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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Comments (4)
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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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