October 21, 2007
A Review of A Commuications Primer
By Charles and Ray Eames
Running time 0:21:29
Internet Archive (Prelinger Collection)
I recently made time to view an important short film made by Charles and Ray Eames. This influential American husband-and-wife team were designers who applied their art to many forms: furniture, film, exhibitions, books, toys. Their house provided an early example of the use of industrial elements in a domestic space. I find that their chairs enhance the viewing of A Communications Primer and many other media experiences.
The Eames’ best-known film is the 1977 Powers of Ten, the zooming visual explanation of scale which has no doubt been shown in more than 10^4 classrooms and 10^2 science museums. In their much earlier film A Communications Primer they describe the application of Claude Shannon’s model of communication to familiar media experiences, along with some that aren’t very familiar nowadays, such as telegraphy. There are very nice iconic images deployed, as well as shots of media technologies in use.
In about twenty minutes the film covers not only Shannon’s basic model for communication but also details how digital information is represented and, via the analogy of the halftone photograph, how it can be built up to represent data that is arbitrarily detailed. A Communications Primer touches on flocking behavior, burnt offerings, and storm warning flags, mosaics and pointillist painting, feedback systems, and, in one of the most impressive moments of the film, reproduces the audible frequencies of an automatic calculating machine – a “brain,” in the then-popular parlance – as it computes. An argument is even developed for the digital basis of human thought. In a final flourish, the voice-over relates that the development of increasingly complex systems do not relieve people of responsibility.
I found that an extra dimension was added to the discussion of noise in a communications channel by the scratched-up 16mm print and visible MPEG artifacts. (If you pick one of the largest versions of the film or size the video down, the MPEG artifacts aren’t noticeable.) At any rate, the signal gets through.
Those acknowledged at the end of the film for “ideas, direction, and material” include Claude Shannon, Warren Weaver, Norbert Wiener, Oskar Morgenstern, and John Von Neumann. It’s amazing that this film was made in 1953, not just because that was generally a long time ago and because computers were new, but because this lucid explanation for non-experts was created only a few years after the 1948 publication of A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which it is based upon.
A Communications Primer is in the public domain. Thanks to the Prelinger Archives and the Internet Archive, a high-resolution, editable version of the film is available for download.