Looking Back

Padre Faura’s eclipse

Monday morning in Tokyo I went to the car park of a nearby hotel to join people waiting for the solar eclipse scheduled for 7:30 a.m. (Japan time). Spring with its variable weather isn’t the best time for viewing a solar eclipse but after a brief rain the clouds cleared, providing the cheering crowd an opportunity to see an annular eclipse last seen in Okinawa in 1987. Eclipses are not visible throughout the globe and the annular eclipse of May 21 was eagerly awaited, the likes of which was last seen in Tokyo 137 years ago, in Osaka 282 years ago, and in Nagoya 932 years ago.

Some people ignored the warning not to look directly at the sun to avoid retina burn. I did not have proper viewing glasses and expected to just see the city go dark or catch the reflection of the eclipse on a tranquil pond in a nearby Zen garden. Fortunately, professional photographers had set up their equipment, and I caught the eclipse on their camera viewfinders: One had the eclipse obscured by cloud, the other, who came prepared with the proper lens filters, had images that looked like those on the front pages of newspapers next day. This being Japan, one man was kind enough to lend me his glasses, so I saw how the moon covered the sun and created a crescent. Later, the moon made a black disk outlined by an eerie glowing orange rim. An annular eclipse shows a ring of fire. I brought my iPod and watched the remainder of the eclipse reflected on its black surface.


When I returned home I remembered Fr. Federico Faura, SJ (1840-1897), the first and most famous director of the Manila Observatory, that was once located in Ermita (hence the naming of the busy street everyone now knows as “Padre Faura”). On Aug. 18, 1868, a total solar eclipse was to be seen in Celebes, so three Jesuits from the Manila Observatory sailed off. But they could not reach the designated viewing site on time. Nevertheless, Faura and his companions set up their equipment on an island called Mantawalok-kiki on the path of the eclipse and made observations that were accepted and later published in Europe.

What is not that well known is that the Manila Observatory had its truly humble beginnings in a pigeon coop in the old Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros. Its founder was a Jesuit scholastic named Francisco Colina who spent his free time taking notes on the weather from home-made equipment. In Horacio de la Costa’s “Light Cavalry,” he described how a Jesuit scholastic, Jaime Nonell, discovered Colina’s observatory after a typhoon devastated Manila in September 1865. Colina gave Nonell a tour of the abandoned pigeon house equipped with the following scientific instruments: A hygrometer to measure moisture in the environment or humidity was a homemade “tiny contraption consisting principally of hair”; to measure temperature, there was “a household thermometer doing its best to look scientific”; a barometer to measure atmospheric pressure consisted of “a glass siphon filled with an oily liquid of sickly hue”; and finally an anemometer to measure wind speed and direction was “a rag fluttering from a length of twine.”


Nonell and Colina published their observations on the 1865 typhoon in the Diario de Manila and the Jesuits were requested to compile weather data to provide better knowledge of typhoons and minimize loss to life and property. Thus was born the Observatorio del Ateneo Municipal in 1865. To replace Colina’s primitive equipment, an order was placed in Europe for the Secchi Universal Meteograph, invented by the Jesuit Angelo Secchi, director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. It arrived in 1869 in Manila, disassembled without a user’s manual, yet Padre Faura was able to put the contraption together in three days.

Analyzing the collected weather data of a decade, Padre Faura predicted the approach of a typhoon that hit the country on July 7, 1879. This became, historically, the first official typhoon warning in this part of the world. Faura also warned people of another typhoon that struck in November 1879. Typhoon bulletins were thenceforth issued by the Manila Observatory from 1879 to 1945.

In 1884, the Spanish government designated the Observatorio del Ateneo Municipal as the official weather forecasting authority and renamed it the Observatorio Meteorologico de Manila. This lasted until Spain sold the Philippines to the United States in 1898. In 1901, the Americans recognized the work of the Manila Observatory and designated it as the weather bureau until it was destroyed during the war in 1945. After the war, the Philippine government established its own weather bureau that we know today under the name given it in 1971 as Pagasa (hope). The acronym is for Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, which is presently under the Department of Science and Technology. The Jesuit-run Manila Observatory (MO) is still alive and kicking in the Ateneo de Manila University campus in Loyola Heights, Quezon City, and continues its mission to study weather and seismic data. Its website is user-friendly and is worth a visit, which reminds me that I must drop in on the MO one day to see its historical records of typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions for future columns.

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