Monday, November 17, 2008

Gateways to Engineering: "Our Mr. Sun" 52 Years On

In my perhaps overly generous definition of engineering ethics, I consider the question of why people become engineers a legitimate topic of enquiry within the field. If for some mysterious reason young people all of a sudden lost interest in becoming engineers, we'd have real problems getting engineering projects done, and all the good things that result from engineering wouldn't happen. Also, even though it's been two years since I did a blog on the movie "The Prestige," I'm still getting comments about it. So these two factors lead me to draw your attention to a curious film called "Our Mr. Sun." But first, some context.

The nineteen-fifties were unique in many ways, some good, some not so good. Having helped to knock flat nearly every other industrialized country's manufacturing capabilities during World War II, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented decade of prosperity as we produced a lot of neat new stuff that the rest of the world wanted. One beneficiary of this abundance was the Bell System, which back then legally monopolized the U. S. telecommunications market. With a small portion of their government-regulated profits, Ma Bell devoted itself to what it perceived as good works, the nature of which some historian of technology ought to explore one of these days. One of these good works was a well-funded series of entertaining and (they hoped) educational films, which became known as the Bell Laboratories Science Series.

It sounds like what we call "infotainment" today, but compared to today's thirty-minute ads for weight-loss nostrums, the Bell films are almost the exact opposite. Today's infotainment is produced as cheaply as the advertisers can get by with it; Bell went out and hired top-notch directors such as Frank Capra, and gave them pretty nearly a free hand and generous funding. The whole point of today's infotainment is to sell you something; the first film in the Science Series, an hour-long production called "Our Mr. Sun," has about three minutes devoted to the Bell System's early research in solar cells, and one gets the feeling that if Mr. Capra had decided to cut it for a good artistic reason, the Bell people would have swallowed their pride and gone along with the cut.

When one asks why a telecommunications monopoly would spend their shareholders' money on such an apparently profitless enterprise, the non-historian is reduced to guesswork (the real answer may be buried in the AT&T Archives in New Jersey, but my historical-research travel budget for this blog is busted). One reason might have been that Bell, and a lot of other people besides, were worried that U. S. citizens didn't know enough about science, and needed to know more. Although the film's format combined animation and live action, it was clearly intended for a wider audience than the kiddies, since it reportedly aired on television at 10 PM, which was not a good time if you wanted a lot of children in your audience. On the other hand, over 600 prints were later distributed to schools and civic organizations, so reaching the younger generation must have been at least a part of their intentions.

One way to get a grip on why they did it is to watch the film, which I did last night. (It is now in the public domain, and a URL for a streaming source is given below.) Technically, the story is in the form of an allegory a la Pilgrim's Progress, with characters such as Mr. Research (played by professor of literature Frank Baxter), Mr. Writer (Eddie Albert), and the voices of Mr. Sun (Marvin Miller) and Father Time (allegedly played by Lionel Barrymore, in his last role). These latter two worthies appear via animated segments, which makes it easier to conduct interviews with beings such as stars and personifications of non-material ideas.

Capra knew his way around lively stories, and the film holds up surprisingly well in both the dramatic and the technical senses. Dramatically, it does not induce that cringing sensation that the hyper-corniness of so many didactic films of the 1950s produce in us today. Capra managed to get across three thousand years' worth of history about how the sun was originally regarded as a god, to today's present view of it as a flaming ball of gas, and pinpoints the turning point with the name of a specific Greek philosopher. Then the viewer is treated to such things as the physics of nuclear fusion as explained by a magician, the problem of future sources of energy as symbolized by an "energy bank" measured in horsepower-hours, and speculation that future energy shortages will be solved in the short run by nuclear energy, of course, but eventually we might run out of uranium and then we'd have to develop better solar cells.

It's easy to throw rocks at such clouded crystal balls (to mix a metaphor), but the science that was state-of-the-art then was explained well. We get to see a clip of Hans Bethe, who originated the explanation for the carbon cycle of nuclear fusion in the sun, and get treated to what scientists knew about how chlorophyll (or rather, Chloro Phyll, a diminutive cook in a plant's metaphorical chemical kitchen) turns sunlight and water and carbon dioxide into sugar. In one of the weirder sequences, a cartoon scientist dressed in a chef's outfit starts with beach sand, purifies it in a blender, adds a "dash of arsenic" (!), cooks it in a boron oven, and voila! out pops a pan of solar cells from the oven, like cookies. (You're tempted to say, "Kids, don't try this at home," but the Bell System, in a separate but related public-education program, made available to public schools a do-it-yourself solar-cell kit, complete with a set of little fire bricks to build your boron-diffusion oven with.)

Your correspondent was too young at the time the film was released in 1956 to see it in its initial release on TV, but seven others came out over the next eight years, and chances are that anybody going to school in the 1960s saw at least one of these films. In an essay on the series, David Templeton notes that many young people who saw the films later became scientists and engineers, and some cite the series as at least one reason why they chose their technical fields. So in that sense, at least, it looks like Ma Bell got her money back.

It's hard to imagine anything like this taking place today, for a number of reasons. Telecomm monopolies have passed from the scene, corporate altruism is not popular with shareholders these days (what is?), and there is no chance in perdition that a modern film director could get by with the framing motif that Capra, a committed Catholic, chose to begin and end "Our Mr. Sun" with. The first words you see are "The Heavens declare the glory of God" (the first line of the Old Testament Psalm 19), and nearly the last words you hear are those of St. Francis of Assisi, who viewed Nature not as our mother, to be enslaved to, nor as our mistress or subject, to be exploited and dominated, but as our sister, to be loved, cared for, and regarded as a fellow creature of one's Creator. Of course, this was back when prayer in schools was not only permitted but often required by law. Whether getting rid of that kind of religious intrusion in public education has contributed to our current parlous state in which the future of engineering in the U. S. is at least somewhat in doubt, I will leave as a puzzle for the reader.

Sources: "Our Mr. Sun" can be viewed at the AVGeeks archive at David Templeton's essay can be found at

No comments:

Post a Comment