The Magician
and the Eclipse

30 May 2019

John Nevil Maskelyne was a stage magician of the 1800s. He developed many illusions that are still performed today, perhaps most famously the first trick of levitation. But perhaps his best trick was to capture a total solar eclipse.

In addition to magic, Maskelyne had an interest in film. Like an elaborate illusion, early moving pictures required careful planning and skill. Most captured film required bright lighting and stationary cameras, and even then the results could be inconsistent. But Maskalyne was determined to capture a solar eclipse.

He first tried in India in 1898, and was successful. But his film was stolen on the journey home. He was successful again in North Carolina in 1900. But early film is fragile and decays easily. It was long thought that Maskelyne’s film had been lost to history. But recently the British Film Institute release a restored version of the film.

Like many early films, it is jerky and often out of focus. But it is the first astronomical movie ever made. A bit of astronomical magic, captured by a Victorian magician.