Professional Stamp Experts

Stamp collecting and total solar eclipses

Michael O. Nowlan - April 12, 1999

Stamp collecting and total solar eclipses may have little in common, but Hungary and Alderney have given them top billing for an awe-inspiring heavenly event in the summer.

Both the Island of Alderney in the Channel Islands and the Eastern European nation of Hungary are preparing for a total eclipse on August 11, 1999. On that date the moon will pass between sun and earth creating the celestial phenomenon. Its path will dominate both nations as well as some other European countries, the Middle East, and India.

A total eclipse of the sun occurs when the moon passes in front of it casting a long shadow on earth. Although an eclipse is not uncommon, its pathway is very narrow and, for it to be total, it is seen in a very limited field. The August eclipse, for example, has only a 65-mile wide pathway. The narrow pathways create few opportunities for people to view a full eclipse. It will mark the first time since 1842 that Hungary has witnessed a total eclipse, and the next for that country will not occur until 2081. Most places on earth see a total eclipse about every 400 years.

Authorities consider one of the best places in the world to view the August eclipse will be at Alderney because the central line of the eclipse path is just north of the northerly tip of the island.

To celebrate the eclipse, Alderney will issue an attractive set of six stamps on April 27, 1999. A seventh stamp-like label completes the Alderney souvenir sheet.

The stamps, which will be in 20p, 25p, 30p, 38p, 44p, and 64p values, show an eclipse in a beautiful graphic progression of stamps as it moves from a small bite out of the sun at 10:15 am through Baily's Beads to the full eclipse, the Diamond Ring, and back to normality as the final bite disappears. The label completes the sequence showing the moon obscuring just the bottom left portion of the sun. The border of the sheet uses a satellite image to show the path of the eclipse in relation to capital cities across Europe.

Alderney is expecting to have a flood of visitors to watch the eclipse. Many of them will attend a special conference arranged by Great Britain's Royal Astronomical Society, on the neighboring island of Guernsey. The conference participants will make the short trip by ferry to Alderney for the heavenly sight.

Hungary issued its special souvenir sheet to commemorate the eclipse on February 11, and, like the Alderney sheet, it is rather unique. It has a single stamp in the center of the sheet, and a silver film runs through it. Border information includes a map of Eastern Europe and data about the eclipse. The stamp has a 1999 forint value (about $8.80 U.S.), and there are several images that are only visible under ultraviolet light. The images include 12 glowing orange symbolic suns based on two folk-art motifs.

Both stamp souvenir sheets are excellent scientific learning devices from which amateurs and experts can discover much about a spectacular total eclipse.

As Alderney and Hungary prepare for the show of the summer, these stamp sheets will be popular because of their vivid depiction of special features or phases of an eclipse. First Day Covers, presentation packs, post cards, and other stamp materials will be sought after by collectors as well as astronomers.

Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.

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