The transit of Venus

An animation of Jules Janssen’s photographic sequence showing the transit of Venus, 8 December 1874

5-6 June 2012, will see the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun. It’s worth looking out for, not least because the next time it occurs won’t be until 10 December 2117.

It was certainly something to look out for on 8 December 1874, when French scientist Pierre-Jules-César Janssen (1824-1907), a keen observer of eclipses (and now most famous as the discoverer of Helium), decided to try and capture the motion of Venus crossing the sun through sequence photography, something now recognised as one of the key milestones on the route to cinematography itself.

Janssen’s purpose was not to capture motion for its own sake, however. What was of particular interest to astronomers was capturing the very point of contact between planet and sun, which was needed to help determine solar distance more precisely. Since the exact moment could not be predicted, making a single-shot photograph strategy a hazardous one, Janssen planned to take a rapid sequence of photographs – or at least as rapid as the technology of 1874 would allow. This he achieved by constructing a ‘revolver photographique’ – a camera, somewhat similar in concept to a Colt revolver, driven by a clockwork-driven Maltese Cross-like mechanism capable of taking forty-eight exposures on a Daguerrotype plate over a period of seventy-two seconds. Daguerrotypes were becoming an antiquated technology, but, as Stephen Herbert explains on Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema:

… the metal plate ensur[ed] an absence of halation (flare) that could have been a problem if a glass plate had been used – and a wet plate would in any case have been inconvenient to use in such a camera. With the sun as the source there was no shortage of light, so the ‘slow’ daguerreotype process was ideal.

Janssen’s revolver photographique, pointed at a heliostat (a clockwork-operated mirror following the movement of the sun), as published in La Nature in 1875. The operator was the Brazilian astronomer d’Almeida

Janssen journeyed to Japan to take his photographic sequence (the actual operator of the revolver was a Brazilian, Francisco Antônio d’Almeida), while inspiring several British expeditions with the same purpose to use similar photographic apparatus constructed by J.H. Dallmeyer and using a form of dry plate photography (the expeditions were based in Egypt, India, Australia, Rodrigues, Honolulu, New Zealand and the Kerguelen Islands). Janssen presented the results to the Société Française de Photographie in 1875 – as still images, that is, not of course as a projected sequence, the technology for which was several years away from being invented. We can animate the sequence now, and all six seconds of it can be seen in the video above. The conditions under which Janssen ‘filmed’ were not ideal, it being a cloudy day, and the images were touched up slightly, making Janssen perhaps as much a proto-animator as he was a proto-cinematographer. (Although Janssen definitely produced a successful series of photographs, some suggest that the images we have today are from an earlier simulation made by Janssen to test his equipment).

Janssen’s work inspired others to capture scientific subjects through sequence photography, notably the physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, and he lived long enough not only to see cinematography becaome a reality, but to appear in two early Lumière films: Débarquement du Congres de Photographie a Lyon and M. Janssen causant avec M. Lagrange, filmed on 11 June 1895.

The transit of Venus as photographed by Professor David Peck Todd on 6 December 1882

Jules Janssen’s capturing of the transit of Vanus as a sequence of images invariably features in pre-histories of cinema (or histories of pre-cinema). The British astronomers using similar technology are seldom mentioned, and in none of the histories will you find mention of the next transit of Venus, which took place on 6 December 1882, and which was also captured in sequence on photographic plates by astronomers ahead of eventual motion picture technology.

How many did so in 1882 I do not know, but one who definitely did was the American astronomer Professor David Peck Todd (1855-1939). Positioned on Mount Hamilton in California, his ‘solar photographic telescope’ was constructed by the optical firm Alvan Clark & Sons and enabled Todd to capture 147 wet-plate glass negatives. These images were rediscovered 120 years later, digitally copied and animated, and premiered before the International Astronomical Union in Sydney in July 2003. The conditions under which Todd operated were better, and the photographic plates superior, to Janssen’s expdition in 1874, and the resultant video is marvellously sharp. Once again, it needs to be pointed out that the images preceded motion picture projection by some years and were never seen in this way in 1882.

There is an excellent article on Janssen and his British imitators by Francoise Launay and Peter D. Hingley, ‘Jules Janssen’s “Revolver Photographique” and its British derivative, “The Janssen Slide”‘, originally published in Journal for the History of Astronomy vol. 36 pt. 1 no. 122 (2005).

From the same journal comes William Sheehan and Anthony Misch, ‘Ménage à trois: David Peck Todd, Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson and the 1882 Transit of Venus‘ vol. 35 pt 2 no. 119 (2004), which includes the reanimation of Todd’s photographic plates and plenty on his interesting private life (his wife Mabel was responsible for the rediscovery of the poetry of Emily Dickinson).

After 1882, the next transit of Venus was in 2004. Tomorrow’s transit will be best viewed under cloudless skies around the Pacific Ocean, while in Europe we’ll see the transit already underway during sunrise on June 6th. There’s a guide on how and where to see it (don’t look at the sun with the naked eye, please) provided by The Guardian here. You can be certain of following it by watching one of the main live video streams on offer, a guide to which is provided here.

