Watch Powers of Ten and Let Designers Charles & Ray Eames Take You on a Brilliant Tour of the Universe

All our childhood homes contained books we couldn’t quite explain. I remember feeling particularly mystified, though not displeasingly so, by a slim volume called Cosmic View, originally published in 1957. The book seemed to me unimaginably old, strikingly lavish, and faintly alien, like a visual time capsule from a forgotten era in a parallel reality.

The outlandish name of the author, Kees Boeke—surely not a name at all—only strengthened these imaginative impressions. Every few months, I would flip through and wonder at Cosmic View‘s full-page images. A girl with a cat? Planetary orbits? The galaxy itself? A bug? A cell?

I suppose I could have read a bit of the text and understood the context for all of this, but I preferred at the time to leave the strange little volume’s rhyme or reason obscure. Today I understand Boeke’s aim: to view our universe at every possible scale, cosmic and otherwise, zooming all the way in and then all the way out from our everyday perspective.

The 1977 short film Powers of Ten would do the same, but in motion. Taking Cosmic View as a starting point, Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic little film (first above) starts with a fixed point in Chicago, then moves out into the universe by factors of ten. And, before too long, you find yourself 100 million light years away. It’s eight minutes of brilliant work. But they didn’t come easily. Almost a decade before releasing Powers of Ten, the Eames produced a less widely seen prototype. 1968’s A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe reveals some of the thinking and process the American designers undertook to envision a cinematic Cosmic View. They ultimately succeeded, having fleshed out this basic but still impressive concept over the following decade. In 1982, the project would come full circle by returning to print with Powers of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.

Related Content:

Powers of Ten: 1977 Short Film by Designers Ray & Charles Eames Gives Brilliant Tour of Universe

Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten: The Classic Film Re-Imagined By 40 Artists

Magnifying the Universe: Move From Atoms to Galaxies in HD

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Nhick says:

    1968? wow, can’t image how young am I still during that time..

  • Robert Hunt says:

    My introduction to “Cosmic View” – before I had ever seen the Eames film – came in the form of “Cosmic Zoom”,an animated version I saw in school some time around 1969.. You can see it here….

  • Jerome says:

    Was there really a Pan American airplane on the Miami Beach Golf course in 1968?

  • Alex Ferrell says:

    I’m looking for the original 1968 Powers of Ten movie that was in black and white. I watched it in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum when I was a kid. It was in its own little booth.

    I read that this film was the prototype for the 1977 one which was in color. The 1977 one was also in the Smithsonian.

    I saw the black and white one and that’s the one I am looking for. It made such an impression on me as a kid, I never forgot it. I don’t think the 1977 is near as good.

    I searched YouTube but couldn’t find it. Anyone know a source?



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