In August 2017, viewers captured so many images and films of the total solar eclipse in the United States that UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory stitched over 50,000 of them into one giant “Megamovie.” But back in 1900, when a similar eclipse crossed the U.S., there was only person pointing their movie camera at the sky. Now, the Royal Astronomical Society has rediscovered that oldest surviving eclipse footage, restoring the 120-year-old film and putting it online for the first time.
Surprisingly, the eclipse wasn’t captured by a professional astronomer but a famous magician, Nevil Maskelyne, who along with a partner ran the Egyptian Hall, London’s oldest magic theater, according to Meghan Bartels at Space.com. Maskelyne was an early film buff and amateur astronomer. In fact, magic and astronomy ran in his blood. His father was John Nevil Maskelyne, also a magician and early film pioneer, who claimed to be the descendent of the fifth British Astronomer Royal, also named Nevil Maskelyne.
In the late 19th Century, the emerging technology of film or “living images” became popular side attractions at magic theaters. The Maskelyne’s even used film in some of their magic tricks and began making their own movies. The father and son designed their own version of an early movie projector to reduce the flicker that plagued other machines. Maskelyne was also an early pioneer of slow-motion film, and at one point, Britain’s War Office enlisted his help to analyze artillery shells in flight.
Nevil Maskelyne’s obsession with film eventually combined with his enthusiasm for astronomy, a passion which led him to become a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Maskelyne was keen to show that new technologies, like film, could be used to aid in scientific research. He decided to film a total solar eclipse, designing a special telescopic adapter for a movie camera, according to Lisa Grossman at Science News. In 1898 he travelled to India and succeeded in filming a total eclipse there. However, the Royal Astronomical Society writes in a press release, that film canister was stolen on the trip home, and the film was never seen again.
Undeterred, in 1900 Maskelyne journeyed to North Carolina, funded by the British Astronomical Association, to capture the eclipse of May 28. He successfully completed his observation and got the film home safely. Maskelyne likely showed the footage at his theater, and a one-minute fragment of the event ended up in the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society, which began collecting astrophotography images in the 1870s.
“Maskelyne wanted a novelty to show at his magic theatre, what better than the most impressive natural phenomenon of them all,” Bryony Dixon, a silent film curator at the British Film Institute (BFI), says in the press release.
The film is the earliest known movie of an astronomical event and the only surviving film by Maskelyne. The Royal Astronomical Society partnered with the BFI to restore each frame of the film and scanned it at 4K resolution, creating the digital version released online.
“Film, like magic combines both art and science. This is a story about magic; magic and art and science and film and the blurred lines between them,” Dixon says. “Early film historians have been looking for this film for many years. Like one of his elaborate illusions, it’s exciting to think that this only known surviving film by Maskelyne, has reappeared now.”
The film is available online as part of a trove of Victorian-era films released by the BFI. It was also shown today at the Royal Astronomical Society headquarters as part of celebrations surrounding the centennial of a 1919 solar eclipse.
While the film secures Maskelyne a place in history as the first astro-filmmaker, he’s also known for another first. In 1903, Guglielmo Marconi was scheduled to give a demonstration of his newfangled radio, which he claimed could send Morse code messages securely over the airwaves. Before the event at the Royal Institution could begin, however, the radio picked up a Morse code message that said “Rats, Rats, Rats,” as well as a poem disparaging Marconi. Maskelyne, a radio tinkerer as well, had been paid by a telegraph company to learn how to interfere with the radio communication and embarrass Marconi, making the incident the first known technology hack. Sadly, Maskelyne didn’t also film Marconi’s reaction.