Everything you could possibly want to know about the transit of Venus is at, which rather wonderfully has a counter counting down the days until the 2117 transit. Just 38,538 days to go …

The Scientist

What fun this is. Students on the Science Communication course at Imperial College London have produced a pastiche of The Artist (itself a pastiche, of course), on the theme of communicating science. Not a promising subject, you might think, but it is done with real style. The parallels with the Academy Award winner are ingenious, and the film (shot in monochrome) looks terrific. It even drags in the final third, much as does The Artist. Perhaps most impressively, they have persuaded the La Petit Reine production company to let them use extracts from Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack to The Artist. Full marks to them for having the nerve, and to the production company for being good sports.

The thirteen-minute film tells of a brilliant, vain scientist who gains the applause of his students but is failing to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. This is the concern of a female student, who joins him in the laboratory, co-authors some scientific papers with him, then goes on to public acclaim because of her great ability to explain science to the general public. The thematic fit is perfect. Charmingly played by Haralambos Dayantis and Harriet Jarlett, and with a real sense of how silent film works, the only disappointment is a weak, inconclusive ending when it was crying out for the duo to dance among the test tubes to general applause.

There’s information on the film’s production at the Science Communication course’ Refractive Index blog, with some interesting thoughts on the parallels between the world of cinema and their world:

In learning about the history of silent film, we discovered an important parallel between the introduction of talking in film and talking in science. Early attempts at using sound in film were deemed clunky, and yet in time, film with sound became the norm. Any new enterprise needs time and effort in order to fulfill its full potential. Similarly, early attempts at public engagement, such as the GM consultation, have been awkward and much criticised. However, with the slightly warmer response that upstream public engagement on nanotechnology has received, we may be witnessing the refinement of a technique that could eventually become the established norm.

If this is an example of how The Artist has inspired people to think of silent films, not just their history but how they tell stories, then we should be really pleased. It is turning out to be a real force for good.


Good health

Part one of Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council. Part two is here and part three is here

Film archivists know the real treasures in their collections, and while they continue to cater those who wish to see the better known and more obvious classics, it is often the less familiar titles that nevertheless demonstrate the special power of the medium that find favour within the archives. So it was that during my time at the BFI, one of the films that we frequently held us as being the greatest in our collection was Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931).

Never did a great film have so unprepossessing a title, but in the 1920s and ’30s Bermondsey council in London was at the forefront of public health propaganda (in the best sense of the word) and the use of film. At a time before the National Health Service, when many in London’s poorer district suffered from preventable illnesses caused by poor living conditions, the council’s Public Health Department undertook a bold programme to improve public health and to make the people of Bermondsey and Southwark aware of the need for and the opportunities for following a healthy lifestyle. Driven by husband and wife team Alfred and Ada Salter (he became Bermondsey’s MP, she its Mayor, the first female mayor in London), and with films mostly made by H.W. Bush, the Department made or sponsored some 33 films over the two decades, screenings these for free in any space where people might gather, including street screenings, employing cinemotor vans which came with portable projection equipment.

The films include such titles as Where There’s Life There’s Soap (1933), Health and Clothing (1928), The Empty Bed (1937) and Maternity and Child Welfare (1930). All were made silent, for economic reasons and ease of exhibition as much as anything else. All are imbued with a palpable sense of purpose and dedication to a good cause. You derive a real sense of the goodness of people, as well as a sense of shame at the conditions in which people were living well into the twentieth century (though the emphasis is on good work done rather than bad things that needed to be eradicated). Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council Itself is so compelling to watch, not merely for its account of the public health programme, but for its unadorned images of ordinary life in the city (just the views of streets with which the film opens have a special thrill, simply because such views on film are so rare for this period).

Cinemotor, designed for exhibiting films or lantern slides, from the Wellcome Library

The films that survive are preserved by the BFI, with copies held at the medical charity the Wellcome Trust, and it is the Wellcome which has put some of the film on its YouTube channel and on its own site to accompany an exhibition entitled Here Comes Good Health, on the wotk of the Bermondsey Public Health Department. The exhibition runs at the Wellcome (on Euston Road, London) 22 February-3 June 2012, and you can read about the Council’s work, see films and photographs on the exhibition website.

If you are interested to find out more, there is a particularly handsome new publication by Elizabeth Lebas, who has been researching British ‘municipal’ films for some years now, Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980. There is more information on the exhibition, the Public Health Department and its films, with plenty of links to other resources, on the Wellcome Library’s blog.

I also recommend an engrossing account by composer Felicity Ford (on her blog The Domestic Soundscape) who is writing a soundtrack for a related municipal film, Bathing and Dressing (1935), made by the National Council for Maternity and Child Welfare and Carnegie Welfare Centre, Shoreditch. She describes her research process, including locating contemporary sounds and oral history interviews from the British Library, that bring the people and the times back to life as much as do the films.

Thought waves

Is it, perhaps, that all films are really silent films? Isn’t cinema just about conjuring up moving pictures in our heads, matching what we see to the world that we know? Aren’t sound and speech mere decorations, means simply to guide us what we want to see? Isn’t everything that we want to find in cinema to be found in silent cinema, when the medium was new and trying to discover all that it could do? And what, fundamentally, has it done that is new since the silent era? And might that be because, perhaps, all films are really silent films?

