Watch The 1900 Total Solar Eclipse In The Oldest Surviving Astro Movie

Total solar eclipse over North Carolina 1900

Who knew? This recording of a May 28, 1900 total solar eclipse is believed to be the first surviving astronomical film in the world. The clip, captured by the British magician and film maker John Nevil Maskelyne, was recently rediscovered in the archive of the Royal Astronomical Society. Maskelyne accompanied the British Astronomical Association’s (BAA) expedition to Wadesboro, North Carolina, and set up his specialty camera to capture the minute-and-a-half of totality. The result is truly impressive for the time given that the oldest surviving film of any kind harkens from 1888, just 12 years prior.

Members of British Astronomical Association expedition to Wadesboro, NC ready their telescopes and cameras for the eclipse. Is Maskelyne in this photo? He would have been 60 at the time. UNC-Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive, UNC Wilson Library 

Conservation experts at the British Film Institute (BFI) scanned and reworked the footage frame by frame into a 4k video to include in their Victorian film collection. It was not Maskelyne’s first attempt at recording an eclipse. He successfully filmed the January 1898 eclipse in India, but the footage was stolen during the return trip to England. Maskelyne co-ran a magic theater in London, wrote books on the art and worked ceaselessly to expose claims of fraudulent “supernatural” powers that spiritualists used to communicate with the dead. He was the inventor of the popular levitation illusion that’s still performed by magicians to this day.

John Maskelyne (left) was an English magician and inventor. Thomas Smillie of the Smithsonian Institution expedition to North Carolina captured an image of the sun’s corona on that day using a large, glass-plate negative. At the time, the photo was considered a major scientific and photographic achievement. Smithsonian Institute Archives (right)

I’m amazed for all the eclipse film shows. You can see the diamond-ring effect, several prominences around the edge of the sun (at 7 and 8 o’clock) and the inner corona. And all this nearly 102 years ago. Maskelyne didn’t go to all the trouble of traveling to North Carolina just along for the fun of it. Well, maybe a little. He was motived by the desire to show how the early movie cameras could be used to advance scientific understanding, according to the BFI. He also wanted to add this rare novelty to his shows at his magic theater.

For all we know Maskelyne envisioned the eclipse as a classic now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t magic trick performed by the greatest magician of them all — nature.

2 Responses

  1. kevan hubbard

    A small world!I think that box like square solar telescope was the one I saw in April when I went to a display of the the Sun that the science museum had in London.i wonder if I have the smallest solar telescope on the planet as I’ve fitted my Zeiss 5×10 mini quick monocular with a solar filter.

    1. astrobob

      Cool, Kevin. That’s a tiny one! The only one smaller I can think of is the human eye with a filter.

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