Monthly Archives: July 2017

Tips for Eclipse Camping Newbies

Path of Totality. NASA image.

Path of Totality. NASA image.

If you recently decided to travel to view the eclipse on August 21, you might have first checked to see if there were any hotels inside or close to the area of totality.  When you did, you probably discovered that there are none, or they would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  In many areas, the only option, if you need to stay overnight, is to camp.  Fortunately, many temporary campgrounds, some with very reasonable prices, have sprung up from Oregon to South Carolina.  I have a listing of many of these campsites.  Wherever you will be viewing the eclipse, it’s likely that you will be able to reserve a campsite in advance, and knowing that you have a safe place to stay Sunday night will relieve much of the stress.


Quick Links


stelprdb5325060If you have experience camping, then you probably won’t learn anything new from this page.  This page is devoted to the newbie who has never been camping before.  You’re going camping this time only because you have no other options.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and with a little bit of preparation, you’ll have a pleasant experience Sunday night, and you’ll get a good night’s sleep the night before the eclipse.  I’m an Eagle Scout, and my family regularly goes camping, so I might be considered an “expert.”  But it’s not necessary to be an expert to enjoy a short camping experience.  On this page, I show the preparations that are necessary for the newbie to have a pleasant camping experience.

In many of the areas I’ve checked,it will be possible to get a hotel room on Monday night, the night after the eclipse.  By then, most chasers will be headed home.  So even if you need to stay a second night at your eclipse viewing location, or stay overnight on the drive home, you’ll probably only need to camp one night, Sunday night.  On the other hand, some areas might be so congested that it will be best to arrive Saturday and wait until Tuesday before starting home.  Even if you need to camp two or three nights, the advice on this page should get you through the adventure.

You will need to go out and buy some stuff.  If you walk into your local outdoor store and tell them that you need to outfit yourself for camping for the first time, the salesperson will see dollar signs and offer to sell you expensive deluxe equipment.  While it would be nice to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for the best equipment, it’s not necessary.  On this page, I have some recommendations of some of the things you might need.  Nothing on this page is the deluxe version.  Most of these recommendations are for the bare minimum cheap version of the various products.  But for one or two nights, they will prove adequate.  In many cases, the expensive versions are more durable and will last many years.  But for one use, the cheap versions will usually be just as good.


The first consideration is to decide whether you will actually need a tent.  Depending on what kind of car you have, it might work just as well to sleep in your car.  Trying to sleep while sitting on one of the seats, even if it reclines, usually doesn’t work very well.  There’s a reason why humans lie down to sleep, and they’ve done this for millions of years.  But if your vehicle has a flat surface long enough for you to lie down, then sleeping in the car might be the best option.  If your vehicle is wide enough, you might be able to stretch out on the back seat.  In a van or SUV, there might be enough room on the floor.  In a hatchback, if the back seats fold down, then you can sleep in the back.  The only way to find out for sure is to crawl in there and see if you can lie down.

If you do decide to sleep in your car, remember that it will get hot in there, so you’ll need to roll down some or all of the windows.  Therefore, you will need some kind of screen to cover them to keep the bugs out.

If you can’t find a large enough flat surface in your car, then you probably want to get a tent, and this will be your first purchase.  The most important advice about tents is:  Practice setting it up at home!  Most tents are relatively easy to set up, but there’s always a learning curve.  And every tent is different.  While you’re still at home, you want to make sure you know how to set it up, and that no parts are missing.  In campgrounds, I’ve witnessed many unhappy couples taking out a brand new tent and then realizing to their horror that they don’t know how to set it up.  If they had practiced a couple of times at home, they would have saved themselves a huge amount of frustration and stress.

When shopping for a tent, you will see that they are marked with how many persons they sleep.  However, almost without fail, these numbers are the absolutely maximum number of people you could possibly squeeze in.  So for a “two person” tent, yes, you could cram in two people if you really had to.  But it would be a lot more comfortable with just one person.  So if you really have two people, then you would probably be better off with a three or four person tent, even for just one night.

Normally, I have an important piece of advice when shopping for a tent.  That advice is to get a tent that you can stand up in.  If you’re going to be camping regularly, this is extremely important.  At home, when you get out of bed, you stand up.  Right before you get in bed, you are standing up. When you change your clothes, you stand up.  You don’t normally notice it, but the sleeping process involves a lot of standing.  So normally, I recommend getting a tent that allows you to stand up.  It really makes camping a lot more pleasant.

Unfortunately, however, the cost of tents gets exponentially higher when you get one big enough to stand up in.  If you’re really getting a tent that you’re only going to use once, you’ll save a lot of money by getting a smaller one.  And the smaller tent will also be a lot easier to set up.  So in this case, I’ll modify my normal advice.  It’s annoying having to crawl around on the ground while you get in bed.  It’s annoying having to change your clothes while crawling around.  But it’s also only one night, and you want to save money.

With that in mind, a tent similar to the one shown here is my recommendation for one person.  Two people could probably squeeze in, but it wouldn’t be particularly comfortable.  The primary advantage of this tent, the Stansport Scout Backpack Tent, is that it is cheap.  It is also lightweight and won’t take up much space in your car.

The other big advantage, though, is that it’s easy to set up.  As you can see, the A-frame style of this kind of tent is very “old school.”  It doesn’t look futuristic like many of the dome tents that you see.  However, in my experience, the dome tents are harder to set up, and they often require two people.  (Dome tents, however, have the advantage of not needing stakes in the ground, although they are usually highly recommended.  With the inexpensive A-frame tent shown here, the stakes are absolutely necessary.)  Dome tents are harder to set up because the poles have to go in just the right spot.  Also, the poles need to be just the right size and shape.  If you break one of the poles for a dome tent, it’s usually easiest just to throw the tent away.  With this type of tent, if you break a pole, you can improvise and just use a stick of about the right size.