I offer up these thoughts by way of reaction to the above video, which I present to you as a silent film, simply because it is silent. Sometimes when I point out modern films without soundtracks I wonder whether the connection with silent cinema is purely tokenistic. But now I don’t think so. Films that have lost their sound have returned to some sort of pure state. After all, a story that isn’t told in pictures can’t really be thought of at all cinema, can it?

The video illustrates work undertaken by neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, who have been scanning the brain activity of volunteers who have been watching films. A computer was then able to produce rough reconstructions of what they had viewed, with reference to an archive of 18 million one-second clips taken from YouTube not previously seen by the participants. The computer then matched the clips to the brain activity it had recorded.

The results are peculiarly haunting, indeed dreamlike – ghostly distortions of images that look like a combination of Francis Bacon and Odilon Redon in motion. They are silent, of course, and a form of moving image previously unseen, unimagined. As an Associated Press report says,

Scientists … speculated such an approach might be able to reveal dreams and hallucinations someday. In the future, it might help stroke victims or others who have no other way to communicate, said Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper.

He believes such a technique could eventually reconstruct a dream or other made-up mental movie well enough to be recognizable. But the experiment dealt with scenes being viewed through the eyes at the time of scanning, and it’s not clear how much of the approach would apply to scenes generated by the brain instead, he said.

Greater results could be achieved by greater access to a moving image archive (there was no equivalent clip for an elephant, for example), which makes you think how the whole of YouTube might be viewed as the collective dreams of us all.

This second video demonstrates the range of clips from which the computer selected its composite moving image (shown in the top left-hand corner):

The dream videos have gone viral, with over a million views in just a few days. Clearly something speaks deeply to people about the idea of these films, if not necessarily the images themselves. It’s not just that we might, hypothetically, one day be able to recover an entire movie from our brains, or indeed visualise our dreams. It’s that all these pictures are playing in our heads, and that this experiment opens a small window upon them. It’s an idea of the mind as pure cinema.

The paper on which the research is based is ‘Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies‘, by Shinji Nishimoto1, An T. Vu, Thomas Naselaris1, Yuval Benjamini, Bin Yu and Jack L. Gallant. Further information on the project is available from

Popular Science

Popular Science looks forward to the talkies in October 1922

Another day, another digitised journal. This time it is Popular Science, the American science and technology journal which has been reporting on scientific developments for a general audience since 1872 (when it was Popular Science Monthly). The journal went online in 1999 and has now gone a step further by putting its entire 138-year archive online as well, and all freely available.

It is a simple resource to use – just a search box (there is no advanced search though advanced features for searching and browsing are promised for the future), and then the list of results. This gives the date of the monthly issue and the page on which the search term can be found (which will be highlighted in yellow on the page itself). Clicking on the link takes you to the specific page, and if you want to browse the issue further you simply have to scroll up or down. The instructions promise a magnifying glass controls to zoom in and out on the page, but this seems only to be available on the Google Books version, where there entire run of the journal can also be found. There is no option for copying text or downloading the documents.

So, using our regular test search term, ‘kinetoscope’ what do we get? There are ten hits, the earliest a passing mention among a list of Edison inventions in January 1895, then a proper description in May 1896, a detailed article and well-illustrated on the new science of motion pictures in general from December 1897, then mentions in March 1905, October 1913, and retrospective mentions in later issues. Other keywords that yield useful results include ‘cinematograph’, ‘kinematograph’, ‘movie’, and ‘motion picture’. There are articles on film production, motion picture technology (cameras, projectors, lighting, sound technology as in the article illustrated above) and experiments using film. There are also several articles on pre-cinema technologies and the work of chronophotographers such as Eadweard Muybridge and E.J. Marey.

The articles are usually illustrated, and in keeping with the journal’s mission the explanations are clear and useful. The older articles (pre-1914) tend to be longer and more scholarly in tone; the later pieces are shorter and more populist in nature. It’s a fine resource, easy to use, and of value both for the intrinsic information offered and for insights into how the new science of motion picture film was viewed and explained to a particular, educated audience. Go explore.

X-ray fiends

The latest film to go up on the BFI’s YouTube site is G.A. Smith’s The X-rays (UK 1897). I’ve a modest personal interest in this one, because I identified it and catalogued it when I was working at the BFI’s archive, a dozen or so years ago. It came to us as part of a collection of unidentified 1890s/1900s films which arrived the wake of the celebrated Henville collection of 1890s film which caused quite a stir at the time of the centenary of cinema in 1995/96. Amazingly there were a further three or four small collections of unidentified films of a similar vintage which came our way following all the Henville fuss, and The X-rays was among them.

In truth it was one of the easier early films to identify. Having a man carrying a large camera with the word ‘X-rays’ written on the side was a handy clue, and then the two lovers in the film were readily identifiable from other British films of the period – they were Tom Green and Laura Bayley, the latter the actress wife of the Hove filmmaker, George Albert Smith. A quick check in John Barnes’ The Beginnings of Cinema in England (a multi-volume history of 1890s film in Britain) and hey presto – The X-rays, aka The X-ray Fiend, directed by G.A. Smith for GAS Films and marketed by the Warwick Trading Company in 1898. Easy.

