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Page last updated at 10:09 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 11:09 UK

Cheese mites and other wonders

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Scientists tests coal in the lab
The public got to see inside the science lab (Picture: Courtesy National Grid PLC, Supplied by BFI)
Since the birth of the moving picture scientists have been attempting to use documentaries to communicate great ideas to the public. It all started with a close-up of some cheese mites.

A series of era-defining science documentaries is being showcased at the Science Museum in its Films of Fact exhibition.

Curator Tim Boon describes four of the films that changed the way the public understands science.


"Cheese Mites" from 1903

In 1903, at the Alhambra Music Hall in London's Leicester Square - now an Odeon - the public got the chance to see something truly disgusting.

Less than a decade into the cinema age, a one-minute film of mites crawling in a piece of cheese, filmed down a microscope was enough to provoke gasps and laughter from a stunned audience.

The film, made by Charles Urban and Francis Martin Duncan, marked the birth of the popular science documentary with startling imagery.

According to Urban, the mites were "crawling and creeping about in all directions, looking like great uncanny crabs, bristling with long spiny hairs and legs".

"Cheese Mites was the first scientific film made for public consumption," Dr Boon says. "These were early days for cinema. The audience was highly attuned to going after exciting new entertainments.

"They enjoyed seeing something rather revolting."

The film was unlikely to have pleased anybody in the dairy industry, but it did have a lasting effect of sales of cheap microscopes, which would often include packets of mites as a test sample.


The 1930s was a decade of great technological innovation, and this was highlighted in the film Face of Britain by Paul Rotha.

In 20 minutes, four sections deal with the country as it was before the industrial revolution, the effects of the "smoke age", a time to come shaped by hydroelectric power, and a future era of modern architecture and scientific planning.

"It was shot and edited using the very latest artistic film technique," says Dr Boon.


Enough to Eat, made by Edgar Anstey, highlighted a major issue in the Depression-afflicted 1930s - malnutrition.

As a documentary it was innovative in that it featured ordinary people and it was presented by a scientist, Julian Huxley.

Francis Martin Duncan with microscope
Francis Martin Duncan was a pioneer of filming through a microscope (Picture: Courtesy National Media Museum/SSPL)

It was heavily influenced by the major report Food, Health and Income which reached the conclusion that half of the population of Britain could not afford a nutritious diet.

In the modern era, when dietary advice from scientists is a daily occurrence, it is difficult to comprehend a time when this was a newfangled notion - the very idea that scientists had an insight into the vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy life was cemented by Enough to Eat.

The film used new techniques to present its conclusions, says Dr Boon.

"It used a whole series of animated diagrams to put across information. It was only the second film that used interviews with real people - working class women on camera saying what it is like to feed their families on two-and-eight (13p) per person per week."


In 1957, the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik shocked the world.

"It was a huge surprise to everyone," says Dr Boon. "Frontiers of Science, one week later, gave you a wonderful idea of the British response to this extraordinary Cold War emergency."

Ex-Astronomer Royal Sir Harold Spencer Jones explains the trajectory of a satellite
A week after Sputnik's launch, viewers were told about orbits

The programme featured ex-Astronomer Royal Sir Harold Spencer Jones using a massive globe to explain to a baffled public why a satellite would remain in orbit and not just fall back to earth.

Another scientist explained how a rocket worked, while the programme ended with a young Patrick Moore agreeing with other experts that manned spaceflight was possible and that man would have walked on the Moon by the end of the century.

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