On July 2, 2019, the first total solar eclipse since 2017 will be visible over parts of South America and the South Pacific. Today eclipses are highly photographed events, but a century ago, filming one required careful planning and hard-to-obtain equipment. In 1900, a magician named Nevil Maskelyne managed to capture the rare phenomenon, and now for the first time, that footage is available to view online, Smithsonian reports.
Solar eclipses, which happen when the Moon appears to block out the Sun from certain places on Earth, have been inspiring terror and awe in people for centuries. For most of history, the only way to witness one was to stand within the path of visibility during a specific timeframe. Maskelyne may have been the first person to record the event and show it to a wider audience.
As a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a co-manager of London's oldest magic theater, Maskelyne spent a lot of time working in the area where magic, science, and technology intersect. In 1898, he traveled to India to film a total solar eclipse with a telescopic movie camera he had rigged himself. That may have been the first footage of a solar eclipse ever recorded, but his film was stolen on the return trip.
Another solar eclipse was set to appear over the United States in 1900, so he went to North Carolina to attempt to capture the phenomenon a second time. His project was a success, and the one-minute clip was likely screened at the Egyptian Hall magic theater he ran in London. The film has been stored in the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society ever since.
After rediscovering the historic footage, the Royal Astronomical Society teamed up with conservationists at the British Film Institute National Archive to digitize and restore it. The video has been uploaded into BFI Player's Victorian Film collection, and it's also available to view on YouTube.
The clip contains not only the oldest surviving moving images of a solar eclipse, but possibly of any astronomical event. BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon said in a press release, "Film, like magic, combines both art and science. 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, [the] only known surviving film by Maskelyne, has reappeared now."
You can watch the full video below.