The Cinema of Science

What do birds, cicadas, and solar prominences have in common? These were all subjects of films produced by the Institute of Science in its first decade of existence. Maybe it’s those Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episodes I watched in syndication as a kid, but when I uncovered films made and produced by some of the Institute’s earliest scientific staff, I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

The 2014 Center for Collections and Research exhibition, Cranbrook Goes to the Movies: Films and Their Objects, 1925-1975, featured a 1960 Institute promotional film titled, So, You’re Going to Visit the Institute, which introduced viewers to the museum’s exhibit halls. Fascinating though it is, the film was hardly the Institute’s first foray into film production.

Credits and introduction of So, You’re Going to Visit the Institute, Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1960. 16mm film, 13:14 minutes (full-length). Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

In fact, the Institute’s “Ciné Film Collection” had begun in 1935, just five years after the Institute opened. Scientists at the Institute, not merely content to rely on handwritten notes and still photography, embraced the new 16mm motion picture technology to record their field research and then craft educational films for Institute members.

Some of the raw footage taken in the field was recently recovered, courtesy of the Museum of Cultural and Natural History staff at Central Michigan University. These 177 films found their way back to Cranbrook after over fifty years on the road, journeying to North Carolina and back, by way of Mt. Pleasant, MI. Created by Walter Nickell (also affiliated with CMU’s museum), Edward T. Boardman, S.P. Stackpole, Florence Maxwell, and other Institute staff, several of them can be traced directly to the aforementioned early educational films.

Take for instance, Birds in Summer, the first production, which almost certainly used footage taken that same year by zoologist Edward T. Boardman, labeled “Great Blue Herons Bird’s Nests.” Couple that with the September 1935 Institute News-Letter [sic] announcement, “New Movies in Color,” which heralded the work of zoologists that summer, and you get a fuller sense of the flurry of filming activity. The article goes on to mention the capture of new footage of Michigan animals, including hummingbirds, baby herons, and others, that were soon to be edited into films.

Institute staff continued to film birds even after the 1935 educational film was completed. Walter P. Nickell, July 27, 1944. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Another early film drew from raw footage now in the Archives, perhaps again at the hand of Boardman or Donald T. Ries, Curator of the Division of Insects. Emergence of the Periodical Cicada at Cranbrook was released the following year and had several showings.

Also in 1936, a modern solar tower was built at the new McMath-Hulbert Observatory in Pontiac that made possible a film by Robert R. McMath, Institute Trustee and Chairman of the Astronomy Division, and Director of the Observatory. The film was shown publicly for the first time in the Cranbrook Pavilion, to the largest Institute audience to date: 575 people.

View of Dr. Robert McMath at the controls of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory’s solar telescope, 1940. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Some 3,000 feet of motion picture film footage was shot in just the first year of production, alone. Though it’s not yet confirmed how many in total were produced in the 1930s, nine resulting educational films are currently preserved in the Archives. While research work is the predominate focus, other films include exhibitions and staff activities, including field trips with the museum’s junior members.

Junior Members, on a field trip, descend into a quarry in Monroe, MI, September 1935. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Like So You Want to Visit the Institute, the Archives hopes to digitize all nine films. Get your popcorn ready!

Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Man and the Starry Heavens—The Story of Michigan’s First Public Planetarium

“Science and Art are not only for the scientist and the artist, but are for everyone who longs to enrich himself with true cultural interests.”

-George G. Booth, letter to Dr. Samuel Marquis, June 6th, 1934

Astronomy was included in the curriculum at Cranbrook School from its beginning in 1927. Judge Hulbert was chairman of the Observatory Committee and, with Prof. Curtis of the Astronomy Department at the University of Michigan, pursued plans to create a school observatory in what is now called Hoey Tower. The tower conditions were not conducive to keeping a telescope and an alternative location was sought. Consequently, an observatory was included in plans for an Institute of Science designed by George G. Booth in 1930 and the telescope was moved there. William Schultz, Jr. supervised the relocation of the telescope. Schultz was a general science teacher from 1930 to 1969, and Head of the Science Department at Cranbrook School (1938-1965). He was also an Associate in Astronomical Education with the Cranbrook Institute of Science from 1945. You can read more about the history of Cranbrook Observatory here.

