How science hit the small screen

Films of Fact

Science Museum, London From 29 May to 2 November 2008.

Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television by Timothy Boon Wallflower Press: 2008. 224 pp. £45.00 (hbk), £16.99 (pbk)

Comic chemistry: Rotha's 1938 New Worlds for Old. Credit: © NATIONAL GRID PLC; SUPPLIED BY THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE

“Is it not a scandal, in this day and age, that there seems to be no place for continuing series of programmes about science?” asked veteran natural history broadcaster David Attenborough, lecturing on the future of public service television in London on 30 April. “If you want an informed society, there has to be a basic understanding of science.”

An exhibition opening next week at London's Science Museum, Films of Fact, charts how science was introduced to the UK public in documentary films and on television in the early twentieth century, from the birth of these media to the 1960s.

Animals and plants featured in the first science films made for public viewing. Lasting for 56 seconds, the 1903 film Cheese Mites was first screened at London's Alhambra Music Hall as part of a musical and theatrical playbill that included ballet and magic tricks. Filmed down a microscope by amateur natural historian Francis Martin Duncan, the greatly magnified mites scuttle about. They may not seem riveting to our jaded eyes, but they stimulated demand for nature-based films. Producer Charles Urban exploited this commercial potential in a series of photomicrography films called 'The Unseen World: Revealing Nature's Closest Secrets by Means of the Urban–Duncan Micro-Bioscope', which included The Circulation of the Protoplasm of the Canadian Waterweed (1903). Nature series quickly became established as a popular genre and remain so today, from movies of meerkat antics to marching penguins.

The most successful nature film series before the Second World War was Secrets of Nature (1922–33), produced by British Instructional Films. Its successor was Secrets of Life (1934–50). Celebrated cameraman Percy Smith, a clerk at the UK government's Department of Education, worked on both series. He specialized in filming through microscopes or glass aquaria in his London greenhouse, using a timing device he made from a cuckoo clock to record plant growth with time-lapse photography.

Television programming about science took off in the mid-1950s in the United Kingdom, two decades after broadcasting began there in 1936. Some science series were designed to teach. Producers and scientists worked together, mostly in live broadcasts such as Eye on Research (1957–61), which took cameras into research establishments.

As television became a mass medium, scientists tried to influence how broadcasters represented science, but they did not always get a good reception. “Priority must be given to the medium rather than scientific pedantry,” ruled Aubrey Singer, head of the BBC's science department in 1966. “The aim of scientific programming ... is not necessarily the propagation of science” but “an enrichment of the audience experience”. Similar attitudes prevail today.

Other documentaries, many commercially sponsored, explored how new technologies were transforming everyday life. Influential film-maker Paul Rotha's 1933 documentary Contact, sponsored by Imperial Airways, captures aeroplane manufacture using beguiling and original cinematography. From the 1930s, Rotha and others used angled shots and rapid editing — techniques pioneered by Russian film directors and cinematographers — to celebrate innovations such as aircraft, telephone networks, electricity and express railways. Enthusiasm for technology remains a strong driver of scientific film and television.

The Depression of the 1930s stimulated documentaries in which scientists identified social problems and proposed solutions. In 1936, Enough to Eat? relayed the shocking conclusion of nutritionist John Orr, in a study entitled Food, Health and Income for the UK Ministry of Agriculture, that half the population of the United Kingdom was too poor to maintain a healthy diet.

In the exhibition, film and television clips are projected onto a screen, and hundreds of other clips from 38 films can be accessed interactively though two computer stations. Pieces of film-making equipment are also on show: a Moy and Bastie cine camera made to Urban's design; a Zeiss microscope of the type used by Smith; a Marconi IV studio television camera used in the 1960s; a Moviola editing machine; and a 1930s Newman Sinclair cine camera.

Chief curator of the Science Museum, Timothy Boon, has written a well-researched book that provides background detail for historians of UK science film-making during this period. Other researchers are tackling French, Russian and US depictions of science on film and television, plundering those nations' archives with equal diligence. Once these studies are complete, it would be valuable to combine them into a global account of science on screen.

“My ambition for the show,” says Boon, “is that by seeing different types of science films, people will become more informed consumers of science television now.” Hopefully, greater knowledge of how science programming developed will guide decisions about its future.

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Martin, C. How science hit the small screen. Nature 453, 454–455 (2008) doi:10.1038/453454a

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