Next to rare comets that stay in the sky for days, few other celestial phenomena have invited awe and superstition than a total solar eclipse. Every culture has a myth for the semi-rare event and although it’s no longer a mystery by today’s standards, it’s still something that people want to capture on film today. Much more, then, in the 19th century when things weren’t as advanced as they are now. That is why the rediscovery of the first ever total solar eclipse recorded on film is making quite a fuss among astronomers, filmmakers, and even magicians.
We might take the recording of a solar eclipse for granted today but, almost a millennia ago, that was almost impossible. Not only did one need special equipment that could take on the burning light of the sun, one actually has to be there where the eclipse would be in totality. That’s why British magician Nevil Maskelyne crossed the Atlantic to record the 1900 total solar eclipse in North Carolina.
You might wonder what a magician would be doing recording a solar eclipse but, just as it is today, the lines between stage magic and advancements in cinematography are somewhat blurred. But there was another reason why Maskelyne took great pains to record the event. He saw himself as a “scientific investigator” and was, like many other people, intrigued by eclipses. Combining these interests, he wanted to show how the nascent cinematograph of that period could be used for such scientific purposes.
More then just its historical significance, the rediscovery and restoration of Maskelyne’s film is critical considering it’s the second time he recorded an eclipse. Maskelyne traveled to India in 1898 to photograph an eclipse but the film can was stolen, never to surface ever again.
The original 1900 film is housed in the Royal Astronomical Society’s archive and has been restored in 4K by the British Film Institute (BFI) National archive. This footage is also the only film made by Maskelyne that is known to have survived the test of time.