Setting up this kind of tent is very easy.  First, you just pound in a stake in each corner to hold the floor tight to the ground.  (It’s a good idea to bring along a hammer for this purpose.)  Then, you pound in a stake about 3 feet in front, and about 3 feet behind.  You put in the poles, and then you run a rope from the top of the pole to the stake.  Finally, you put in two more stakes on the side, and run ropes to hold the side walls out.  It really only takes about 5 minutes.

If you have more than two people, then you really do need to move into the “dome” tent category and get something like the one shown here, the “three person” Wenzel Alpine Tent.  Even though it’s billed as “three person,” it’s really only suitable for two.  It’s still quite inexpensive.  It is harder to set up, and you’ll definitely want to practice at home.  The setup really requires two people, since it’s usually necessary to have one person hold a pole in place while the other person inserts it in the correct spot.  Poles have to be put up in a certain order, and you will need to read the directions.  It’s not particularly difficult, but you will need to practice at home.

The “six person” tent shown here, Coleman Evanston Screened Tent, is still relatively inexpensive, and would be a good choice for two adults and two or three children.  An 8-person version is also available.  At this point, the tent is getting large enough so that you can stand up in it.  Even if you have to stoop over a little bit, being able to stand makes it a much more pleasant experience.  This larger tent is also more complicated to set up, so you’ll definitely want to practice at home.

Sleeping Pads

The ground is hard!  The floor of your car is hard!  Your camping experience will be infinitely more comfortable if you have something soft to sleep on.  You have a number of choices.

If you’re getting a large tent, then you might consider getting a cot to sleep on.  A cot is infinitely more comfortable than the ground.  If there’s room and it’s in your budget, then you might consider getting one like the one shown here.  But if you have a smaller tent, or want to economize, then the other option is to get some kind of soft object to sleep on.  You can chose between some kind of foam pad, or an air mattress.

Foam pads are somewhat more convenient, but they are mostly designed to insulate you from the ground.  While they are softer than the ground, they’re not particularly comfortable to sleep on.  Therefore, my personal preference is an air mattress.

If you know for sure that this will be your only time camping, then you might want to simply get a cheap air mattress like the one shown here.  These are most commonly used at a swimming pool, but there’s no reason why you can’t sleep on one.  Eventually, it will spring a leak, but in the meantime, it will make your sleep more comfortable.  These also have the advantage of being inflated with lung power, so you won’t need to buy a special pump.

You can also get an air mattress designed for sleeping, such as the one shown on the right.  These are very comfortable, and it will feel like sleeping on a normal bed.  They are relatively inexpensive, but they do require a pump to fill them up.  You can get a  pump that is battery operated or one that plugs into your car.  (Note:  even If you have a compressor for putting air in your car tires, it will not work for filling the air mattress.)

Sleeping Bag

The eclipse will take place on August 21, and whether you are in Oregon or South Carolina, it will probably be hot.  So you don’t need to worry much about a sleeping bag.  In fact, you might want to just bring normal sheets and blankets from home.  But if you do want one, a cheap sleeping bag like the one shown here will be more than adequate.

One thing to keep in mind about cheap sleeping bags is that there’s a possibility that they won’t survive one washing.  Washing them might result in the insulating layer getting messed up.  They’re great until the first washing, though.  Therefore, resist the temptation to wash the sleeping bag before using it, not that it would be necessary.  When you get home, you can take your chances and throw it in the washing machine.  If it survives, great.  If it doesn’t, you already have your money’s worth from it.

Cooking and Eating

If you’re going to be camping out West, then there’s a major fire danger, and it’s likely that you will not be able to have a fire or even a charcoal grill.  You might consider buying a propane stove, but you’ll only be camping for one or two days.  I would recommend just getting a cheap cooler.  You can buy disposable styrofoam coolers like the one shown here at most supermarkets.  Just fill it with ice and pack food that you can eat without cooking.

Whatever kind of cooler you use, you will find that it’s very helpful to have a large supply of Ziploc bags.  The ice will melt, and no matter how careful you are, the items inside will be floating in water.  If you pack everything in sealed plastic bags, then you won’t have to worry about it.

Don’t forget to bring utensils, paper plates, cups, napkins, etc.  There’s no need to purchase special “camping” versions of these items, since the ones you have at home will work perfectly well.  Buying a large assortment of plastic silverware will mean that you don’t have to worry about washing dishes.  And don’t forget garbage bags.  It’s possible that the dumpster of your temporary campground will be overflowing, in which case you might need to take home your own trash.  Having good trash bags with you will make the process much more pleasant.

Portable Toilets

Normally, if you go camping to a state park or private campground, you don’t have to worry about where to go to the bathroom.  There will be a restroom within convenient walking distance of your site.  However, for the eclipse, thousands of people will be camping in temporary campsites.  Hopefully, the owners have rented enough toilets to accommodate everyone.  But there’s a distinct possibility that some of them have underestimated the need.  And if you’re stuck in traffic, or parked at a remote location waiting for the eclipse, there might not be a restroom nearby.  Fortunately, you can bring your own from home!

Shown here is the Passport Potty from Sanitation Equipment.  It’s relatively inexpensive, but when you need it, it’s worth its weight in gold.  It would fit inside a family-size tent.  And unless you a driving a compact car, there’s probably enough floor space in most vehicles to have it there.

To use it, you go as you would with any other toilet.  To “flush,” you open a valve at the bottom, and rinse the bowl with the built-in water pump.  You then close the valve, and the contents are hermetically sealed into the compartment below.  Spray a shot of Febreeze into the air, and the crisis is over!  Especially if you have young kids, owning one of these can be a lifesaver.  No eclipse chasing vehicle is complete without one!

