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Solar Magic

While standing in a somewhat alien landscape called North Carolina (perhaps, at least to him) on May 28, 1900, Nevil Maskelyne probably thought of his artistic predecessors.  The British magician knew that, just a century or so earlier, many people still thought a solar eclipse was an omen.  But, for people like Maskelyne, an eclipse was the grandest trick of all – even if it was a natural phenomenon and not sleight of hand.  And, in 1900, Maskelyne had a new device that he could surely add to his chest of magic: a celluloid camera.

Now, more than a century later, Maskelyne’s short film of that extraordinary celestial event has been digitally scanned and preserved in a collaboration between the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the British Film Institute (BFI).  Simply titled “Solar Eclipse”, it is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving astronomical film.

As a practicing magician, it’s no surprise Maskelyne realized the potential moving pictures bore, even at the dawn of the 20th century.  He recognized the possibilities for both entertainment and education.  His own interest in astronomy had led him to the RAS, where he became a fellow and traveled to North Carolina with an expedition to view – and record – the eclipse.

Viewing the eclipse – as people had done for millennia – was simple.  But recording it with this new technology was not.  The intuitive Maskelyne, however, didn’t let that deter him.  Perhaps foreseeing the difficulty, he had designed a special lens attachment called a cinematograph telescope.

“He had previously taken out a patent for engineering equipment, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he may have developed his own camera to capture this event,” said Bryony Dixon, BFI curator of silent film.  But as the original British Astronomical Society report about the film doesn’t mention whether Maskelyne used a camera of his own invention to shoot the eclipse, “it’s something we’ll probably never know for sure.”

Despite the challenge, Maskelyne was still able to capture the exposure changes that occur throughout an eclipse.

“The diamond ring effect of the corona at totality* affects the exposure of the image,” Dixon said.  “Maskelyne was able to change the exposure and camera aperture as the event occurred, tracing the gradual fading of the corona in increasing sunlight.”

After capturing the eclipse, Maskelyne screened the film for the Royal Astronomical Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly – London’s most popular magic stage at the time – as part of a larger program of magic illusionist acts.

In 2018 RAS archivists handed the film over to preservationists at the BFI, where they began the delicate process of digitalizing it.  Each frame had to be meticulously and carefully copied onto 35mm film.

Although at only one minute long and in scratchy black and white, “Solar Eclipse” is yet another one of those rare treasures of early cinema; a moment that puts you back in time, more than a century ago, when the new medium of film held the promise of a new world of surprise and…well, magic.  A door between the “old world” and a new century had opened.

*This refers to the “path of totality”, which is the track of the umbra (the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object) on the Earth’s surface during a total eclipse.

See also: “Three Generations of Maskelyne Magicians”.

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