The film was one of those you really hoped would turn up eventually, because it would fit so neatly with the interests of early film scholars. It was one of those films you could practically imagine the filmmaker obligingly producing because he somehow knew it would excite the interests for academics 100 years hence. There is the early special effect caused by the cut from the lovers to their appearance as skeletons, the self-referential use of a camera operator, the narrative generated by visual invention, the intimation of the camera (and viewer) as voyeur, and the important alliance between the cinematograph and Röntgen rays.

Röntgen rays? Well, that’s what they were called for a while, because it was German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen (or Roentgen) who discovered them. He won the first Nobel Prize for Physics (in 1901) for his discovery of the electromagnetic rays which could penetrate solid objects. The discovery naturally had a huge effect on medical practice, and created great popular interest. The rays were quite quickly dubbed X-rays rather than Röntgen rays, and that popular interest was taken up by showmen. X-rays became an attraction at fairs and other public shows, and there were a number of showmen who exhibited motion pictures and X-rays as complementary entertainments. There are records of such showmen in America, Britain, across mainland Europe, in Australia, and in Japan, all operating in the mid-to-late 1890s.

Some of them suffered grievously because of it. British showman William Paley emigrated to the USA and exhibited X-rays 1896-97 until he had to give up because of the adverse affect on his health and turned to film shows instead. Another British showman Jasper Redfern combined the cinematograph with X-rays and was eventually to die of radiation-induced cancer (though this was more likely because of his later medical work researching into X-rays and cancer treatment). Other showmen played it say but simply exhibiting lantern slides showing X-ray images, which was safer and a lot cheaper. Other people associated with film experimented with X-rays or used them professionally – Thomas Edison (whose chief X-ray exerimenter Clarence Dally died of radiation poisoning), Auguste Lumière (a medical experimenter when not running his film and photography business) and James Williamson (a high street chemist by profession).

Dr John Macintyre’s 1897 X-ray film of a frog’s leg, plus later footage (c.1909) showing X-ray pictures of a human heart beat and the movement of the stomach after a bismuth meal

And then there were X-ray medical experimenters who used film. In April 1897 Dr John Macintyre of Glasgow combined the two invention to create X-ray cinematography. He demonstrated the motion of a frog’s limbs, showing his film first to an audience of fellow scientists to the Glasgow Philosophical Society and then again on the Society’s Ladies’ Night, thus interestingly crossing the line between science and entertainment. Macintyre’s film survives, as is available to view at the Scottish Screen Archive’s site and on the National Library of Scotland’s YouTube site.

Other scientists of the period experimented with X-ray cinematography as well, among them the Frenchmen Jean-Charles Roux and Victor Balthazard, who filmed the stomachs of animals, also in 1897. Between 1903-06 another French medical research Joachim Carvallo improved on these processes with a specially adapted camera using 60mm (supplied by Lumière) electrically automated to shoot at different speeds, and later experimenters in the 1900s/10s worked on increasing the size of the object that could be investigated by the rays, among them P.H. Eijkman, F.M. Groedel and the great Jean Comandon, who introduced the indirect filming of X-rays, by filming a screen onto which the rays had been projected. X-rays as a screen entertainment quickly died away, but in the field of science they became the subject of the first medical films and an important milestone in the history of medical imaging.

There’s an interesting literature on X-rays and early film. See in particular Richard Crangle’s ‘Saturday Night at the X-rays – The Moving Picture and the “New Photography” in Britain, 1896’ in John Fullerton (ed.), Celebrating 1895: The Centenary of Cinema, and Lisa Cartwright’s thought-provoking study of the relationship between the moving image (especially early film) and physiology, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, which discusses Macintyre’s work. On X-ray cinematographers and other scientists working with film in the early cinema period, see Virgilio Tosi, Cinema before Cinema: The Origins of Scientific Cinematography.

All of which is yet another lesson never to see early film as a phenomenon that existed of itself, by itself. Film was always tied up with something else – in this case medical science – as it tried to find its place in the world by reflecting the world. It’s what makes early film so interesting.

Unveiling the secrets of nature

Mould growth, filmed by Percy Smith for The Plants of the Pantry (1927)

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower

Things were not good for British films in the 1920s and 30s. Things seldom have very been good for British films, but in the 1920s in particular the situation was more than particularly desperate. There was too little production finance, too few stars, too few filmmakers of ability, too little appeal for audiences in thrall to Hollywood. Critics were utterly dismissive of the qualities of British film production, damning British producers and British creative talent for – well, a lack of creative talent.

But those critics did make an exception (OK, two exceptions – the other was was Alfred Hitchcock). It was Secrets of Nature. A series of nature films produced by British Instructional Films between 1922 and 1933, filmed by a small band of dedicated but unglamorous naturalists, and produced for in its latter years by one of the few women filmmakers of the 1920s, the Secrets of Nature series was widely acclaimed for its intelligence, inventiveness, dedication to science, and for the extraordinary beauty of some of its images. Paul Rotha, generally scathing of the silent British film in general, wrote in The Film Till Now:

… the numerous Secrets of Nature films … have always been admirable in conception and execution. They are, in fact, the sheet-anchor of the British Film Industry.

