Magician Films Solar Eclipse – in 1900

Glorious solar eclipse videos proliferate the Internet. Taken by accomplished professional and amateur solar astronomers, the videos are imaged using dedicated solar telescopes and the latest astro imaging technology.

However, one of the first videos of a solar eclipse was filmed by a magician, yet it was no sleight of hand. On 28 May, 1900 Nevil Maskelyne, a British magician and inventor, filmed a total solar eclipse on an expedition sponsored by The British Astronomical Association. He traveled to North Carolina, which had been had deemed by scientists at the time as the best location to view the eclipse.

Magician Films Solar Eclipse – in 1900It was not an easy feat to film. Maskelyne had to make a special telescopic adapter for his camera to capture the event. This is the only film by Maskelyne that known to have survived. Two year earlier, he travelled to India to photograph an eclipse and succeeded in doing so but the film was stolen on his return journey home.

The original film fragment held in The Royal Astronomical Society’s archive has been painstakingly scanned and restored in 4K by conservation experts at the BFI National Archive, who have reassembled and retimed the film frame by frame. The film is part of BFI Player’s Victorian Film collection. With the restoration of the film, we can now experience the first film of a solar eclipse originally captured over a century ago.

You can see the film footage at the end of this article.

Maskelyne ultimately wasn’t well known for filming the eclipse. He did, however, become famous as the first “hacker” in history.

To flesh out the story, it helps to know that Guglielmo Marconi was the first person to use electromagnetic waves to transmit what is now considered the first wireless telegraphic message. He used electromagnetic waves to represent the dashes and dots of the Morse code and wireless telegraphy was born. Marconi promoted the technology as a safe way to send messages privately.

Maskelyne was also an inventor and was interested in wireless technology. And he decided to play a very public trick on his rival.

On June 1, 1903, Marconi conducted an experiment for the public at the Royal Institution in London, where the physicist John Ambroise Fleming received a message in Morse code from Marconi that was sent distance of around 300 miles, an astounding accomplishment at the time. Unknown to Marconi or Fleming, Maskelyne had “hacked” the signal.

The word “Rats” appeared over and over in Morse code while Marconi was preparing for the broadcast. And it didn’t stop there, as comical missives were sent through the system deriding Marconi and his technology. It was a very public affair and very embarrassing for Marconi.

So there you have it, Maskelyne was not only the world’s first to video a solar eclipse, he was also the world’s first hacker.

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