July 11, 2018–How much of your current knowledge can be traced back to a filmstrip you saw in 5th grade?

Anyone old enough to remember watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday evenings will remember filmstrip Fridays–or “naptime”–in elementary school. Those were the days your teacher dragged out the filmstrip projector.

The filmstrips–which literally were strips of film–came carefully curled inside little metal canisters the size and shape of a votive candle.

The current teacher’s pet would win the job of threading the slotted edges into the projector, advancing the knurled knob to the title slide, then centering it in the frame.

The early versions carried captions, but later models were accompanied with a record or cassette tape (another piece of early technology), that featured a narrator, background music, and conveniently placed “beeps” to let the filmstrip operator know when to advance to the next slide.

Woe to the student who got out of sync. The narrator would be expounding on the burros of the Grand Canyon, while the class was watching tourists walk across Hoover Dam.

Of course, for half the students, it didn’t matter, for as soon as the room lights went down, their heads went to the desk for a nap.

The topics were riveting, and much of our current worldview can be traced back to titles from the 1960s:

  • Your Body and How to Take Care of It
  • Gravity and Inertia
  • Our Aquarium
  • Hawaii, Our Next State?
  • Where East and South Meet
  • Introduction to Algae
  • Hoofed Mammals and Primates
  • Walter Reed and the Conquest of Yellow Fever
  • Manners at School (Part of a series: Manners at the Theater, Manners While Visiting Friends)
  • Marsy from the Planet Mars

Filmstrips gave way to 16mm films. On those days, if the teacher had reserved one of the school’s two film projectors, the giant cart was wheeled into the classroom, the film from the giant flat canister was threaded on, and for 22 1/2 minutes we were treated to How Steel Is Made with moving color images, wonderfully synchronized with sound.

I still remember watching an X-ray image of a man chewing and swallowing food. You could see the eerie skull and mandible, chewing a white wad of material, of which a small blob would be separated and slide down the esophagus.

My 9-year-old self was horrified. Seeing the whole process removed all pleasure from food for several days. It didn’t help that our school lunch that day was hamburger gravy, peas, and applesauce.

When I went into teaching, Audio-Visual–or “A-V,” as we insiders referred to it–was such a critical part of the education process in the 1960s-70s, all teachers had to take a college course in it. I loved A-V 101.

The syllabus required us to master a list of vital skills: cranking a mimeograph machine, laminating posters, shooting Polaroid pictures, using an opaque projector, making a tape recording, creating transparencies for use on an overhead projector, and of course threading filmstrip and film projectors. Every one of those became obsolete by the time we received our degree. Much like the content of the filmstrips.

During one of my teaching stints, the school decided to get rid of its old filmstrip technology. For some daft reason, I took home a projector and several boxes of those little cans. I had no use for them, but couldn’t bear to toss something that contained so much of mankind’s knowledge.

Years later, I dug out the machine and let my own kids use it, hoping it would make them forget about wanting an Xbox. It didn’t, but it did amuse them for a few days. That was probably because it was fun for them to play with something that had a 290-degree lamp and that they could fight over who got to control the knob.

But the content was still a mix of the boring and the banal. And the outdated. It’s hard to buy The World of Tomorrow when all cars are station wagons and Alaska is our newest state.

Technology is a continuum. Today’s students giggle at someone still using a flip phone. Five years from now we’ll be communicating directly from brain to brain, without the need of any device.

Marshall McLuhan almost got it right. The medium is not the message. The medium is just messy.