This is a video summarising the research behind my doctoral thesis on the history of the zoom lens in American film and television. It was made in response to the Society for the History of Technology's Three Minute Dissertation Video Contest.

For more information, and footage source details, visit http://www.zoomlenshistory.org.uk/2014/08/video-the-hidden-history-of-the-zoom-lens/

TRANSCRIPT

Zoom lenses enable a camera operator to vary the field of view without moving the camera: to zoom in, or zoom out.

They’ve always been highly controversial among filmmakers. They’re often seen as a lazy substitute for ‘real’ camera movement, associated with ‘cheesy’ 1960s and 1970s Hollywood action movies.

But when I started to research the history of zoom lenses, I discovered a hidden story. One that had been forgotten by film historians, but was crucial to our understanding of the technology.

In 1939 an optical engineer named Frank Back emigrated to the United States of America, fleeing the Nazi takeover of Austria. He settled in New York City, and took up employment as a consultant engineer.

Before long he was working on military contracts. Among his designs was a zoom viewfinder to be used by the combat cameramen of the Signal Corps.

As the Second World War drew to a close, the American economy got ready for peacetime. Frank Back took what he had learned and developed a new form of zoom lens that could be used by newsreel cameramen. He called it the “Zoomar”.

With the help of the industrial film producer Jerry Fairbanks and a Madison Avenue advertising executive named Jack Pegler, Back sold the Zoomar to Paramount News.

They took it Yankee Stadium and used it to film the World Series baseball between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. The new lens scored a home run: it transformed baseball coverage.

At the same time, Back produced a version of the Zoomar specially designed for television cameras. The lenses were sold more quickly than they could be manufactured. They were used not only for live news and sports shows, but also for studio-based productions.

The Zoomar became ubiquitous, and the zoom shot was soon a regular feature of American television.

CLIP: Kukla, Fran, and Ollie
Kukla: “This is called a Zoomar lens. A special lens which has enabled you to go in and out of the picture very very very… it’s stuck”
Ollie: “It’s rusted”

The Zoomar paved the way for new, improved, types of zoom lens. It introduced American television directors to the idea of the zoom shot.

So the story of the modern zoom really starts not in Hollywood in the 1960s, but in New York in the 1940s. And it is not just a story of film and television history, but of how military research can have surprising peacetime applications; and how hidden histories can be uncovered when we ask questions about technological innovation.

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Society for the History of Technology Dissertation Video Contest

Suzanne Moon

In 2014 the Society for the History of Technology invited graduate students and recent graduates working in technology studies to give us a three-minute version of their dissertations. These ten contestants offer a glimpse into the cutting edge of research…


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In 2014 the Society for the History of Technology invited graduate students and recent graduates working in technology studies to give us a three-minute version of their dissertations. These ten contestants offer a glimpse into the cutting edge of research in the social studies of technology; by telling "technology's stories" they illuminate the human condition in a technological world.

Shout Box

  • Monique Laney

    Love the idea of the contest! Looking forward to more of these over the coming years.

    by Monique Laney

  • Michael Helms

    Great videos!

    by Michael Helms

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