Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 529:
PANORAMANIA

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 529.

Today, we make a spectacle. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I saw my first IMAX movie in Fort Worth. It was a half-hour film called Speed. The theatre seats were raked at a 45 degree angle. The enormous screen curved from nearly overhead down to the floor. My eye couldn't encompass the whole scene. Instead, it roamed the picture -- up and down, left and right. I was encased in a remarkable visual experience.

I've always been troubled by motion sickness. Now I rode fast cars on winding roads. I flew airplanes off the edge of cliffs. It was exciting, but I get sick just remembering it.

Showmen have tried to give that kind of reality for a long time. Robert Barker invented the true forbear of the IMAX in London in 1789. He exhibited a 360-degree view of Edinburgh.

It was a modest beginning, but it held the potential for a new art form. By 1791 Barker had expanded to a 10,000-square-foot canvas of the English fleet at Spithead. Now spectators stood on a raised platform in the center. Like the IMAX picture, this one rose from below the line of sight to above it. Barker added other scenes -- cities, naval battles, that sort of thing.

He also invented a new name for the experience. It was "Panorama." That's how the word panorama became part of our language. Barker made it up from the Greek for "entire view."

The art form spread. When Barker's patent ran out in 1801, Robert Fulton -- of all people -- introduced the Panorama to France. People added colored lights. They created illusions of motion by unwinding very long pictures from huge spools.

Joshua Reynolds admired the Panoramas. He went back again and again to see them. Other painters disagreed. Constable looked at the clever way Panoramas manipulated perspective. Then he dismissed them because their "object was deception."

The Panorama rage began dying out by 1820. They revived during the 1870s and 1880s. But the sad thing about those marvelous old paintings was that they were too hard to store. Today we have the shabby remains of a few. We have the sketches for others. We have a few loose fragments. We have to recreate the art before we can see how it touched 19th-century minds.

So museums are reconstructing the old art. More important, new and better Panoramas are being created and displayed today -- chiefly in Europe, but some in America as well.

IMAX may be the spawn of the old Panoramas, but in an odd way, it cannot replace a static picture. We crave the freedom to explore a scene at our own tempo. Those old Panoramas gave us next best thing to standing right on the rim of the Grand Canyon -- or in the frozen moment of victory at Trafalgar.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hyde, R., PAMORAMANIA: The Art and Entertainment of the 'All Embracing' View. London: Trefoil Publications in Association with Barbican Art Gallery, 1988.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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