The British Film Institute (BFI) and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) have announced the rediscovery of the earliest known moving picture of a total solar eclipse from 1900. The original fragments of the movie were in the possession of the RAS and had to be scanned and restored by experts, but it is now possible to watch the footage in glorious 4K.
The video shows the culminant moments of the solar eclipse that occurred on May 28, 1900, when the Moon completely covered the Sun. It was filmed in North Carolina by English magician and inventor Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne had previously photographed the total solar eclipse of 1898 in India, but his films were stolen on his way back to England.
"It's wonderful to see events from our scientific past brought back to life," Professor Mike Cruise, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, said in the announcement. "Astronomers are always keen to embrace new technology, and our forerunners a century ago were no exception. These scenes of a total solar eclipse – one of the most spectacular sights in astronomy – are a captivating glimpse of Victorian science in action."
Maskelyne himself lived an interesting and colorful life; he’s also known as the first hacker. He was a public detractor of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless radio. In 1903, Maskelyne hacked into a live demonstration by Marconi of a long-range wireless communication using Morse code, which he had assured was a “secure and private communication”.
Maskelyne was an early adopter of cinema and film for his magic shows, and he had a clear talent for inventing and improving technology. In preparation for the eclipse, he had to make a special telescopic adapter for his camera to capture the extraordinary event.
“Film, like magic combines both art and science," Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator explained. "This is a story about magic; magic and art and science and film and the blurred lines between them.
"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. Harnessing 21st-century technical magic, this 19th-century attraction has been reanimated. Maskelyne wanted a novelty to show at his magic theatre, what better than the most impressive natural phenomenon of them all.”
The film is now part of the recently released Victorian Film collection at the BFI.