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Eclipse99 Tuesday, 17 August, 1999, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Safety in sight
total eclipse 300
Total solar eclipse of 3 November 1994
Special report
Special report
11 August
Seeing a total eclipse is a fantastic experience. But without proper preparation it can also be very dangerous to the eyes and vision.

No pain does not mean no damage

Viewing the partly-eclipsed Sun without protective equipment will result in a retinal burn.

Depending on how long the retina is exposed to the Sun, this injury may cause permanent damage to vision.

There is no pain when the retina is being burned, and the resulting visual symptoms do not occur until at least several hours after the injury has occurred - by which time it is far too late.

Eclipse-damaged retina
Eclipse-damaged retina

This photograph is the back of the eye of a man who viewed the partial solar eclipse of 1966 without eye protection. The arc-shaped scars are typical of an eclipse burn, and the vision in this eye has been reduced to 20/30 (6/9).
Retina burned by viewing an eclipse without protection
Viewing the eclipse unprotected rendered this man blind

This picture shows a more extreme form of solar retinopathy in the left eye of a young man who stared unprotected at a partial eclipse of the sun.

Several crescent-shaped burns can be seen in the central retina, and these have resulted in blindness in this eye, with his vision reduced to below 20/400 (6/120).

How can you view the eclipse safely?

Only when the Sun is completely covered by the Moon - at total eclipse - is it safe to look at the event without protection.

As soon as it reappears - producing the diamond ring effect - you must look away.

Totality will last for about two minutes, depending on your location on the eclipse path. However, for most people, only a partial eclipse will be visible, and although the sky will become very dark, it will not be safe to look at the Sun without proper equipment and viewing techniques.

The only totally safe way to watch a partial eclipse is by viewing it indirectly, using some form of projection.

Indirect viewing

Shoebox sunscope
The simplest form of eclipse watching

Most health professionals recommend the simple pinhole viewer. You can make this with a cardboard box or with two pieces of stiff card. Punch a tiny hole in one of the cards and, with your back to the Sun, hold the card up so that light falls through the hole, projecting an inverted image on to the other card. Do not look at the Sun through the pinhole.

Direct viewing

Many eclipse watchers may want to view the partly-eclipsed Sun directly.

Woman looking at eclipse with the naked eye
Viewing the partial eclipse in London in 1954 - how not to do it
Special eclipse viewers made of either aluminised polyester or a very dark polymer material are available but these cannot be guaranteed to be totally safe.

The filter material is usually mounted in a cardboard frame that can be worn on the head like eyeglasses, or held by hand in front of the eyes. Which design you use is a matter of personal preference, but viewers bearing the "CE" mark may be more safe. If you do choose to use a viewer, always follow the manufacturer's advice. A shade number 12, 13, or 14 welder's filter can also be used.

Don't use dangerous substitute filters

Materials that should not be used as solar filters include:

  • sunglasses
  • photographic neutral density filters
  • smoked glass
  • polarizing filters
  • compact discs
  • floppy disk media
  • black colour film
  • any black and white film negatives bearing images.

Children's safety

The spectacle-shaped viewers may be too large to be worn securely by children. While older children may wish to use eclipse viewers, children under 10 should only watch the partial eclipse on television, or with an indirect viewer. All children should be closely supervised while watching the eclipse.

In the path of darkness
A total eclipse is a beautiful sight to behold. Enjoy watching it safely.

This page has been written with advice from the Particle Physics And Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Department of Health, the BBC's Chief Medical Officer and Professor Ralph Chou, who also supplied the pictures.

Sources of Eclipse Viewers in the United Kingdom

Below is a list of manufacturers and retailers of eclipse viewing devices that were produced for the August 1999 event. Inclusion in this list is not an endorsement of their products, nor does omission from the list imply that viewing devices sold by an excluded source are unsuitable.

Eclipsedirect, Manders House, 16 Danford Way, Birmingham B43 5JL
Tel: 0121 6825629

Eclipse'99 Group Ltd., PO Box 111, Seaton, Devon EX12 3YH
Tel: 01297 680400

Eclipse 99 Ltd., Belle Etoile, Rue du Hamel, Castel Guernsey GY5 7QJ
Tel: 01481 64847

Eclipse Over Europe Ltd, PO Box 64, Exeter, EX2 8WS. Tel: 01392 495506. Email:

Light Line [U.K] LTD, Tregarland, Belmont St. Tywardreath, Par, Cornwall PL24 2PP
Tel: 01726 817577

Solashield, Bilberryhill, Buckfastleigh, Devon TQ11 0HD
Tel: 01364 643900

SunGard Eclipse Viewer, H. Martin Lock, 8, St. Smithwick Way, Port Pendennis, Cornwall TR11 3XU
Tel: 01326 212239

Swan Packaging Ltd., Unit 6, Princewood Road, Earlstrees Industrial Estate, Corby, Northants NN17 4AP
Tel: 01536 204272

This page was prepared for the 1999 total solar eclipse on 11 August. The next total eclipse can be seen across southern Africa on 21 June, 2001.

BBC News' Julia Peet: People still confused about eye safety (3/8/99)
The UK's Chief Medical Officer stresses the dangers of looking directly at the August 99 eclipse (29/7/99)
Links to more Eclipse99 stories are at the foot of the page.

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Links to more Eclipse99 stories

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