If you buy one of these, you will need to buy some of the chemical to put in the tank, which is quite inexpensive.  I prefer the pouches of dry chemical, but it’s less expensive to buy a bottle of the liquid chemical, since you only need a very small amount.  Of course, you will also need toilet paper.  While not absolutely necessary, it’s best to use the special RV toilet paper, since it breaks down faster and makes the emptying process easier.

When you get home, or when you get to the first flush toilet of your voyage home, it’s a relatively simple matter to empty the toilet.  However, this is one area where it’s best to practice at home.  Fill the toilet with clean water and practice emptying it a few times.  After a few tries, you will be able to do it confidently and without spilling.  While you are camping, hand washing facilities might not be available.  So it’s a good idea to pack some hand sanitizer.


In order for there to be an eclipse, there needs to be a new moon.  And if you’ve been careful picking out your eclipse camping spot, you picked a spot without street lights.  This means that the night before the eclipse, it’s going to be dark.  When the sun goes down, you won’t be able to see anything.  You can probably fumble around with your cell phone and get a little bit of light, or you can even annoy your camping neighbors by turning on your headlights.  But life will be a lot easier if you bring along some flashlights.  The flashlights shown here are inexpensive, they’re durable, and they work well.  Bring along a few more than you need, along with plenty of extra batteries.

There’s also a good possibility that you won’t have cell service or that the network will be overloaded.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to also bring a good portable radio for receiving weather and traffic information.  One good option would be this radio, which pulls in NOAA weather broadcasts in addition to normal AM and FM stations.  It also features a hand crank, which means that you can continue listening to it even if the batteries go dead.


If you have the basics listed above, you’ll survive your camping adventure and actually enjoy it!  Since local stores and restaurants won’t be able to keep up with the demand, bring your own food and water from home.  Enjoy your adventure!





Take Your Kids to See the Eclipse!

If it’s humanly possible, take your kids to see the eclipse on August 21!

National Park Service.

National Park Service.

My first awareness of the concept of a solar eclipse came with the total eclipse of March 7, 1970.  On that Saturday, the sun darkened in the Pacific, and the shadow of the moon raced over southern Mexico before entering the Gulf of Mexico.

Then, it hit the United States of America, with its shadow first hitting Florida, then Georgia, then the Carolinas and Virginia, then grazing Maryland before heading back out to sea, saying goodbye to the United States at Nantucket.

For those with Learjets, it then crossed Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the French island of Miquelon, before heading out to sea again into the North Atlantic.

Where I was in Minnesota, it only covered 47% of the sun at high noon. If nobody had told me about it, I wouldn’t have even noticed. It didn’t get dark outside, and no animals were confused. But that day, it was the biggest deal in the world. The moon contained fresh footprints of Americans who had walked on its surface less than a year before. Now that same moon was casting its shadow over me.

To me and my fellow third graders, it was presented as a big deal. And it was a big deal. If there had ever been any doubt about it, yes, the moon went around the earth, the earth went around the sun, and sometimes they got in the way of each other. Any third grader could see tangible proof.

In school, we had learned all about umbras and penumbras, and by the time the big day came, I was an expert on all things eclipse. With a shoebox, some foil, and a note card, I constructed myself a pinhole viewer. I figured that if a pinhole was good, then a giant hole would be even better. Fortunately, my mom corrected my error and got the viewer in good working order.

I pointed the box at the sun coming in the window, and sure enough, there was a little crescent shape of sunlight coming in through the round hole, plainly visible on the note card.

Perhaps I was a little disappointed at the tiny size of the image, but it didn’t matter. Right there in my shoebox was proof positive that the moon orbits the earth.  I didn’t have to take anyone else’s word for it.  The proof was right before my eyes.

We turned on the TV, and we saw the darkened skies and the amazed reactions of those who went outside to see it. I don’t remember too many details about the TV coverage. Mostly, I remember some poor confused rooster in Florida or Georgia crowing in the middle of the day.

When we got back to school the next Monday, the eclipse was the topic of conversation. We knew how the universe worked, because we had seen it with our own eyes. It was a big deal, and the kids remembered it.

In 1970, we were over a thousand miles away from the path of totality, and going to see it wasn’t really an option. But I envied those people and roosters on TV who got to see it in person.

Nine years later, another eclipse came to North America. On February 26, 1979, the eclipse started in the Pacific Northwest, darkened most of Montana, and grazed our neighboring state of North Dakota before making a spectacular show for humans and roosters alike in Winnipeg, Manitoba, tantalizingly close to Minnesota. I wanted to go to Winnipeg, but circumstances didn’t permit it. So I had to stay home and watch the 90% coverage. I had a telescope, complete with a solar filter that screwed to the eyepiece. In retrospect, that solar filter was horribly dangerous. The heat of the magnified rays of the sun could have cracked it, sending those same magnified rays right into my retina.

I got lucky, my retina survived, and I saw another eclipse. But it didn’t get dark outside. I didn’t hear any roosters. I was close, but I didn’t really see it. They said that it wouldn’t happen again until 2017, which sounded like an eternity to wait. But I vowed that I was going to go see it.

I’ve seen a couple other eclipses since then. I even drove to Springfield, Illinois, to get right in the middle of the path of the annular eclipse of May 10, 1994.  My pinhole viewer revealed a tiny ring as the annular eclipse reached its peak. But it wasn’t dark, there were no roosters, and as far as I could tell, the citizens of Springfield didn’t even bother to come outside to see it, despite being right in the middle of the path.

By now, I was already convinced of the celestial mechanics. It was mildly interesting, but like the residents of Springfield apparently concluded, it wasn’t that big a deal.

The upcoming eclipse of August 21 is a big deal. It’s certainly a bigger deal than the one in 1994, because it’s actually going to get dark, and roosters will crow about it, just like they did in 1970 in Florida and 1979 in Winnipeg.

But it’s a much bigger deal than the one in 1970. In 1970, it wasn’t realistically possible for a family in Minnesota to go to Florida to witness it. That’s not true this time. Because the path of the eclipse so conveniently crosses the country from Pacific to Atlantic, the majority of Americans live within a one-day drive. For those of us in Minnesota, it means driving to Nebraska or Missouri. That is something that most families are capable of doing. You don’t need a Learjet. You don’t need to cross an international border. You don’t even need to drive to the other side of the country. All you need to do is drive to Nebraska.

Your kids never got to see men walking on the moon.  They never even got a chance to see the Space Shuttle being launched.  They’re vaguely aware of the International Space Station, but they don’t know the names of the two Americans and one Russian who are currently aboard.  We know the names Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins.  But they don’t know the names Fisher, Yurchikhin, and Wilson.  The wonder is seemingly gone.

On August 21, the wonder will be back.  Those footprints are still up there on the moon, and that moon is going to cast a shadow over the Great Plains.  Americans can’t go to the moon any more.  But Americans–including your kids–can go see the shadow of that moon darken one of your neighboring states.  You don’t need a Learjet; you don’t need to go to another country.  You can probably get there on one tank of gas.

If you are in Minnesota or Iowa, I’ve already done the planning for you.  You can drive to Nebraska on Sunday, stay in an inexpensive motel or camp that night, drive a few miles on Monday to see the eclipse, and get home Monday night.  You can probably do it for a hundred bucks.  If you live somewhere else, then you’ll have to do the planning yourself.  But wherever you are in the 48 states, you are probably within one day’s drive.  You should go.

If you go, your kids will see it get dark at noon, and if there are any roosters around, they’ll be able to hear them.  If you go, the flat earthers will never stand a chance of misleading your kids.  Your kids will know how the universe works, because they will have seen it with their own eyes.  The wonder will be back.

In Minnesota, school is not yet in session, so your kids won’t even miss school.  You’ll probably need to take a day off from work, but don’t you think it’s worth it?


Lunar eclipse as viewed from the flat earth. Keep them inside so they don’t see this!

If you live somewhere where school is in session, then it would be nice to think that the schools will take care of educating your children.  But don’t count on it.  During a recent eclipse in Britain, some schools kept the kids inside, with the blinds closed, during the eclipse.   The kids watched it on TV, and apparently have to take the TV’s word for it that the earth isn’t flat.

Some American schools seem to be taking the same approach.  Take, for example, the case of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, located only about 10 miles from the path of totality.  School will be in session on August 21.  If I were in charge, there would only be one logical thing to do.  If I’m an educator, then my duty is to educate the kids.  And there is only one logical way to do that–put the kids on a school bus and drive them the 10 miles so that they can see the sky go dark and hear that confused rooster crow.  But that’s not what they’re doing.  They’ll close the curtains and watch it on the internet.  “Some schools even plan to reschedule outdoor recess to avoid being outside during the eclipse.”  The kids will just have to take the internet’s word for it that the earth isn’t flat.  They won’t be allowed to see for themselves.

Fortunately, some schools deserve praise for proactively making sure that their students get to experience the total eclipse.  For example, the Parkway School District near St. Louis discovered that one of its schools was outside the path of totality.  So they made the wise decision to bus those kids to one of the neighboring schools that will experience totality.

One school that deserves particular praise is Lewis Central Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Even though school won’t even be in session yet, the science teachers there took it upon themselves to organize a summer field trip a hundred miles away to Beatrice, Nebraska, to view the eclipse.

Unfortunately, however, these educators who actually decide to educate the kids seem to be the exceptions.  If school is in session, don’t take it for granted that the teachers will be proactive about allowing kids to have a sense of wonder about the universe.  Like in Britain or in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, there’s a distinct possibility that your kids will be locked in a  room with the blinds closed where they’ll watch it on the internet.  And that would be a shame.  Your kids deserve the chance to see for themselves that the earth isn’t flat.  They shouldn’t have to take the internet’s word for it.

If you decide to go, and you should:

1957 Two Tube Junkbox Special Broadcast Receiver

1957JulPEpictorialSixty years ago, the July 1957 issue of Popular Electronics showed how to put together this simple two tube broadcast receiver using junkbox parts.

The AC-DC set used a 35W4 rectifier, and the 12AT7 dual triode served as detector and audio amplifier to drive the speaker.  The author reported that it pulled in many local stations, and up to 500 miles at night.

The article warned that the AC-DC chassis should be kept clear of pipes and other grounded objects.


Judge Addison Brown: Renaissance Man

Addison Brown by Whipple, 1852.png

Addison Brown. Wikipedia image.

When you think of federal district judges, you generally don’t think of botany or astronomy.  But that’s because you haven’t heard of Judge Addison Brown, Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

In 1878, while a New York attorney, Brown traveled to Colorado to observe a total eclipse. His observations of the eclipse were published by the Naval Observatory in 1880.

Brown first notes that his telescope “arrived uninjured after its journey of 2000 miles,” and then laments that during the week previous to the eclipse, his bodily indisposition prevented his performing a fair share of the preliminary work of his team’s mountain encampment at an elevation of 9000 feet. Nonetheless, Brown kept the chronometer properly set, relying upon a colleague at Central City, CO, which had telegraphic communication with Washington in order to receive daily time signals from the Naval Observatory.

One of Brown's sketches of the 1878 eclipse. GoogleBooks.

One of Brown’s sketches of the 1878 eclipse. Google Books.

Brown apparently overcame his altitude sickness and was in camp the day of the eclipse on July 29, 1878. He noted that “the only disadvantage of the elevated station was its exposure to the high southerly and westerly winds which prevailed. On the morning of the eclipse, warned by the furious gale of the day previous, which nearly carried away our encampment, the telescope was removed to the partial shelter at the rear of our extemporized observatory, where comparative quiet was secured. In other respects, the day was faultless; the atmosphere was clear and brilliant, and the few fleecy clouds that appeared after noon offered no obstruction to our work.”

To ensure that his eyes would adjust to having good night vision at the moment of totality, Brown bound a bandage around his eyes five minutes before totality. Upon totality, he removed the bandage, allowing him to make his description of the corona. Brown notes that, to his surprise, “the light was sufficient to read the print of the New York Tribune’s editorials without difficulty.” He described the corona as having a yellowish hue, rather than the “pearly white” he had expected.

After ten seconds’ observation of the corona, Brown turned his attention to the horizon, which was a “gorgeous glow of orange-yellow light, with scarcely any red intermingled.” The wind, which had been strong before the eclipse, gradually lessened as totality approached. By the time of totality, it was hushed to nearly a perfect calm.

After observing the horizon for but a few precious seconds, Brown returned to his telescope, where he made more observations of the corona, the sketches of which were included in his accounts.

Judge Brown’s scientific pursuits were not limited to astronomy.  Brown was the author, along with Nathaniel Lord Britton, of the three-volume Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States and Canadawhich is still available from Amazon at the links below.

Brown was named to the bench as a recess appointment by President Garfield in 1881.  He was formally nominated and confirmed by the Senate later that year.  He retired in 1901 and died in 1913.

WJAZ and the Eclipse of 1925


Portable station WJAZ. Radio News, Jan. 1925.

NASA eclipse imageDuring the August 21 solar eclipse, I’ll be contributing some radio propagation data by making beacon-style transmissions on 7 MHz from the path of totality.  These will be picked up by the Reverse Beacon Network, and can be analyzed later to see how the eclipse affected radio signals traveling through the ionosphere.

Such experiments are nothing new, as shown by an article in the February 15, 1925, issue of Radio Progress.  Radio station WJAZ was one of several portable radio stations licensed in the 1920’s. The station was owned by and licensed to Zenith Corporation, and was mounted on a one-ton truck chassis. It was originally built in 1924 for testing to determine the best location in Chicago for the company to build a permanent station. It continued service to promote Zenith radios by rolling into towns to provide something for local radio buyers to listen to. The station was equipped with a battery operated 100 watt transmitter, a generator, and 53 foot telescoping antenna masts.

In anticipation of the  eclipse of January 24, 1925, the company brought the station to Escanaba, Michigan, which was on the center of the eclipse path of totality.  This eclipse was visible along a path from northern Minnesota extending to the northeastern United States and then over the North Atlantic.  WCCO in Minneapolis managed a live remote broadcast with a portable transmitter in an airplane.

After driving the 1120 kHz portable station to Escanaba, Zenith set it up at the rear of a garage building with a 100 foot antenna running almost straight up the mast. The studio was set up in the front show window. For the three nights preceeding the eclipse, the station ran a musical program from 10:00 PM to 1:00 AM and solicited reception reports. An average of 500 reports were received by telegram each night, since the station was awarding free Zenith receivers to those reporting from the greatest distance, as well as to listeners selected by drawing. The greatest distance covered during those tests was about 800 miles.

The night before the eclipse, the station was on the air from 10:00 PM until 1:30 AM. At 3:00 AM, the station was back on the air in advance of the 8:02 AM eclipse, and remained on the air until 9:00 AM.

The station reported that between 3:00 and 5:30 AM, only ordinary results were obtained, with a few telegrams coming in from Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. As the normal “gray line” propagation began at about 5:30 with the sun starting to rise, propagation was enhanced, and telegrams were received from as far away as Oklahoma. As the station began to go under the shadow of the moon, the station reported that the normal early morning enhancement of propagation continued, with reports being received from Nebraska, North Carolina, Ontario, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa.

The article concludes that the tests “proved conclusively that the theory of ionization and absorption of radio waves due to the sun’s rays is no longer a theory only, but actually a fact.”


Making QSL’s With a Hectograph

1937JulSWTVhectographThe venerable hectograph made an appearance 80 years ago this month in the pages of the July 1937 issue of Shortwave and Television magazine. Today, it’s trivially simple to print numerous copies of a document at home with an inkjet or laser printer, or to go to the local copy store and print them there. But this hasn’t always been the case.  80 years ago, printing in quantity was more or less a secret art practiced only by professional print shops.

But there was one exception, and that exception was the hectograph, or gelatine duplicator as it’s called here.  The desired image was drawn or typewritten onto paper using special ink, that ink was transferred to gelatine, and then copies could be made onto any paper.  The hecto- prefix implies that a hundred copies could be made, although that’s more of an upper limit.  Nonetheless, for small print jobs, the hectograph provided about the only method of home printing for many years.

This was not lost on one Miss M.E. Burke, who was apparently a shortwave listener in need of an inexpensive method to produce SWL or QSL cards.  She used a gelatine duplicator, simply printed them at home, and then sent the idea to the magazine, which agreed that it was a good idea.

Back in the day, hectographs could be purchased wherever office supplies were sold.  My own entry into the world of publishing came when I got a toy hectograph for Christmas.  I soon graduated to a more professional model, on which I was able to prepare typewritten newspapers.

Since they are obsolete technology, you can’t buy a hectograph today.  But fortunately, they are so simple that you can make one at home, and I have full instructions at my website.  All of the materials you will need are readily obtainable, and you’ll be on your way to creating a vintage style QSL card or other printed item.


Eclipse Travel Recommendations for MN & IA

You can still get a hotel room to view the total eclipse for only $53!

Path of Totality. NASA image.

Path of Totality. NASA image.

August 21 Solar Eclipse Planning

NASA eclipse imageThe total solar eclipse will take place on Monday, August 21. If you live in the Midwest, then it’s extremely unlikely that you’ve ever seen a total eclipse, unless you happen to have visited Winnipeg in 1979. That was the last total eclipse visible in the United States, and was visible in the Pacific Northwest before moving through North Dakota and into Manitoba.

If you remember seeing an eclipse in the United States after 1979, then what you saw was a partial eclipse. The difference between what you saw previously and the August 21 event is literally the difference between night and day. During a total eclipse, such as will take place in August, the sky goes dark, stars come out in the middle of the day, and the sun’s corona is visible.

During a partial eclipse, even one that is almost total, such as 99%, you might not even notice if you didn’t know about it in advance. You’ll probably notice that it’s a bit darker outside, but the effect will be the same as a hazy or partly cloudy day. If you make a pinhole viewer, then you can see that the eclipse is taking place. But if nobody told you, you probably wouldn’t even think to look. I’ve experienced multiple partial eclipses. They’re somewhat interesting, but not really that big a deal.

On the other hand, a total eclipse is a big deal.  Some people travel to remote parts of the earth and spend tens of thousands of dollars to watch them. Some people fly their Lear Jet up to Nova Scotia to watch the total eclipse of the sun. It’s dramatic, and for most people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.

Where to See the Eclipse if You Live in Minnesota or Iowa

On August 21, you won’t have to visit some remote corner of the world. You won’t even have to fly your Lear Jet up to Nova Scotia. You can easily drive to view the eclipse, but you need to do a little bit of advance planning, and you need to do it now.

As you can see from the map above, the path of totality does not pass through Minnesota.  In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, about 80% of the sun will be obscured.  If you know what to look for, you’ll notice it , and it will be moderately interesting.  But frankly, it won’t be a very big deal.  You’ve probably seen it before, and you’ll probably see it again.

Similarly, viewers in Iowa won’t see anything very interesting.  Most sources don’t even list Iowa as being within the path of totality, although this is not quite correct.  A tiny piece (about 450 acres, specifically, Ivan Woltemath’s soybean farm) in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, will experience totality for a few seconds.

If you live in Minnesota or Iowa, you’ll need to travel to view the eclipse.  If you make your plans now, it will be a very low cost trip, since inexpensive hotel rooms close to (but not directly inside) the area of totality are still available, starting at about $53 per night.

The Best Itinerary from Minnesota and Iowa

For eclipse travelers in other states, other viewing locations will be more convenient.  But for those in Minnesota, most of Iowa, western Wisconsin, and the eastern Dakotas, I have mapped out the best strategy.

If you look at a map, the closest viewing spot from those areas appears to be near St. Joseph, Missouri.  This is the closest spot in terms of distance, since it’s about 400 miles from Minneapolis or 200 miles from Des Moines.  However, as I explained in an earlier post, this is actually a poor choice, because there will be a major choke point along Interstate 35 near Lathrop, Missouri.  If you head for the St. Joseph area the day of the eclipse, it’s very likely that you will be caught in an apocalyptic traffic jam on Interstate 35.  Also, every hotel room near St. Joseph has been booked for months, and it’s impossible to find lodging.

Another choke point, predicted to be even worse, is located in northeastern Kansas, at a point on U.S. Highway 75 near Sabetha, Kansas. Highway 75 is parallel and close to Interstate 29 as it heads north through northwestern Missouri and southwestern Iowa. Therefore, I predict that northbound traffic along I-29 will also be monumental the morning of August 21.

Fortunately, those of us in Minnesota and Iowa can avoid both of these choke points and still find hotel rooms close to the area of totality.

MSPtoHomesteadMy recommendation for those coming from Minnesota or Iowa to view the eclipse is to drive to Omaha on Sunday, August 20. You can still reserve a hotel room in Omaha the night before the eclipse, and the prices are still very reasonable. You will not be within the path of totality, but you will be very close. On Monday morning, you can drive west on Interstate 80 about 50 miles to Lincoln. In Lincoln, you will be able to view the total eclipse. Traffic along Interstate 80 will probably be quite heavy, but you will be able to divert yourself completely away from choke points on Interstates 29 and 35, shown in red on this map.

The route shown on the map takes you to Homestead National Monument of America, which is one of the better viewing spots in Nebraska.  Homestead is planning for the large crowds, and it will be one of the locations from which NASA will be doing its live broadcast.

Path of totality within Nebraska. NASA image.

Path of totality within Nebraska. NASA image.

If you follow this recommended itinerary, on Sunday, it will be about a 400 mile drive to Omaha from Minneapolis.  On Monday morning, you can drive about 50 miles to Lincoln, where you will be able to view the eclipse.  Lincoln has a number of events and viewing areas planned, which   are listed here.  For better viewing, you can head south from Lincoln to  Homestead National Monument.  Or, you can continue west on Interstate 80.  The interstate more or less follows the path of totality, so every mile you drive west gives you a little bit more totality when the total eclipse begins at about 12:58 PM.  Most towns along the interstate have special viewing areas prepared, and you can find a listing at

You will have a lot of flexibility as far as actually viewing the eclipse.  Any legal parking spot close to Interstate 80, west of Lincoln, will allow you to view the total eclipse.  Even if millions of visitors descend upon the state, finding your viewing spot shouldn’t be a problem.  Instead, the problem will be finding lodging.  All hotel rooms directly within the path of totality are now completely booked.  At this point, unless you want to sleep in your car, you’ll need to stay in Omaha Sunday night and then make the relatively short drive to your final viewing spot on Monday morning.

Omaha Hotels Available Sunday Night

Fortunately, hotel rooms are still available in Omaha on Sunday night, August 20, and it’s only a 50 mile drive to view the eclipse the morning of August 21.  The following information has been updated on July 24 and is current as of that date.  You can check availability and make reservations by clicking on the links below:

The following Omaha hotels have rooms available Sunday night, August 20, under $100: 
Super 8 Fremont NE
 ($51)Motel 6 Omaha ($54), Econo Lodge West Dodge ($60), Sleep Inn & Suites Airport ($67), Super 8 Omaha / West ($69), Comfort Suites Omaha ($72).

The following Omaha hotels have rooms available Sunday night, August 20, under $200:   Magnolia Hotel Omaha ($148, use coupon code TRAVEL8),  Country Inn & Suites By Carlson Omaha Airport ($101),  Hotel Deco XV ($125, use coupon code TRAVEL8).

By following the links above, you can secure an inexpensive hotel room and view the eclipse!

If you’re an attorney and want to earn Continuing Legal Education credit as part of your eclipse trip, please visit my Eclipse CLE page.


1927 Baffin Island Expedition


Effie M. Morrissey 1894.jpg

Effie M. Morrissey in 1894. Wikipedia photo.

Shown above as it appeared 90 years ago is radio operator Edward Manley aboard the Effie M. Morrissey, as it prepared for the Putnam Baffin Island Expedition to the Arctic in search of the magnetic north pole.

The smaller battery powered transmitter on the shelf would operate on 33 and 20 meters, with the larger longwave generator transmitter was on the left. The battery set used twenty B batteries in series to supply 900 volts.

The ship was built in 1894 and served as a fishing vessel until 1925. She made her first voyage of exploration in 1926. The preparations shown above were for her second voyage.

In 1946, the ship was renamed the Ernestina, and is currently based at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. She is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The top photo is from the July 1927 issue of Radio Digest.

Eclipse Radio Experiments

NASA eclipse image

Solar Eclipses & Radio Propagation

If you’ve ever tuned the AM radio dial at night, you know that the sun has an effect on radio propagation. At night, you can hear stations from hundreds of miles away, even though those stations can’t be heard during the daylight hours. This is because the signals are either absorbed by or reflected by various layers of the ionosphere, and these layers behave differently in the presence of sunlight.

Radio propagation through the ionosphere. NOAA image.

Radio propagation through the ionosphere. NOAA image.

In general, lower frequencies (such as the AM broadcast band) work better for long distances at night, and higher frequencies work better during the daylight hours. Observations made during other eclipses show that the brief period of “night” during totality does have an effect on the ionosphere, and this has an observable effect on radio propagation.

This eclipse will allow for the collection of a huge amount of data, and it is likely that this will contribute to a greater understanding of the ionosphere.  This is because there are now automatic data collection tools such as the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).

The Reverse Beacon Network is a collection of radio receivers operated by amateur radio operators all over the world.  They are constantly monitoring large portions of the radio spectrum and “skimming” the signals.  Other networks listen for different transmission modes, but the Reverse Beacon Network is constantly listening for CW (continuous wave, or Morse Code) transmissions.  Whenever it hears “CQ” (a general call) or “TEST” (a test transmission), it records the call sign of the sending station.  The network stores this data for later download, and also makes it immediately available for display on the internet.


The image above is a screenshot from the Reverse Beacon Network taken today.  I sent a transmission in Morse Code consisting merely of the words “TEST DE W0IS.”  That transmission was picked up by several of the skimmers in the network, and the information was almost immediately displayed on the internet.

As you can see, my signals were picked up by skimmers in Alberta, Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York, and Kansas.  The numbers on the chart (snr, signal to noise ratio) show my signal strength at each location.

Radio propagation is sometimes more of an art than a science, and it’s somewhat surprising that my signal was heard at these distances at the time of day I did the test, about noon local time.  The pattern shown here is more typical for later in the afternoon for the frequency I was using (7 MHz).  Typically, at midday, I would expect to see more hits within about 400 miles, and fewer at the distances shown here.

But on the day of the eclipse, comparing the reports throughout the day should show what effect the eclipse is having on radio propagation.  I expect that before totality, the propagation toward the west coast will be enhanced, as areas starting in Oregon experience “nighttime.”  After totality, I expect propagation to be enhanced toward the east as the path of totality moves toward South Carolina.

While I might change my plans, I think I’ll concentrate on 40 meters (7 MHz) during the eclipse.  Lower frequencies such as 160 meters (1.8 MHz) or 80 meters (3.5 MHz) will have more dramatic effects, but the necessary antennas are much longer.  Since I’ll probably be viewing the eclipse from a fixed location, I should be able to set up a full-sized dipole for 40 meters (66 feet of wire, fed in the middle) without too much difficulty.  If we need to move quickly and use a mobile antenna on the car, then I’ll probably switch to 30 meters (10 MHz), since the mobile antenna starts to be more efficient at higher frequencies, but 10 MHz is probably still low enough to see some eclipse effects.

You’ll be able to monitor my signals yourself in real time by following this link, which shows the most recent times my signal has been picked up.  On the day of the eclipse, I expect the map to show reception on the west coast in the morning, moving toward the east coast in the afternoon.  (Since RBN won’t have any way of knowing that I’m not at my home location, the graphic display will incorrectly show my signal as originating from Minnesota, even though I will be in Nebraska.   When the data is analyzed later, it will show my location correctly.)

The data I generate will be part of a larger project, the HamSCI 2017 Eclipse Experiment.  After the eclipse, data will be collected and analyzed by researchers such as those at Virginia Tech.

How Hams Can Participate in Eclipse Science

To increase the amount of radio signals to analyze, a contest named the Solar Eclipse QSO Party is scheduled to take place on August 21 from 1400-2200 UTC (9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Central Daylight Time). Participants in this contest will submit their logs, and data will also be skimmed automatically by networks such as RBN.  If you are an amateur radio operator, I encourage you to participate in this event.  Even if you are not near the path of totality, it is likely that radio propagation will be affected for thousands of miles.

How Anyone Can Participate

AMRadioPicFromDotGovIf you are not licensed, but you own a normal AM radio, you can also participate and collect valuable ionospheric data.  As noted above, AM signals propagate much greater distances at night, and the eclipse will have an effect.  Some night before the eclipse, tune through the dial and note which distant stations you are able to pull in.  Write down the call letters, frequencies, and locations of the stations.

