Watch a 124-Year-Old Video of a Solar Eclipse

The clip of the solar eclipse, recorded by a magician in 1900, could be the oldest footage of an astronomical event ever filmed.
An early photograph for a total solar eclipse.
An early photograph for a total solar eclipse. / Historical/GettyImages

On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will cast its shadow across a huge swath of the U.S. Today, eclipses are highly photographed events, but a century ago, filming one required careful planning and hard-to-obtain equipment. In 1900, a British magician named John Nevil Maskelyne managed to capture the rare phenomenon, and now that footage is available to view online.

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.

John Nevil Maskelyne.
John Nevil Maskelyne. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When a solar eclipse was set to appear over the United States in 1900, he went to North Carolina to attempt to capture the phenomenon. 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.”

A version of this story was published in 2019; it has been updated for 2024.

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