiful downtown areas, thanks in part to a recent boom. He adds that it’s a great place if you like sun and heat, and that South Carolina barbecue can’t be beat. Finally, Falvey says that the people in Columbia are marvelous—and he says that as a New England transplant.
Nobody really knows how many visitors to expect, though Falvey thinks the city can handle the crowds. It has a fairgrounds and the University of South Carolina football stadium, which are right next to each other and can hold a lot of eclipse chasers. Columbia is the capitol city of South Carolina and has ample accommodations. Freeways can bring people into town from all directions, or help them get out if the weather turns bad on eclipse day.
That could be a bit of a problem. Columbia often experiences late-afternoon thunderstorms in the summer—the total eclipse will begin at about 2:43 p.m. there. The hour presents another challenge: school will have started in town, and that’s about when elementary students would typically be on the bus going home.
“(That) could be a real problem and a real shame if people were to miss a total eclipse,” Falvey said. “We are encouraging school districts to extend the school day so that teachers will be able to assist with all the viewing.”
South Carolina is that last state the total eclipse will touch before moving out east into the Atlantic Ocean. It could be a great choice, especially for folks on the east coast.
Podcast of our interview with Tom Falvey:
Brief SCSM video about the Clark telescope: