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Supermoon over Manhattan


On January 31, the full moon will shine for the second time this month, a phenomenon commonly known as a "blue moon." Of course, despite this expression—originally applied to a fourth full moon in a calendar season—the moon won't actually look blue.

Another notable lunar event will coincide with this blue moon: a total lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, New York City will miss most of it because the moon will set here just before sunrise on the 31st, shortly after the eclipse begins.

This leads us to more lunar description and terminology. A moon in total eclipse appears reddish, and is sometimes called a "blood moon." Additionally (and even better), this full moon will be near perigee, meaning it is at its closest approach to Earth, making it very close to the status of "supermoon;" a supermoon appears around 7% larger than an average full moon.

Add this all up, and we have a "Super Blue Blood Moon." Got it? 

Photo of Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, from Wikidata
Lewis Morris Rutherfurd; source: Wikidata

Shooting the Moon

Despite the saying “once in a blue moon,” a blue moon isn’t all that rare. Regardless of which framework you use to define a blue moon, it occurs once every two to three years.

However a “blue blood moon” is indeed rare. In North America, the last one occurred on March 31, 1866, leading us to the extraordinary lunar photographs of pioneering astrophotographer and astrophysicist, Lewis Morris Rutherfurd (1816-1892).

Rutherfurd, a lawyer by training, abandoned his law practice to devote himself to his joint passions of astronomy and photography. He took his first photographs of the moon in 1858 and, by 1866, had taken dozens, most with an 11 1/4-inch equatorial refracting telescope he designed and constructed.

Rutherfurd's observatory and astrophotography studio were located on the grounds of his spacious mansion, on the corner of Second Avenue and East 10th Street in Manhattan. Here's how the building looked a few decades after Rutherfurd’s death:

Building at Second Avenue at East 10th Street, from 1922
Second Avenue at East 10th Street, by Irving Underhill, 1922. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID:  1508679

[For an earlier view, see Old Buildings of New York City (1907).]

Although it doesn't appear that Rutherfurd photographed the 1866 eclipse or any full moon that year, in 1865, he immortalized the full moon of January 11. The photograph below is one of three large-scale original Rutherfurd lunar photographs in The New York Public Library's Photography Collection. We believe it to be the January 1865 full moon, since the other two, showing the first and last quarters, bear dates from January 1865 and March 1865, respectively.

The originals are large, about 22 x 20 inches each. Even with this greatly reduced image, I hope you can get an idea of what a truly super moon shone over Manhattan that night.

Photograph of a supermoon, by Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, probably taken January 11, 1865
Photograph by Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, probably taken January 11, 1865; NYPL Photography Collection

A couple decades later, Rutherfurd’s associate, O.G. Mason, described one of his nocturnal photography sessions for the Photographic Section of the American Institute. The talk was published in the Scientific American Supplement, no. 606 (August 13, 1887), pages 9684-9685, under the evocative title “A Voyage to the Moon.”

I can’t resist quoting Mason's description at length here:

"Our party consisted of three persons, whom we will designate as numbers one, two, and three.

At 10:30 P.M. number two entered one of the computing rooms across the lawn and called "time," by reporting the zenith clear and the air still favorable for first-class work, a coincidence averaging about twice a year in New York City.

Upon this announcement numbers one and three bundle up in heavy clothing as though about to visit the north pole. They know the weather is crisp and cold where the next few hours are to be passed.

As they enter the door leading to the dome, under which stands the great equatorial, the silence is broken only by the escapement wheel of the tall sidereal clock standing against the western wall, as its heavy pendulum swings to and fro with an accuracy most wonderful.

No other sound. Not a word is spoken; each known his assigned duty, and to it he gives his undivided attention. All feel that such time is beyond value, and must be utilized to the fullest extent.

Number one has charge of the telescope. The dome is revolved into position, and a long, narrow section, from base to apex, swung open, leaving a strip of clear sky visible, in the center of which the moon glistens like a disk of burnished silver. The great instrument is swung into approximate position; the driving clock, constructed to run one hour, is wound; and while number one is busy making his final adjustments, we will watch number two, who has charge of the photographic department of the expedition. He has lifted a trap door in the floor near the stone pier, passed down a short ladder, and entered what may well be called a troglodyte’s laboratory, lighted by one small wax candle, as care is necessary to keep the temperature low. After a few minutes the pupils of his eyes are expanded sufficiently to permit seeing the bottles, baths, and dishes required for his work. But we have no time to describe his chemicals or his method of using them.

Meanwhile number three, the timekeeper, has adjusted the chronograph (in whose record there will be no personal equation), placed his small, dim lights where they will illuminate the clock and the room just enough to see what is going on, and then taken his position, where he can hear distinctly the beat of the long pendulum, as its lower end, terminating in a hair-like wire, swings at each vibration through a glistening drop of mercury, closing the battery current uniting chronograph, clock, and shutter adjustment on the telescope.

All is now ready for action. Upon a signal being given by number one, a sensitized plate is handed up from the cave, placed in its receptacle at the ocular end of the great instrument, just as it would be put into an ordinary camera.

The touch of an electric button, and away we go, or rather, we all keep very still.

The great clock says one, two, three, and the plate holder is opened to the light of the full moon, whose image the great glass eye, fourteen feet away, has condensed to a circle of 1 2/15 inches. The buzz of the chronograph wheels is just audible as it records the time in hundredths of a second. The heavy pendulum has beat one, and the long focused eye is closed, the plate holder is returned to the troglodyte, who reaches from below to receive it, as he hands another up.

And so the work goes on until early morning, when the weary and thoroughly chilled party seek rest in a comfortable temperature and among surroundings which their animal natures deem far more enjoyable."

I hope you have enjoyed this voyage through time and space, to the moon over Manhattan, just as she appeared to an inventive scientist's eyes in 1865. 



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