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.
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:
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.
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.
* Behavior Of Gases
* Change Of Scale
* Collisions Of Hard Spheres
*GA Conservation Of Energy
* Definite And Multiple Proportions
* Deflecting Forces
*GA Electric Fields
Electric Lines Of Force
* Electrical Potential Energy And Potential Difference (parts 1 and 2)
* Elementary Charges And Transfer Of Kinetic Energy
Elements, Compounds, and Mixtures
*GA Elliptic Orbits (Mechanical)
* Energy And Work
* Inertial Mass
Mass of Atoms (parts 1 and 2)
* Mass of the Electron
* Measuring Large Distances
* Measuring Short Distances
Moving With The Center Of Mass: Kinetic Energy and MomentumShort Time Intervals Sound Waves In Air Straight Line Kinematics Time Dilation - An Experiment With Mu-Mesons Universal Gravitation
* Vector KinematicsVectors