If you need help identifying the stations, the easiest way is often to wait to hear the call letters of the station and Google the call letters to find the location. Or if you missed the call letters but heard the name of the city, try Googling the frequency and city.  For example, a search for “780 AM Chicago” will confirm that you’re tuned in to WBBM.  You can also search the official FCC database, either by frequency or call letters, at this link.  Also, this listing at the FCC website shows the strongest AM stations at most spots on the dial.

During the daylight hours, but before the eclipse, tune to those spots on the dial again to ensure that you can’t pick them up.  Also, some frequencies might have stronger local stations on during the day, which might cover up the weaker more distant signals.  It will be best to concentrate on frequencies where you hear nothing during the day, although the distant signals could very well overpower a closer station.

On the day of the eclipse, tune to those same spots on the dial and see if you can hear the stations.  You will probably find that they come up out of the noise when the path of totality passes over the station, or when the total eclipse is on a straight line between you and the station.

For example, I would expect that when St. Louis sees totality, KMOX (1120) will be booming in for hundreds of miles.  Similarly, when the total eclipse makes it to Nashville, then WSM (650) will be heard in most of the eastern United States.

Also, listen for some stations on the other side of the path of totality.  For example, when the eclipse is over Missouri, I would expect that listeners in Oklahoma and Texas might be able to hear stations such as WCCO (830) in Minneapolis or WHO (1040) in Des Moines.

Before the eclipse, identify some stations, both close to the path of totality, and on the other side of that line.  Find stations that you can normally pick up at night, but not during the day, and then listen for those stations to come up out of the noise as the eclipse shadow moves into an optimum spot.

For most people, the best radio to use will be your car radio.  Most car radios have good AM tuners, and they usually have the advantage of having a digital display so that you can tune to exactly the right spot on the dial.

For more information on this experiment and how you can participate and submit your observations, see this article at Sky & Telescope magazine. A good starting point for learning about tuning in distant stations on the AM dial can be found at Wikipedia.

If you don’t want to be tethered to your car radio, another alternative is to buy a radio similar to the ones shown below.  These radios, even though inexpensive, will provide good AM reception with a digital read out that will allow you to quickly tune various stations.  Some of them also have shortwave, which will allow you to do more elaborate observations, as explained at the Sky & Telescope article.

(In addition to radio experiments, it’s important to have a portable radio if you want to receive weather and traffic information during the eclipse.  Due to the large number of people traveling to the path of totality, it’s quite possible that cellular and data networks will become overloaded in many areas.  Having a radio with you will allow you to learn where the breaks in the clouds are, even if your smart phone is without a signal.)

Radio propagation has been studied during most eclipses in the 20th century.  For example, during the 1945 Victory Eclipse, research was done by researchers in recently liberated Norway, and German installations were even quickly re-purposed to do this research.  Because of the huge amount of data that will be collected, thanks to technologies such as RBN, this eclipse promises to add to the understanding of the ionosphere, and it’s quite possible for citizen scientists such as you and me to contribute.

For more information on the eclipse, see my earlier posts.

Plan For the Eclipse Now!

NASA eclipse imageWe’ve been warning now for a few weeks that to make your eclipse experience more pleasant, you need to plan now! It’s still possible to get a hotel room or campsite relatively close to the path of totality.  However, in most areas, it’s now necessary to book your lodging in outlying areas and plan to drive to your viewing spot the morning of August 21.  We’ve already posted about the potential for gridlock that morning, so you’ll want to plan your route carefully.

As of just a week ago, many more hotel rooms were available.  For example, until just yesterday, it was possible to book a hotel room in Charleston, SC, for about $100.  (And a couple of weeks ago, you could have booked the same room for $50.)  But that changed today.  Here’s what you see now if you want to book a room in Charleston:


Eclipse glasses are also becoming more difficult to find.  During a 2015 partial eclipse in England, there was a shortage of the glasses, and as we predicted previously, it looks like there will be a shortage here as well.  There are two major U.S. manufacturers of the special glasses, which are necessary to safely view the eclipse before and after totality.  One of those manufacturers is Rainbow Symphony, and here’s what their website displayed today:


The glasses are still available, and it’s likely that Rainbow Symphony will soon be open to new orders.  In the meantime, you can order yours on Amazon, as I did.  They have the Rainbow Symphony glasses, as well as glasses from the other American manufacturer, American Paper Optics:

In addition to those quantities and styles, Amazon has many other buying choices, which you can view at this link.  When buying glasses, be sure to look for the ISO certification.  The normal retail price is currently about $2-3 (the links above are for larger quantities.)  There are cheaper uncertified glasses available, but I’m personally not willing to take the risk.  It’s still possible to get the glasses, and if you need larger quantities, I’m sure the Rainbow Symphony website will be back in business soon, as is American Paper Optics.  But if you wait until mid-August, then it will probably be too late!  Get your eclipse glasses now!

Another good source of ISO certified eclipse glasses is American Eclipse Glasses in Torrington, Wyoming, right in the path of totality.  This is a small business that realized there was an opportunity, so they had the glasses custom manufactured and certified.  They have great deals, especially if you need only a few pairs and can’t find them locally, because their shipping charges are extremely reasonable:  The glasses are $3 each, which is about the going retail price.  However, shipping is only $1.03 for the first pair, and then only 3 cents for each one after that!  If you can’t find them locally and need one or two, I recommend you visit their website.  

Or better yet, their prices are even lower if you order in bulk.  On August 21, your friends and neighbors are going to want glasses, but just like in England, there won’t be any available.  You can give them away to your unprepared friends and neighbors, or you can sell them for a fair profit.

Similarly, it’s now a lot harder to find a hotel room now than it was just a week ago.  And it will keep getting harder.  For links to available hotels, please see my constantly updated pages for the western U.S. and eastern U.S.  I also have links of available eclipse campsites.