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Film lessons: early cinema for historians of science*

  • Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (a1)

Despite much excellent work over the years, the vast history of scientific filmmaking is still largely unknown. Historians of science have long been concerned with visual culture, communication and the public sphere on the one hand, and with expertise, knowledge production and experimental practice on the other. Scientists, we know, drew pictures, took photographs and made three-dimensional models. Rather like models, films could not be printed in journals until the digital era, and this limited their usefulness as evidence. But that did not stop researchers from making movies for projection at conferences as well as in lecture halls, museums and other public venues, not to mention for breaking down into individual frames for analysis. Historians of science are more likely to be found in the library, archive or museum than the darkened screening room, and much work is still needed to demonstrate the major effects of cinema on scientific knowledge. Film may have taken as long to change science as other areas of social life, but one can begin to glimpse important ways in which ‘image machines’ (cameras, projectors and the like) were beginning to mediate between backstage experimental work and more public demonstration even around 1900.

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Thanks to Tim Boon, Patrick Ellis, Nick Hopwood, David A. Kirby and Simon Schaffer for comments on drafts, and especially to Patrick for bringing both books to my attention in the first place. I thank the Wellcome Trust (106553) for support.

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1 For recent reviews see Gouyon Jean-Baptiste, ‘Science and film-making’, Public Understanding of Science (2016) 25, pp. 1730; David A. Kirby, ‘Film, radio, and television’, in Bernard Lightman (ed.), A Companion to the History of Science, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2016, pp. 428–441. See also Rima D. Apple and Michael W. Apple (eds.), ‘Screening science’, special section of Isis (1993) 84, pp. 750–774; Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999; Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002; Tim Boon, Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television, London: Wallflower, 2008; David A. Kirby, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011; Joshua Malitsky and Oliver Gaycken (eds.), Science and Documentary, special issue of Journal of Visual Culture (2012) 11; Janina Wellmann (ed.), Cinematography, Seriality, and the Sciences, a special issue of Science in Context (2011) 24.

2 For example, Soraya de Chadarevian and Nick Hopwood (eds.), Models: The Third Dimension of Science, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004; Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006; Nick Hopwood, Haeckel's Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

3 For example, Strick James, ‘Swimming against the tide: Adrianus Pijper and the debate over bacterial flagella, 1946–1956’, Isis (1996) 87, pp. 274305, 304.

4 Schaffer Simon, ‘Transport phenomena: space and visibility in Victorian physics’, Early Popular Visual Culture (2012) 10, pp. 7191, 71.

5 Hopwood, op. cit. (2), p. 146. See also Jülich Solveig, ‘Media as modern magic: early x-ray imaging and cinematography in Sweden’, Early Popular Visual Culture (2008) 6, pp. 1933.

6 Film and medicine are comparatively better served. For recent reviews see Bonah Christian and Laukötter Anja, ‘Moving pictures and medicine in the first half of the 20th century: some notes on international historical developments and the potential of medical film research’, Gesnerus (2009) 66, pp. 121146; Tim Boon, ‘Medical film and television: an alternative path to the cultures of biomedicine’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 617–634. See also Martin Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of ‘Defective’ Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; Ulf Schmidt, Medical Films, Ethics and Euthanasia in Nazi Germany: The History of Medical Research and Teaching Films of the Reich Office for Educational Films/Reich Institute for Films in Science and Education, 1933–1945, Husum: Matthiesen, 2002; Kirsten Ostherr, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient through Film, Television and Imaging Technologies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

7 See Curtis Scott, ‘Science lessons’, Film History (2013) 25, pp. 4554.

8 André Gaudreault, Film and Attraction: From Kinematography to Cinema, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011, p. 99.

9 Gunning Tom, ‘The cinema of attractions: early cinema, its spectator and the avant-garde’, Wide Angle (1986) 8, pp. 6370.

10 Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine's Visual Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995; Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007.

11 On Charles Urban see Boon, op. cit. (1), pp. 7–32.

12 For a discussion of animation techniques in relation to modelling see Oliver Gaycken, ‘“A living, developing egg is present before you”: animation, scientific visualization, and modeling’, in Karen Beckmann (ed.), Animating Film Theory, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

13 See also Landecker Hannah, ‘Microcinematography and the history of science and film’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 121132; Béatrice de Pastre and Thierry Lefebvre (eds.), Filmer la science, comprendre la vie: Le cinéma de Jean Comandon, Paris: Centre national de cinématographie, 2012; Canales Jimena, ‘Dead and alive: micro-cinematography between physics and biology’, Configurations (2015) 23, pp. 235251.

