Eclipses! Magic! Toilets! A life lived to the full!

If you haven’t already seen it, take a look at this. It’s the first attested movie of a solar eclipse, filmed on May 28, 1900 in the US. It has been lovingly restored after languishing in the vaults of the Royal Astronomical Society. Shamingly, it’s about as clear as my own digital eclipse pics from the present century (see above).

Despite being a Fellow of the RAS, I first encountered this stunning film through a brief news story in Sky and Telescope magazine. It attributed it to “amateur astronomer and filmmaker John Nevil  Maskelyne.” Fair enough, but I could figuratively hear all British readers going “what??” at this point. Surely, they thought, there was an Astronomer Royal of (more or less) that name?

[What a pleasure btw to see that Sky and Telescope has been rescued from its owners’ financial travails by absorption into the American Astronomical Society, a highly appropriate home.]

Yes there was, the fifth Astronomer Royal was Nevil Maskeleyne, 1732-1811, AR from 1765 until his death. He is unfairly remembered as the enemy of John Harrison in the famous chronometer/longitude wars, but actually achieved much more.

His descendant was if anything an even more interesting character. According to a well-known online encyclopaedia, he invented the pay toilet. He worked as an illusionist and magician, and became in effect a founder of the skeptic movement, showing that no ethereal explanation was needed for the tricks that baffle stage audiences. At the time, plenty of distinguished scientists and experts believed in spiritual and magical powers. And as we see, he was a movie pioneer.

All in all, it strikes me that this Maskelyne is a steampunk novel waiting to be written. Anyone?

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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