Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Science as seen on screen – part I: a brief history

Following on from our posts on science museums, in our latest mini series we will be considering another important scientific learning medium; film and video.


The scientific community now has at its disposal multiple ways to turn the wheels of a communication revolution. Film, digitial television, and the Internet are enabling scientists to reach out to people across the world, often providing high quality, factual information for low or no cost, and without geographical limitations. In this post we will explore specifically how television and film are employed to disseminate science.

As we owe the origins of film and television to the scientists and engineers who experimented with technology, it seems only fitting that scientists should utilise these media to help communicate their ideas. Now as technologies for both creating and sharing science films have improved, so has their quality and reach. But where did it all start?

First ever documentary

Film was used to teach science as early as 1903 with the airing of what is widely recognised as the first ever science documentary. Labelled as Cheese Mites, and made by Charles Urban and Francis Martin Duncan, the film was aired at the Alhambra Music Hall in London’s Leicester Square and provided the first glimpse of science on a microscopic level. The film, billed as The Unseen World, also included protoplasm stirring in a sample of Canadian pondweed, as well as short, observational glimpses of other animals, including bees, chameleons, tortoises and toads. It gave an opportunity to those outside the science community to see real science in action.

Take a look at a clip from Cheese Mites in this New Scientist video. Here Tim Boon, curator at the Science Museum, takes a look at some of the earliest science films including the birth of a flower and a juggling fly produced by film-maker Percy Smith

At the time Cheese Mites was aired, the word documentary didn’t exist. It wasn’t until 1926 that, according to popular myth, John Grierson, a Scottish film maker considered the father of British and Canadian documentary film, coined the term to describe a non-fiction film.

The next significant stage for science on screen began in 1922 when a series of nature films produced by British Instructional Films, called Secrets of Nature, was aired. For the following eleven years they produced a total of over 300 nine-minute films. With their beautiful imagery and clever filming techniques, they helped promote a new genre of film, considering the world in a different light. However, these films were not made by professional scientists; they were merely produced by amateur enthusiasts who enjoyed looking at the natural world in new and creative ways. Despite their inexperience, these films set the future stage for the communcation of science in this form.

The public response to these types of films was enthusiastic and, by 1930, the filming of science had become a recognised genre. However, qualified scientists were slow to turn to the cinema to disseminate their knowledge and scientific films aimed at the general public remained relatively uncommon before the Second World War. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that television began to become a leading medium for science programmes and news items were increasingly explaining the science when relevant. Television soon became the most common medium for science.

New Horizons

Deploying film as a learning tool for science reached new heights in the UK in 1964 with the commissioning of the BBC’s Horizon, which is still running successfully today with a global audience. The first programme was The World of Buckminster Fuller, produced and directed by Ramsay Short, and explored the ideas of inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller. The series proved that television can be a valuable educative tool, not just an entertainment medium. It can be used as an informal science learning landscape, in keeping with the programme’s mission statement:

The aim of Horizon is to provide a platform from which some of the world’s greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge their changing views of the universe.

Things really picked up for science on British television with the commissioning of Channel 4, which began airing in 1982; its aim was to show more factual programmes and in doing so was able to promote science positively. The successful Crucible: Science and Society was one of their ground-breaking science series. The show took advice from some of the world’s greatest scientists, and along with programmes like BBC’s Horizon, helped to pave the way for science on TV today.

Science on TV today

Science can now be found on TV at any time of the day. We have the Discovery Channel, with the more specialised Discovery Science Channel, and the National Geographic Channel, to name a few. These channels often show archive classics, as well as up-to-date material. Most mainstream TV channels have specialist factual departments which commission science programmes, with some long running favourites such as The Sky at Night, which is celebrating its 700th programme this month with a special edition. Horizon is also still going strong, having completed 46 seasons and more than 1000 programmes. There is also a demand for science on screen aimed at the younger generation. Popular interactive children’s science shows, such as Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab, and Brainiac, help to make science accessible as well as entertaining for the young. The Telegraph newspaper recently gave us a breakdown of the top ten classic science programmes. How many do you recognise?

Now the general availability of high definition TV and the more recent advent of 3-D TV improve the audio-visual experience, taking the enjoyment of science on the screen to a new level. Along with film festivals such as The Imagine Science Film Festival held in New York, and Boston’s Science on Screen festival, that help to celebrate the progress of science in the visual media throughout the years, has there ever been a better time to appreciate the wonder of science on our screens?

In the next post we shall consider how science is seen on the internet and look at some of the best websites hosting visual science online.

If you want to read more why not check out Films of Fact by Dr Tim Boon.


  1. Report this comment

    Paige Brown said:

     Thank you for the post. I will be interested to read part II on science as seen on the internet.

    What about the Genre of Science-Fiction? Does this genre have an earlier origin, and what is the history of accurate science depiction through science fiction?

    I have started a NN forum, Science in Film and a Facebook Page promoting scientists’ involvment in film. Please tell me what you think

    -Paige Brown

  2. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    Thanks Paige for your contribution.  Part 2 can be seen here, this is where we interviewed Greg Foot, BBCs adrenaline-fuelled science presenter.  Part 3 also went live today; this post includes a video vault where we have listed science online resources (feel free to add to the list).

    If you are interested in Sci-fi posts, why not have a read of these:  The first, is a post by Linda Lin, Breaking out of the Blogging Break: Science Fiction like Research.  Finally, why not take this sci-fi quiz by Matt Brown, out London Blogger. 

  3. Report this comment

    Laura Wheeler said:

    Thanks Erik, I have now added The New York Times science video section to the vault. If we have left any other resources off, please do let us know. 

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