14 Relevant DVD collections published by the BFI include Science Is Fiction: Jean Painlevé (2007) and Secrets of Nature: Pioneering Science and Nature Films (2010). See also the Wellcome Library's moving image and sound collection at

15 For a recent survey of print that also discusses radio and television, but mentions film only in passing and even then does not mention any film made before the 1930s, see Peter J. Bowler, Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

16 On ‘useful’ cinema see Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau (eds.), Films That Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009; Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson (eds.), Useful Cinema, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012; Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Streible (eds.), Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

17 On the entwinement of science and spectacle before cinema see Morus Iwan Rhys, ‘Seeing and believing science’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 201210.

18 For chronophotography see Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992; Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, Exeter: University of Exeter Press 2000; Thierry Lefebvre, Jacques Malthête and Laurent Mannoni (eds.), Sur les pas de Marey: Science(s) et cinéma, Paris, L'Harmattan/Sémia, 2004; Virgilio Tosi, Cinema before Cinema: The Origins of Scientific Cinematography, London: British Universities Film and Video Council, 2005; Jimena Canales, A Tenth of a Second: A History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

19 See also Bigg Charlotte, ‘Evident atoms: visuality in Jean Perrin's Brownian motion research’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2008) 39, pp. 312322; Curtis, op. cit. (7).

20 For differently technological approaches to film history see Rossell Deac, ‘Démolition d'un mur: the social construction of technology and early cinema projection systems’, Early Popular Visual Culture (2014) 12, pp. 304341; Brian R. Jacobson, Studios before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

21 David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile, 2006.

22 For example, Heidi Felix, Gisela Haemmerli and Peter Sträuli, Dynamic Morphology of Leukemia Cells: A Comparative Study by Scanning Electron Microscopy and Microcinematography, Berlin: Springer, 1978; Nicolas Rasmussen, Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940–1960, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

23 On business-historical approaches to science, technology and medicine see Gaudillière Jean-Paul, ‘The pharmaceutical industry in the biotech century: toward a history of science, technology and business?’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2002) 32, pp. 191201; Edgerton David, ‘Time, money, and history’, Isis (2012) 103, pp. 316327.

24 Curtis Scott, ‘“Tangible as Tissue”: Arnold Gesell, infant behavior, and film analysis’, Science in Context (2011) 24, pp. 417442; Wilson Emily K., ‘Ex utero: live human fetal research and the films of Davenport Hooker’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2014) 88, pp. 132160; Donna J. Drucker, The Machines of Sex Research: Technology and the Politics of Identity, 1945–1985, Dordrecht: Springer, 2014, pp. 45–67.

25 For Encyclopaedia Cinematographica see Gouyon, op. cit. (1), p. 21. For the BBC see Timothy Boon and Jean-Baptiste Gouyon, ‘The origins and practice of science on British television’, in Martin Conboy and John Steel (eds.), The Routledge Companion to British Media History, London: Routledge, 2015, pp. 470–483, 480.

26 Stramer Brian M. and Dunn Graham A., ‘Cells on film: the past and future of cinemicroscopy’, Journal of Cell Science (2015) 128, pp. 913, 9.

27 Wasson Haidee, ‘Electric homes! Automatic movies! Efficient entertainment! 16mm and cinema's domestication in the 1920s’, Cinema Journal (2009) 48, pp. 121; Wasson , ‘Suitcase cinema’, Cinema Journal (2012) 51, pp. 148152.

28 Stramer and Dunn, op. cit. (26), p. 12.

29 For a discussion of science historical filmmaking see Peter Galison, ‘Visual STS’, in Annamaria Carusi, Aud Sissel Hoel, Timothy Webmoor and Steve Woolgar (eds.), Visualization in the Age of Computerization, New York: Routledge, 2014, pp. 197–225.

* Thanks to Tim Boon, Patrick Ellis, Nick Hopwood, David A. Kirby and Simon Schaffer for comments on drafts, and especially to Patrick for bringing both books to my attention in the first place. I thank the Wellcome Trust (106553) for support.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
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