William Schultz, Jr., October 1967
Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Photographer: Harvey Croze.

By 1932, it was clear that expansion and a new CIS building was necessary. Eliel Saarinen designed the second building between 1936-1937, and it was dedicated in 1938. The CIS Newsletter of April 1937 reported:

“Even in its uncompleted state one is impressed by the beauty of the new building—the sheer simplicity of the architecture, the artistry of its mathematical precision. One feels that it not only embodies the spirit of a scientific institution in its severity of line, but that the details of design give it a unique individuality. From the empty air, as it were, Mr. Saarinen has created one more evidence of his architectural genius.” (Aimee S. Lambie (Ed.), CIS Newsletter, April 1937).

The newsletter also reported the addition of a Copernican planetarium, a gift of Mrs. George G. Booth. The planetarium was made to order in Munich, Germany.

In the spring of 1953, the Astronomy program began to include demonstrations of the constellations on the inside of the observatory dome, using a star projector designed and built by William Schultz, Jr. Schultz was already using the projector to teach astronomy in general science class at Cranbrook School because it produced, “an amazingly good illusion of the starry heavens”. Developed with a materials cost of 45 cents, Schultz’ innovation was a distinguished addition to the astronomy program, but it also created the impetus for a facility and a projection instrument of wider application.

Cover of the Cranbrook Institute of Science Newsletter, December 1952

In June 1953, the Committee on Education made a proposal for the purchase and installation of a Spitz Planetarium to the Annual Meeting of CIS Trustees. In December the same year, L. James Bulkley and Dr. Robert McMath were appointed and authorized to act as a committee of two to pursue the Spitz Planetarium. During 1954, CIS Trustee William Edward Kapp drew up architectural plans for the Planetarium addition at no fee as his contribution to the project. The Spitz Model A-1 projection instrument was also obtained, a gift of Detroit Edison Company. The construction contract was awarded to Killfoile-Wendeln Construction Co. and groundbreaking took place on March 30, 1955.

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Planetarium, March 30, 1955
Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Photographer Harvey Croze

Construction went on through the summer of 1955. The Planetarium was formally dedicated on September 30, 1955, with an Invocation by Rev. Robert L. DeWitt, remarks by Mr. Kapp, a dedication address by Dr. Alexander G. Ruthven, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan and Institute Trustee, comments by Dr. Robert McMath, and demonstration by Armand Spitz, the designer of the projector.

The dedication of the Robert R. McMath Planetarium, September 30, 1955
Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Center for Collections and Research

When it opened in October 1955, Robert R. McMath Planetarium was the first public planetarium in Michigan. The following photograph shows Dr. Robert McMath (left), Mr. Armand Spitz (center), and Mr. William Edward Kapp (right) at the dedication event.

The dedication of the Planetarium, September 30, 1955
Copyright Cranbrook Archives, Photographer Harvey Croze

Between 1956 and 1971, there were 17,289 demonstrations in the Planetarium and it was time for a new projector. Schultz supervised the renovation of the planetarium, which reopened in October 1973 with a new Spitz 512 Planetarium instrument. The planetarium has since undergone further renovation and upgrades, courtesy of the Michael and Adele Acheson family. You can learn more about astronomy and the current programs at the Acheson Planetarium here.

“The planetarium reproduces the great panorama of the heavens, supplementing the telescope, which provides the intimate view… [It] is a successful adjunct to other forms of teaching science, from elementary to university levels, and to the study of navigation, mythology, literature, and spherical trigonometry. But it is above all a useful, ever-ready device for aiding people of all ages and degrees of education to study the sky around them and to set them thinking in terms of a “master plan.” (Robert T. Hatt, March 1956, CIS Newsletter, Vol. 25, No.7.)

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

 

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