Long-Lost First Movie of a Solar Eclipse Found, Restored

In May, 1900, British magician Nevil Maskelyne, Jr., travelled to North Carolina in the United States to observe and attempt to photograph the total eclipse of the Sun on May 28th of that year.  Maskelyne was the son of John Nevil Maskelyne, a celebrated magician who was also the inventor of the pay toilet.  (Neither should be confused with the unrelated Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth British Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811.)  Solar eclipses had been photographed before, with the first completely successful photograph taken of the eclipse of 1851-07-28, but Maskelyne wanted to take the next step and make a motion picture of the eclipse.  He used a camera with a telescopic adapter developed by his father, which he had previously attempted to use to photograph the eclipse of 1898-01-22, but his film was stolen during the return to Britain so we’ll never know what it contained.

The film from the 1900 eclipse was stunning.  I have photographed four total solar eclipses (1999, 2001, 2008, and 2010), and even with modern equipment, dealing with the rapid and dramatic changes in light level in the seconds before and after totality is very challenging.  However Maskelyne managed to do it (nothing is known about his equipment or technique), the result was a total success, which was shown in British theatres.  The film disappeared shortly after its theatrical presentation and was believed to have been lost for over a century.  In 2018, a copy (it is unknown whether this was the original or a print) was found in the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society, whose curator did not know what it was, and upon consultation with the British Film Institute’s (BFI) curator of silent films, it was identified as the Maskelyne eclipse film.  The BFI’s conservators re-photographed the original celluloid film onto 35 millimetre film, which was then digitally scanned and restored as a 4K video.  Here is the restored film.  It is embedded here as a smaller video: click on “Watch on YouTube” to watch in full resolution.

Now, as eclipse videos go, this isn’t a competitor for those made recently, but it is one hundred and nineteen years old, the first successful attempt to make a movie of totality, and shows all of the principal phenomena of an eclipse including the diamond ring, Baily’s beads, inner and middle corona, and prominences.  It is a heck of a lot better than any movie I have made of totality.  It may taken the sleight of hand, sense of timing, and iron nerves of a master stage magician to adjust the exposure so precisely as the events of the eclipse unfolded—I know I could not hope to do it.

The Maskelynes were a creative family: Nevil’s son, Jasper Maskelyne, was the third generation of stage magicians in the family and, after joining the Royal Engineers after the outbreak of World War II, consulted during the war on camouflage and deception to aid British forces.

Here is an article from Atlas Obscura with additional details about the movie and its restoration.  This is the press release [PDF] from the BFI announcing the release of the restored film.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

8 thoughts on “Long-Lost First Movie of a Solar Eclipse Found, Restored”

  1. The experience of a total eclipse is literally other worldly. Like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Wow, is an understatement.

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  2. That is an amazing video. There is something moving at seeing an astronomical event which happened over a hundred years ago.

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  3. John, the United States lost a national treasure when you left.  This is extraordinary!

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  4. It’s fascinating how these artifacts from the dawn of film making manage to survive the ravages of time and circumstance.  (Here I’m thinking of Nosferatu, all copies of which were ordered destroyed by a German court at the behest of Bram Stoker’s widow. I guess she figured if her old man couldn’t make any money off his damn book, then neither were a bunch of Teutonic rip-off artists. As it turned out, they didn’t: Prana-Film spent so lavishly  marketing their Dracula knockoff, they were bankrupt before opening night.)

    Another lunar themed movie reclaimed  from the ash heap of history is George Melies’ 1902 magnum opus, A Trip to the Moon, an original hand-tinted version of which was discovered in Barcelona in 1993. Eventually, it was restored and transfered to more durable media. The results may be viewed on YouTube. 


    Yeah, I know it looks like the 50 year class reunion at Hogwarts, but that’s just an unhappy coincidence.
     

     

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  5. Ace Fungo:
    It’s fascinating how these artifacts from the dawn of film making manage to survive the ravages of time and circumstance.

    According to the Atlas Obscura article, at least 80% of the films from the early 1900s have been lost.  Contributing to this is the fact that most (including this eclipse movie) were made and printed on nitrocellulose-based (celluloid) film, which was highly flammable.  If heated to 150° C, which can easily happen if the film stops feeding in an arc-light based theatre projector, it essentially explodes into flame and, providing its own oxygen, will even continue to burn even underwater.  Projection rooms were lined with asbestos to keep film fires from spreading.  The London Underground forbade the transport of movies until acetate-based safety film became standard in the 1950s.

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  6. Marvelous as the achievement capturing the first motion picture of an eclipse was, I think it takes second to the time Nevil Maskelyne hacked a public demonstration by Guglielmo Marconi:

    “It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. Marconi had patented a technology for tuning a wireless transmitter to broadcast on a precise wavelength. This tuning, Marconi claimed, meant confidential channels could be set up. Anyone who tunes in to a radio station will know that’s not true, but it wasn’t nearly so obvious back then. Maskelyne showed that by using an untuned broadband receiver he could listen in.

    “Having established interception was possible, Maskelyne wanted to draw more attention to the technology’s flaws, as well as showing interference could happen. So he staged his Royal Institution hack by setting up a simple transmitter and Morse key at his father’s nearby West End music hall.

    “The facetious messages he sent could easily have been jumbled with those Marconi himself sent from Cornwall, ruining both had they arrived simultaneously. Instead, they drew attention to a legitimate flaw in the technology – and the only damage done was to the egos of Marconi and Fleming.

    “Fleming continued to bluster for weeks in the newspapers about Maskelyne’s assault being an insult to science. Maskelyne countered that Fleming should focus on the facts. “I would remind Professor Fleming that abuse is no argument,” he replied.

    “In the present day, many hackers end up highlighting flawed technologies and security lapses just like Maskelyne. A little mischief has always had its virtues.”

     

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