See the Very First Solar Eclipse Captured on Film: A Magical Moment in Science and Filmmaking (1900)

The “con­quest of space,” so to speak—the human under­stand­ing of and trav­el to the cosmos—has come about through a suc­ces­sion of great sci­en­tif­ic minds, as well as some of the most inter­est­ing and accom­plished peo­ple all around. We nev­er seem to tire of learn­ing about their devo­tion to math­e­mat­ics, physics, med­i­cine, and sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery writ as large as pos­si­ble. But some­times the con­quest of space has required the unique tal­ents of magi­cians. From the ancient mages who excit­ed human imag­i­na­tion about the stars for thou­sands of years, to alchemists like Isaac New­ton and beyond.

Wit­ness the strange career of Mar­vel White­side Par­sons, bet­ter known as Jack Par­sons: sci-fi fanat­ic, occultist, dis­ci­ple of Aleis­ter Crow­ley, and one­time mag­i­cal part­ner of L. Ron Hub­bard. Par­sons is most famous for found­ing the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­to­ry, the research cen­ter that pow­ers NASA. Then we have magi­cian Nevil Maskelyne—son of magi­cian John Nevil Maske­lyne, and pos­si­ble descen­dent, so he said, of the fifth British Roy­al Astronomer, “also named Nevil Maske­lyne,” writes Jason Daley at Smith­son­ian. Maske­lyne the very much younger doc­u­ment­ed the first total solar eclipse ever cap­tured on film.

Grant­ed, he was a stage magi­cian, not a fol­low­er of “The Great Beast 666.” Maske­lyne’s inter­est in show­man­ship and spec­ta­cle drew him not to sex mag­ic but to film­mak­ing and astron­o­my, inter­ests he com­bined when he made the first film ever of a total solar eclipse. Nowa­days, mil­lions of peo­ple have the means to make such a film in their pock­et, pro­vid­ed they have a good view of the infre­quent cos­mic event (and do not ever look at it direct­ly). In 1900, when Maske­lyne under­took the chal­lenge, film­mak­ing was just emerg­ing from infan­cy into tod­dler­hood.

The Lumière broth­ers, often cred­it­ed as the first film­mak­ers, had held their first pub­lic screen­ing only five years ear­li­er. They called their ear­ly pro­duc­tions actu­al­ités, essen­tial­ly “real­i­ty films.” Some of these, like the leg­endary L’ar­rivée d’un train en gare de La Cio­tat, famous­ly shocked and ter­ri­fied audi­ences out of their seats. In 1900, film was still a kind of mag­ic, and “like mag­ic,” says Bry­ony Dixon, cura­tor at the British Film Insti­tute (BFI), film “com­bines both art and sci­ence.” The sto­ry of Maskelyne’s achieve­ment is “a sto­ry about mag­ic.”

Maskelyne’s love for film inspired in him a pas­sion for astron­o­my as well, and he even­tu­al­ly became a fel­low of the Roy­al Astro­nom­i­cal Soci­ety. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, his first cin­e­mat­ic con­tri­bu­tion to the field dis­ap­peared, nev­er to be seen again. Two years before he shot the footage above from the ground in North Car­oli­na on May 28, 1900, on a ven­ture fund­ed by the British Astro­nom­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, Maske­lyne trav­eled to India to doc­u­ment a sim­i­lar event. The film can­nis­ter was stolen on his return trip home

But he had learned what he need­ed to, hav­ing designed “a spe­cial tele­scop­ic adapter for a movie cam­era,” just as he and his father had ear­li­er improved upon the film pro­jec­tor by build­ing their own. Maske­lyne had his spec­ta­cle. He showed the film in his the­ater, and the Roy­al Astro­nom­i­cal Soci­ety ensured that we could see it almost 120 years lat­er by archiv­ing a minute of the footage. Thanks to a part­ner­ship between the British Film Insti­tute and the RAS, the film has been restored, dig­i­tized in 4K res­o­lu­tion, and made freely avail­able online as part of a trove of Vic­to­ri­an-era films” just released by the BFI.

While thou­sands, maybe mil­lions, of dif­fer­ent mov­ing images of 2017’s solar eclipse exist on social media accounts, of this event 120 years ago there has exist­ed only one. Now that brief moment in time can reach mil­lions of peo­ple in an instant, and exist in an infi­nite num­ber of per­fect copies, a phe­nom­e­non that might have seemed in 1900 like an advanced form of mag­ic.

via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Moons, Moons, They’re Every­where. The Unex­pect­ed Shad­ows of the Solar Eclipse

Last Night’s Solar Eclipse in a 60-Sec­ond, 700-Pic­ture Time­lapse Video

Solar Eclipse Seen From Out­er Space

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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