While Rachael Low, historian of British cinema, says:

… these outstanding films played a versatile role, as works of art and scientific record to their makers, entertainment to the cinemas, and teaching to the educational film enthusiasts.

They ticked every box. They did what many thought films were there to do – to illuminate the world.

Now the world can be illuminated a little further, because the BFI has shown considerable boldness by putting together a DVD of Secrets of Nature. It is itself an intelligent, inventive and beautiful production, and truly dedicated to science. It contains nineteen films dating 1922-1933, artfully arranged into four sections: The Techniques, The Birds, The Insects and The Plants. An extra film from the Charles Urban Movie Chats series shows filmmaker Percy Smith nursing a pair of herons. The hansomely illustrated thirty-six page booklet has essays by Dr Tim Boon (author of Films of Fact and the driving force behind this DVD), Tim Dee, Charlotte Sleigh and John Agar, each taking on one of the themes, each praising the films for their acute observations and high image quality. Archivist Jan Faull writes on the care of the films, and there is a set of mini-biographies of the filmmakers (one or two penned by your scribe).

Secrets of Nature was launched in 1922 by H. Bruce Woolfe, a former film distributor who set up British Instructional Films in 1919 with the ambition of creating popular informational films. Woolfe enjoyed great success with dramatised documentaries of the First World War, such as Zeebrugge and Mons, but his greatest achievement remains Secrets of Nature. He gathered together a remarkable array of naturalist-filmmakers, encouraging the development of a form of popular scientific filmmaking which had been pioneered by F. Martin Duncan and Percy Smith working for Charles Urban before the First World War.

Percy Smith attending to a pair of young herons, from a Charles Urban Movie Chat, 1921

F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent film era. Doubt my word? Just take a look at the The Plants of the Pantry (1927). This extraordinary work of art and science, beautifully entwined, shows how mould grows on household food such as cheese. Combining stop motion photography with micro-cinematography and even animation sequences, Smith illustrates the mysteries of the unseen, portraying the reality while unveiling the abstract unreality. His work is as close to that of avant garde animators of the period – Walter Ruttman, Oskar Fischinger, Viktor Eggling or Fernand Leger – as it is to the plain exposition of science lecture. One is continually left open-mouthed in amazement at the quality of his images, which challenge our understanding of nature and reality. It is usual to point to the French filmmaker Jean Painlevé as someone who combined surrealism with science, but Smith was there first and was probably the superior filmmaker. He simply saw more than most.

Percy Smith is the leading filmmaker on the Secrets of Nature set, but he was only one of a team. Others represented on the DVD set (some of whom were BIF employees, others freelancers) are ornithologist and pioneer of natural history cinematography Oliver Pike; Natural History Museum curator W.P. Pycraft; ornithologist Edgar Chance (“a scientist in search of evidence” as Rachael Low writes); bird photographer Walter Higham; naturalist Charles Head, a specialist in recording the everyday life of the countryside; and chemist-turned-documentary filmmaker H.M. Lomas, the only one of the Secrets of Nature team who was not a naturalist first, filmmaker second.

The White Owl (1922), filmed by Oliver Pike

Leading this team from 1929 was Mary Field, a former school teacher who joined British Instructional Films in 1926 as its education manager and rapidly became skilled in all aspects of film production, becoming editor of the Secrets of Nature series in 1929. She went on to enjoy a notable career promoting the educational value of film with the Rank Organisation (where she established the Children’s Film Foundation) and UNESCO. She wrote the book Secrets of Nature (1934) and co-wrote Cine-biology (1941), with Percy Smith and J.V. Durden.

Field was in charge when the series acquired sound, and it is the sound examples from the series which have perhaps caused Secrets of Nature to be looked down upon by later generations. The plummy-voiced commentaries can now sound comically quaint, paronising even, and it does require a degree of sympthatetic understanding of past manners to appreciate films whose photographic and observational qualities remained as high as ever. There is also a degree of anthropomorphism which even at the time caused commentators to complain, but which is really no worse than the typical wildlife documentary of today, where no lion or meerkat can be allowed to pass without our narrator giving them a name and a human outlook on the world.

Interestingly, the silent films on the DVD are presented in silence – no music accompaniment is included. Whether this is through economy or a wish to distinguish the earlier films from the later titles with soundtracks is not explained. The result draws one all the more to look in wonder at the exquisitely composed images, the product of keen observation, much patience, and an understanding of the power of the image to reveal scientific truth. The techniques on display, such as underwater photography, microcinematography (literally filming through a microscope), high-speed cinematography and stop-motion may be familiar to us now (or at least the results are), but here they were being shown to audiences who had never experienced such marvels, and one can only wonder at the astonishment that many must have felt at seeing the life that teemed on a piece of mouldy cheese or in a wine glass into which a wisp of hay has been placed, turning it into a mini-aquarium of micro-organisms (The World in a Wine-glass, 1931). These were films that not only informed but encouraged the cinema audience to think and to look at their world anew.

Secrets of Nature is an important part of British film history, but one that one hardly expected ever to see on DVD. All praise then to the BFI for its commitment to an inclusive film history, to encouraging us to think about that film history, and to see more.

(No one should miss the high quality images on the DVD, but if you are keen to sample some examples of Secrets of Nature beforehand, there are numerous examples in low resolution on the British Pathe website – though all from the sound series, please note).

