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Patterson Hume, Donald Ivey (upside down), and Ricky Leacock (obscured by handheld mirror)
and unidentified man, during the making of 'Frames of Reference'

The physics films made under the auspices of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) in the late 1950s and early 1960s are considered landmarks in the genre of the classroom science academic film. This page consists of a short description of these films by Geoff Alexander, and Richard Leacock’s reminiscences regarding the creation of these films, followed by a filmography. See also Warren Everote’s description of the PSSC program.


(From Geoff Alexander's book Films You Saw in School: 1,153 Classroom Educational Films, 1958-1985):

   Perhaps the most significant advance in the push to improved mediated science curriculum actually began in 1956 when a group of MIT scientists, under the leadership of physicist Jerrold Zacharias, formed the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC). A component of the charter of the committee was to develop a teaching course and a series of films on the physical sciences. Initially funded by a grant of $303,000 from the National Science Foundation, PSSC was the NSF’s first science curriculum development program ever (soon, the Alfred P. Sloan and Ford Foundations would join NSF to fund the series). Zacharias’ educational perspective was to bridge the gap between scholar and teacher by bypassing the administrative establishment, which he felt had so badly eroded the needed link between scholarship and curriculum. Although the initial agreement to make the series included Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, a clash between Zacharias and EBF president Maurice Mitchell scotched the deal early on, and Educational Services Inc. (ESI, today known as EDC) soon took distribution responsibilities. PSSC educational materials available to schools included 60 films, three textbooks, and inexpensive lab experiments using everyday items. Noted filmmakers such as Quentin Brown, Richard Leacock, and Larry Yust made PSSC films, which were hosted by noted physicists such as MIT’s Francis Bitter, Bell Labs’ Alan Holden, and the entertaining Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey from the University of Toronto. Among the significance elements of PSSC films that make them noteworthy is their use of noted scientists as hosts, the fact that an entire curriculum --- including textbooks – was created for them, and that they were the first post-Sputnik science series to be sold into schools. To a very large extent, they influenced all other physical science films series that were to follow. Although a number of the films do not emphasize affective elements, several of those that do bear mention, including five made by Richard Leacock, interesting enough cinematically that they are of interest to individuals that don’t have an active interest in physics. About the series, Leacock recalls:

Zach [program director Jerrold Zacharias] tended to assign the subjects that were complex, as in this case, or those where the teachers were complex as with Bitter, with whom Zach did not get along, Rogers, at Princeton who was known as a star lecturer (he had been the physics teacher at Bedales, the school I was sent to in England) I think I was the only film maker around who had majored in Physics at College so, at least I knew the language. My favorites are Frames, Crystals, with Allen Holden of Bell Labs (one of the group that discovered the transistor), there is an extraordinary shot in that where we melted some Saylol (spelling?) crystals under the microscope and then let them grow; they go from blobs into perfect diamond shapes. Holden was a wonderful scientist and caused me to revise my opinion of Bell Labs, an extraordinary product of the world of monopoly! Coulombs Law and another with Eric Rogers were more like filming a star actor doing his thing. At the end of the proof of the inverse square law (à la Cavendish) the young girl who we charged up with a couple of million volts to make her hair stand on end, is my eldest daughter, Elspeth. She is still mad at him because he promised to send her a Wimshurst Machine and never did.

A Magnet Laboratory (1959), featuring the fabled and sartorially disheveled Dr. Francis Bitter of MIT  experimenting with powerful electro-magnets, and ultimately setting one experiment on fire, and quelling it with a nearby fire extinguisher. Breaking nearly every rule established for the relatively staid science community, Leacock, who himself studied physics at MIT, utilized the lab as a sort of constructivist stage, at one point “breaking” a researcher at mid-torso in the upper right of the frame to linger for several minutes, rear-end to camera. Perhaps the most arresting moment of the film occurs roughly half way through the film the telephone rings, an off screen voice says “it’s for you,” and Bitter, without missing a beat, responds "tell 'em I'll call 'em back later."  Leacock gives every physicist in the lab a personality, from the droll Bitter, to "Beans" Bardo, the wonderfully-named technician whose responsibility it was to crank up the 12 foot high, twenty foot long generator to nearly explosive proportions while drowning out Bitter’s attempt to explain what was about to occur.  Assistant Dr. John Waymouth is almost as funny as Bitter, exhorting Beans to “fire when ready, maestro!” before engaging Bitter in a duel of magnet power, culminating in the accidental calamity of catching the experiment on fire. The filmmaker fondly remembers working with Bitter, a constant thorn-in-the-side of the staid MIT Physics department both in the lab and at departmental parties, often accompanied by his outspoken, flamboyant, and attractive wife, renowned for needling her husband’s self-important colleagues.

