At the time of the previous eclipse in summer 1999 we were on holiday in Norfolk. Our son was eight, and our daughter five -- perfect ages for a bit of home-made science magic. So, with the aid of a couple of kitchen stools, a mirror, a piece of white card and some sticky tape we rigged up an eclipse viewing station in the garden of our cottage. It worked!
I really enjoyed that aspect of being a father -- the endless improvised making of props and playthings with scissors and tape, whether it be an elaborate crawl-through tunnel of cardboard boxes or a carefully painted and fitted Power Rangers mask made from robust watercolour paper. It's a bit like being a primary school teacher with a class of two. Or perhaps more like home-schooling, where the only lesson is always Art & Craft. Putting up the occasional shelf or redecorating the bathroom just doesn't hit the same spot.
Something of that same spirit must have animated those early pre-astronomers who worked out the basic solar, lunar, and stellar patterns. I mean, for thousands of years you couldn't just look up in a calendar how long it was until spring, never mind when the next eclipse was due. In fact, it must have taken a while for someone to first figure out that there were regular cycles involved, and then even longer for someone to be bothered to work out exactly what they were. One of my earliest blog posts (Bloody Elves!, a good post, too) was a tribute to those odd souls who could be bothered to do the observational spadework that eventually meant that the rest of us could just look it up with confidence (at least, those who can be bothered to make even that minimal effort).
I imagine a field somewhere, where someone -- a minor princeling, perhaps, someone not entirely cut out for warfare, much derided, but oddly driven -- has decided to lay out a stick for each day that passes, perhaps aligning each stick with the point on the horizon where the sun rose that day. He has a sense that there is a pattern, but what? After a couple of years, rapidly running out of field, it strikes him that if he lays them in a circle, he only needs to do the job once. Bingo!
Next steps: he puts in a bid for funding for a permanent version -- maybe some large imported stones would be nice? -- and charges the rest of the tribe fat fees for bespoke predictions from version 2.0; spring, start of the raiding season, Black Friday, and so on. He is no longer much derided, and starts wearing an especially idiotic hat, just because he can, and begins planning a massive and profitable franchise operation: Solar Solutions. The rest, as they say, is history.
Many moons, many sticks...