Fit to win

It’s time to go back to the Bioscope Library, and to look at the latest addition, Karl S. Lashley and John B. Watson’s A psychological study of motion pictures in relation to venereal disease campaigns (1922). The study on which the book was based was initiated in 1919, and is said to have been the first large scale research project on the educational effectiveness of educational films, something which greatly exercised minds at the time. Films were self-evidently popular with the masses, and noticeably so with young minds, but could that popularity be converted into lessons for life? Did one actually learn anything from motion pictures? Plenty were saying that you did, but they were chiefly those with a vested interest i.e. film producers themselves. What was needed was controlled studies and verifiable evidence.

In 1919 the United States Interpartmental Social Hygiene Board awarded a grant of $6,000 to the Psychological Laboratory of John Hopkins University for the purpose of “investigating the informational and educative effect upon the public of certain motion-picture films used in various campaigns for the control, repression, and elimination of venereal diseases.” Psychologists Lashley and Watson headed the research and produced the report.

The problem of venereal disease exercised minds hugely at the time. Specifically VD had debilitated so many troops meant for fighting during the First World War that campaigns with official backing arose in Britain and America. In the latter, the campaign operated under the slogan ‘Fit to Fight’, which became the title of a 1917 film, directed by Lieutenant Edward H. Griffith and promoted by the US Public Health Service, which followed the fortunes of five men suitable for military service, four of whom succumb to “bootleggers and prostitutes”. In 1919 the film was revised and extended, and released under the title Fit to Win. The John Hopkins University study provides this synopsis:

The first 1,000 feet of the picture are devoted to the showing of lesions resulting from venereal disease, by photographs of cases and explanatory legends. A story is then introduced. It deals with five young men of diverse education and traditions. They are shown first as civilians, then as drafted and in training. On leave, they are approached by bootleggers and prostitutes. One, Billy Hale, influenced by the memory of his sweetheart, resists temptation. The others are exposed to venereal disease. Of the latter, Kid McCarthy resorts to medical prophylaxis promptly and escapes infection. The others are infected.

Kid McCarthy accuses Billy Hale of being a “mollycoddle,” and a fight ensues in which Kid is defeated. He admits himself beaten and at Billy’s instigation reforms. These two are then held up as examples of physical fitness and are selected for service abroad. The other three, infected, are disqualified for foreign service. One, infected with gonorrhea, is discharged and the others, infected with syphilis, are sent to the hospital for treatment.

The remaining reels were constructed after the signing of the armistice and added as an epilogue to the original picture. Billy is shown returning from France as a captain. Kid McCarthy has been killed, after citation for bravery in action. The youth afflicted with gonorrheal arthritis is shown at home, his father heartbroken over his infection, his mother ignorant of its cause. Billy carries Kid McCarthy’s medal for bravery to McCarthy’s sweetheart. He then meets and sympathizes with the men afflicted with syphilis, telling them that they are now probably completely cured. He then bids farewell to his company, advising them to be wary of prostitutes and to keep morally clean in civilian life. After purchasing a civilian outfit, he visits his sweetheart, and in the final scene they are shown at the altar.

Fit to Win was shown to segregated audiences, and not to children. It aroused considerable controversy, owing to its frankness over the causes of venereal disease, and was banned from exhibition in New York City.

For the purposes of the study, a shortened version of the film was shown – effectively the original Fit to Fight, since the post-Armistice scenes were left out – to 5,000 people, divided up into different groups. There was a Medical Group (around forty physicians and nurses), an Executive and Clerical Group, a Literary Club Group, a mixed audience (250 people from a village in Pennsylvania), a Car Men Group (railway employees in NYC), a Merchant Sailor Group, and a Soldier Group.

The study describes the film, the methodology and the statistical analysis in great detail. They were interested to discover what the levels of understanding were among the different types of audience, then how much and what kind of information might be imparted to each by a film, and what the effect of a single film over a programme of films or other kinds of information might be. Lashley and Watson had no interest in promoting the film for its own sake, and their conclusions are refreshingly frank. The medical group, they reported, “was frankly bored throughout the picture”, finding it exaggerated and falsely dramatic. The mixed audience displayed mixed responses, from ribald laughter to expressions of embarassment, reactions which in turn worried the investigators. The car men “reacted rather strongly to the suggestive parts of the picture”. The seamen showed an unexpected intelligent interest in the film. The soliders were under orders to stay silent, and did so apart from laughter at the bawdy house scene.

Unltimately, the study’s findings were inconclusive. On the film’s informational effect, it was discovered that audiences gained general impressions rather than accurate knowledge, and that while many came away with some basic facts acquired, others still displayed confusion over causes and details. On the film’s emotional effect, it was found to engender horror in most of those who saw it, but precision of influence was difficult to identify, and for many “the appeal of sympathy for the innocently infected is greater than of fear of disease”. However, in answer to the worries of censorious authorities who sought to prevent the film’s exhibition, they noted:

The picture does not produce any sexual excitement in the majority of the men. The replies to questionnaires, comments of the audience, and data gained from interviews with men after the performance all indicate that there is, instead, a temporary inhibition of sex impulses.