Three other Leacock-directed PSSC films are worthy of note. Crystals (1958) features Bell Lab’s Alan Holden’s dry humor, describing his own private fun in growing crystals, diametrically opposed to the manic Princeton professor Eric Rogers hosting Leacock’s Coulomb’s Law (1959).  Rogers is animated, continually removing and replacing his eyeglasses, ordering around lab assistants --- he forcefully breaks a glass test tube in the hands of an assistant to demonstrate the inelasticity of water --- and furiously pounds equations on a blackboard (Leacock says the scribblings must have lasted 45 minutes, in what must be one of the more necessary cuts in the history of educational film). Rogers finally conducts an experiment with a young girl, placing her in a metal cage, which he then charges with electricity, demonstrating through the inverse square law that his assistant (Leacock’s trusting daughter Elspeth) is not harmed by the charge.

Utilizing a fascinating set consisting of a rotating table and furniture occupying surprisingly unpredictable spots within the viewing area, Leacock’s Frames of Reference (1960), features fine cinematography by Abraham Morochnik, and funny narration by University of Toronto professors Donald Ivey and Patterson Hume, in a wonderful example of the fun a creative team of filmmakers can have with a subject other, less imaginative types might find pedestrian.

Others in the PSSC series aren’t as successful, on an affective level: Definite and Multiple Proportions (1960), directed by Herman Engel, is not nearly as quirky and fun as Leacock’s films, and could have possibly more effective as a teaching tool if half of its thirty minute length would have been left on the cutting room floor, while Interference of Photons (1959), directed by Wallace Worsley, like many of the other films in the series, suffers from the lack of camera-presence on the part of its host.

 

PSSC filmography

This is what we believe to a complete list of the 59 films identified so far as making up the PSSC series. The 1979 EDC catalogue listed 55 in the series, but we have identified four more that weren't in the catalogue. There possibly could be more. Or not. Those with URL links below may be seen on the AFA collection at the Internet Archive. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are in our archive in 16mm format, but need sponsors for digitizing and uploading them. If you'd like to sponsor a film, contact us for more information.


* Angular Momentum: a Vector Quantity

* Behavior Of Gases                           

* Change Of Scale                             

* Collisions Of Hard Spheres                  

*GA Conservation Of Energy                       

* Coulomb Force Constant                      

Coulomb's Law                               

Counting Electrical Charges In Motion     

Crystals                                    

* Definite And Multiple Proportions           

* Deflecting Forces         

Elastic Collisions And Stored Energy        

*GA Electric Fields                             

Electric Lines Of Force                     

* Electrical Potential Energy And Potential Difference  (parts 1 and 2)

Electromagnetic Waves                       

Electrons In A Uniform Magnetic Field  

* Elementary Charges And Transfer Of Kinetic  Energy 

Elements, Compounds And Mixtures       

*GA  Elliptic Orbits (Mechanical)

* E M F

* Energy And Work        

*GA Forces                                      

Frames Of Reference                         

Frank-Hertz Experiment, The

Free Fall And Projectile Motion - Falling Bodies  

* Inertia                                     

* Inertial Mass                                

Interference Of Photons                     

Introduction To Optics                      

Long Time Intervals                         

Magnet Laboratory, A

Mass of Atoms (parts 1 and 2)

* Mass of the Electron

* Matter Waves

* Measurements                                 

* Measuring Large Distances                   

* Measuring Short Distances          

Mechanical Energy And Thermal Energy         

Millikan Experiment, The                          

Million To One, A

Moving With The Center Of Mass: Kinetic Energy and Momentum    

Periodic Motion                             

* Photoelectric Effect                     

Photons                                      

* Pressure Of Light                           

Random Events                               

Rutherford Atom, The                             

Short Time Intervals                         

Simple Waves                                  

Sound Waves In Air                          

Speed Of Light in Air and Water       

Straight Line Kinematics                    

Time And Clocks                              

Time Dilation - An Experiment With Mu-Mesons  

* Ultimate Speed - An Exploration With High Energy Electrons 

Universal Gravitation                       

* Vector Kinematics                           

*GA Vectors                                     


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