The United States Postal Service’s Total Eclipse of the Sun stamp is the collaboration of several interested voices, according to Antonio Alcalá, the stamp’s art director for the USPS.
The stamp was issued in June in anticipation of the August 21 eclipse, which will travel the length of the United States from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeastern Seaboard.
On June 20, the Summer Solstice, the USPS issued a first-ever stamp with changeable ink. The forever stamp, currently sold at 49 cents and forever valid for first-class domestic mail, has a darkened orb — such as an eclipsed sun — but when heated (such as under a thumb) turns into the face of the moon.
The stamp uses thermochromic ink to create its special effect. The dark, round image of the eclipse on the stamp transforms into the illuminated moon from the heat of a finger. The image turns black again when it cools. This is the first time such ink has been used on a U.S. stamp, according to the Postal Service.
The Postal Service warns that thermochromic inks are vulnerable to UV light and should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible to preserve this special effect.
The forever stamp is issued in a pane of 16. Alcalá of Alexandria, Virginia, designed the stamp. The stamp features a photograph of an eclipse taken by Fred “Mr. Eclipse” Espenak on March 29, 2006 in Jalu, Libya. Espenak, of Portal, Arizona, is a retired NASA astrophysicist and is considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on total solar eclipses with 27 under his belt.
“I’m honored to have my images on this unique stamp,” Espenak said. “But more importantly, the stamp will spread the news about America’s great eclipse to many more people than I could ever reach,” said Espenak, who began collecting eclipse stamps after witnessing his first as a teenager. “A total eclipse of the sun is simply the most beautiful, stunning and awe-inspiring astronomical event you can see with the naked eye.”
On the back of the pane is a map of the United States showing the path of totality, those places where the sun will be completely blocked as the moon passes between it and Earth. “The 70-mile-wide shadow path of the eclipse, known as the path of totality, will traverse the country diagonally, appearing first in Oregon (mid-morning local time) and exiting some 2,500 miles east and 90 minutes later off the coast of South Carolina (mid-afternoon local time),” the pane says.
Major cities in the path that are identified on the map are Salem, Oregon; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; Lincoln, Nebraska.; Kansas City, Kansas.; St. Louis, Missouri.; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charleston, South Carolina.
We asked Alcalá a few questions about creating the stamp and the pane.
When did you start working on this stamp?
Can you give us any background on how an eclipse stamp came to be? Did a specific group or groups promote it through Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee? Was it a CSAC idea?
It was a combination of both CSAC and USPS interest in the event based on our research.
Please tell us how and when this unique printing concept came about? Who suggested it?
I was investigating various ways to represent the eclipse on a stamp while simultaneously exploring different printing techniques. I suggested thermochromic ink as a way to represent the event in a way that would engage the public and also provide educational content. USPS supported this idea and printing technique from the moment it was first proposed.
Which came first, the concept of thermochromic ink or Mr. Espenak’s images?
As mentioned, I was exposed to the images and the printing technique as a possibility fairly simultaneously.
How did the testing (or trial and error) phase go? Did the stamp work as expected immediately or did adjustments have to be made? If so, what kind of adjustments?
There was a bit of testing to gauge how much ink to lay over the moon image to get the desired effect.
Were there any specific challenges in the printing process involving this special ink?
Though it wasn’t really a challenge, the printing of the underlying image and the thermochromic disc happened at two different locations.
What kind of imagery did Mr. Espenak supply?
Mr. Espenak provided a high resolution electronic file of the image shown on the stamp.
The stamp has the wording in a tone of white. Was there any thought to use a different color, especially with white as the dominant color of the sun’s corona?
No, I did not consider a different color. In part, I envisioned this stamp as a companion to the previously released stamps featuring the planets and Pluto. Therefore, I used the same format. But I also think the type is quite legible without being intrusive.
Is there anything else interesting you would like to share about this stamp?
I’m thrilled that it turned out so well. The stamp is exactly as originally envisioned. A real success!