Fit to Fight and Fit to Win are lost films; not even a still appears to survive. The study provides such meticulous detail, however (down to the number of seconds in which audiences were exposed to various examples of syphilitic infection) that one has a very clear idea of the film’s contents, strengths and limitations. In the end it finds, a little surprisingly, that such a film’s appeal to the emotions that little value in changing hearts and minds, but that it could impart some basic information which could then be built upon by other educational means. So they judge the film before them, but do not call for better films, which might have provided the way forward that they were seeking.

A psychological study of motion pictures in relation to venereal disease campaigns is available from the Internet Archive in PDF (2.46MB), full text (209KB) and DjVu (1.49MB) formats.

Medical matters


Fig 1: Photograph of the apparatus for cinematographic photomicrography of the capillaries of the nail fold in human subjects. A = an adjustable resistance; B = a motor, operated by a foot switch. From J. Hamilton Crawford and Heinz Rosenberger,’An Apparatus for Studies of Human Capillaries’, Journal of Clinical Investigation, 26 April 1926

Here at the Bioscope we like to keep an eye on online resources for the study of silent cinema, in particular digitised journals and newspapers. Few such resources exist online which are dedicated solely towards silent film, but there are plenty of a general or of a specialism other than film which contain material of great value to us. Plenty has been written here about newspapers, which you would expect to have worthwhile material, but our subject now is something a little more off the beaten track – medical journals.

It could be argued – in fact it has been argued – that it was scientific and medical investigation that brought about the invention of cinema. Chronophotographers in the 1880s and 90s, such as Etienne-Jules Marey, Georges Demeny, Ernst Kohlrausch and Albert Londe, used the emerging technology of motion picture film to record and analyse movement (chiefly human movement), generally with a medical or therapeutic aim in view. When motion pictures properly appeared on the scene, although they flourished as an entertainment, there were a number of medical investigators who took advantage of the new technology, such as Eugène-Louis Doyen (who filmed his operations in the late 1890s/early1900s) and Jean Comandon, who used microcinematographic film in completing his 1909 doctoral thesis De l’usage clinique de l’ultra-microscope en particulier pour la recherche et l’étude des spirochètes, and who went on to make films for Pathé. Other early explorers with a camera on the science/medicine border included Lucien Bull, Pierre Noguès, Gheorge Marinescu, Alejandro Posadas, Osvaldo Polimanti and Joachim-Léon Carvallo.


Fig. 2: Photograph showing details of the apparatus for cinematography of the capillaries. A = arc lamp; B = condensing system; C = heat filter; D = system for direct illumination; E = polarizer; F = microscope; G = stand for finger; H = camera; I = observation side piece; J = shaft; K = clutch

So it may not come as a surprise to find the cinematograph included among medical papers of the period, though the extent to which it is, and the number of people engaged in using motion pictures for medical investigation throughout the silent period, is nevertheless remarkable. Evidence of this can be found in digitised medical journals of the period, of which the major source is PubMed Central, the U.S. National Institutes of Health free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature. PMC is a digital library for a worldwide scientific and biomedical community, dedicated to the preservation and free access. It began operating in 2000, and in 2007 a UK offshoot, UK PubMed Central was launched. What is of interest to us is that its archive includes many runs of historical journals, covering (for our purposes) the 1890s to the 1920s, among them the British Medical Journal, The Journal of Medical Research, The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine etc.

And there is plenty to discover. Just type in ‘cinematograph’ or ‘kinematograph’ (the most productive terms) and you will uncover a world of pioneering investigation. There is a 1918 article ‘Cinematograph Demonstration of War Neuroses’, on the renowned film of shell shock victims at Netley (previously covered by the Bioscope here), ‘The Rôle of the Cinematograph in the Teaching of Obstetrics’ (1920), ‘Kinematograph Film illustrating Anastomosis of Facial Nerve in Cases of Facial Palsy’ (1925), ‘The Cinematograph in Medical Education’ (1928) and ‘Cinematograph Demonstration of Methods of Bone-grafting’ (116). There is a number of pieces on the question whether going to the cinema was bad for your eyesight. There are references to key investigators such as Marey, Comandon, Marinescu and Doyen. And there are incidental references that intrigue, such as the British Medical Journal noting with some interest its receipt of a booklet on Kinemacolor (“With the motion of the picture and the natural colour representation, together with a certain amount of stereoscopic relief, all rolled into one, it is difficult to see what further conquests in this direction realism has to make”).


Fig. 3: Print of part of a cinematographic film taken by the method described

All of the documents are available in word-searchable PDF format, immaculately ordered and referenced, as one would expect. One can also find articles and reviews from more recent times that cover our area. Of course, the number of film enthusiasts keen to read a paper entiteld ‘An Apparatus for Motion Photography of the Growth of Bacteria’ is likely to be outnumbered to some considerable degree by those who would rather seek their entertainment elsewhere. But for those of an enquiring mind, PMC is an absolute treasure trove for anyone keen to explore how the motion picture developed in its earliest years as a tool of discovery, and gives evidence that the medical community was, from the outset, welcoming of the new medium where it could advance understanding.

