Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Podcast: How a Telephone Company Revolutionized Science Outreach



Before Neil deGrasse Tyson; before Bill Nye; before Beakman and Mr. Wizard; before Carl Sagan—there was Dr. Research.

On the set of Our Mr. Sun (from left), Academy-Award winning director Frank Capra, leading Frank C. Baxter ("Dr. Research") and Eddie Albert (the first "Fiction Writer"). Image courtesy of Wesleyan Cinema Archives, via Eric Niderost

"Dr. Research" (real name Dr. Frank Baxter), was the star of the Bell Science Series, from 1953 to 1964. The Bell series was the first science show to incorporate good storytelling, humor and visual effects. Other science shows at the time basically consisted of someone giving a classroom lecture. In other words, the Bell Science Series set the stage for just about every entertaining science show that came later.

The drastic change in approach was largely thanks to the vision of Cleo T. Craig, head of ATT at the time, and Frank Capra, who directed the first four films (modern audiences will be most familiar with Capra's directing work on the holiday classic It's A Wonderful Life.) Even if you're too young to remember "Dr. Research" Baxter, his legacy is important to modern science television.

This week on the podcast I talk with author and historian Eric Niderost about his book Sonnets and Sunspots: "Dr. Research" Baxter and the Bell Science Films.

You can watch four of the Bell Science films online: Our Mr. SunThe Alphabet ConspiracyThe Thread of Life, and Gateways to the Mind.
From left, Frank Baxter ("Dr. Research"), Richard Carlson (the second "Fiction Writer"), and voice actor Mel Blanc (a squirrel in Hemo the Magnificent, but you know him as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and just about every other Warner Brothers cartoon voice before 1980). Image courtesy of Wesleyan Cinema Archives, via Eric Niderost. 

Correction: I stated in the podcast that the first four of the Bell Science films are available to watch online. That's not the case. The four films that are available are linked above (they are the first, fifth, sixth and seventh films in the series); you can buy the second, third and fourth films on DVD

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