There are other such medical journal databases. The British Medical Journal has puts its whole archive online, searchable by year or by subject terms. It appears that the content is the same as that to be found on PMC, but one should never assume. Next, there is the archive of historical nursing journals made available by the Royal College of Nursing. This does have material which is not on PMC, and the terms ‘cinematograph’, ‘kinematograph’ and even ‘kinetoscope’ all yield interesting results. Here, for example, is an account from The British Journal of Nursing, 15 November 1919, on a screening of the film The End of the Road:

By the courteous invitation of the National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases (London and Home Counties Branch), we attended a private exhibition of an Educational Cinematograph Production. bearing the above title. This powerful film is authorised by the Council, and produced With the approval of the Ministry of Health at the Alhambra Theatre, It is scarcely necessary to state that the splendid endeavours of the N.C.C.V.D. are bearing abundant fruit. Only a few years ago the production of a play handling social and sex questions with such frankness would not have been possible on our English stage. To-day a mixed audience watches it with the reverent silence of a Church congregation, a proof that the senseless prudery which has been so largely responsible in the past for an enormous amount of preventable disease, misery and degradation is breaking down, and giving place to a more sane, enlightened, and wholesome attitude of mind.

In the case of both the BMJ archive and that of the RCN, the article are available for free, as word-searchable and downloadable PDFs.

The history of early medical film can be traced in Virgilio Tosi’s Cinema Before Cinema: The Origins of Scientific Cinematography (first published in Italian 1984 and in English in 2005) which is accompanied by a DVD, The Origins of Scientific Cinematography, which demonstrates the work of chronophotographers, ethnographers, scientists and doctors who used film at the turn of the last century. The DVD contains some beautiful and occasionally eye-popping images (my favourite is a German doctor, Ernst von Bergmann, from 1903, who swiftly amputates a leg and then makes a bow to the camera).

Other studies around this area include Marta Braun, Picturing Time: Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) (one of the most beautiful books I know, as well as brimming over with intelligence) and Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, a thought-provoking study of the meaning and intentions of the medical film, boldly arguing for its alliance with the avant garde and popular culture. Not published yet, but allied to Cartwright’s preoccupations, will be Hannah Landecker’s book which has the working title Cellular Features: A History of Biological Film in Science and Culture, information on which can be found here. As Landecker notes, while many medical films were shown only to specialists, or were used for instructional purposes, others made it into the popular cinema – notably the films of Jean Comandon.

One of the interesting things is that people didn’t draw the line between science and entertainment … It was all seen as film — something new. People were really excited that they could see something they’d never seen before — films of far-away places and of small things inside the body.

Has that line been drawn since? Dr Doyen’s 1902 film of the separation of Siamese twins ended up being shown on fairgrounds (and can be found on YouTube, if you know where to look), and only last month Channel 4 gave us The Operation: Surgery Live. Medical film is popular film, because we are drawn to watch it. It is certainly a part of film history that it would be wrong to ignore.

The balancing bluebottle


The Balancing Bluebottle (1908)

A delightful programme was broadcast today on BBC Radio 4, The Balancing Bluebottle. It’s a 30-minute documentary on the life and work of Percy Smith, pioneering naturalist filmmaker. It’s presented by Tim Boon, curator at the Science Museum, whose recent book Films of Fact is a history of science documentary on film and television.

Normally I would pen you a paragraph or three on Smith’s career, but it’s been a long week (it’s been a long month) and I’m going to take a short cut by giving you this section from my Charles Urban site:

F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was a modest but brilliant pioneer of scientific filmmaking. He was a clerk with the Board of Education whose hobby was photographing nature, notably magnified pictures of insects. One of these, a photograph of a bluebottle’s tongue, came to Urban’s attention, and in 1907 he invited Smith to do similar work with a motion picture camera. Failing to persuade his employers of the value of film as an educational tool, Smith joined Urban full-time in 1910. Smith’s films soon gained considerable attention, notably The Balancing Bluebottle and The Birth of a Flower, showing plant growth through stop-motion cinematography in Kinemacolor. Smith’s films were made at his Southgate home and involved meticulous preparation over many months. When war broke out in 1914 he made a series of animated war maps for Urban’s Kineto company before becoming a photographer with the Navy. After the war he did a little more work for Urban before he found greater fame with the Secrets of Nature series of nature films, made for British Instructional Films, which gained wide acclaim and were popular for two decades. He is one of the great names in scientific filmmaking.

Smith’s films entrance and instruct to this day. The Balancing Bluebottle itself featured bluebottles performing seemingly extraordinary feats of strength. Tied down with silk (and released unharmed afterwards) the bluebottles juggle a cork, a ball and a stick. The film caused a sensation at the time and can still leave an audience open-mouthed today.

  • A 1910 re-edited and reissued version of the film, under the title The Acrobatic Fly, is available on YouTube, courtesy of the BFI
  • A further retitled and reissued version from 1911, under the title The Strength and Agility of Insects, is available on WildFilmHistory
  • Smith’s 1910 film The Birth of a Flower is available to view at WildFilmHistory

The programme features Sir David Attenborough, Bryony Dixon from the BFI, Jenny Hammerton from AP Archive, and (recorded in a windy side alley off Leicester Square), one Luke McKernan. It’s available for the next seven days on BBC iPlayer, and is warmly recommended for its charm and insight.