Valuable Home Movies

There is no general term for it, but there should be because it is the dominant trend in many fields of technology – the way things become more effective while becoming smaller. Buckminster Fuller talked all the time about “doing more with less.” In mechanical engineering it is improved “power to weight ratio.” The first engines were steam engines, made in the early 18th century, amazingly slow and feeble monstrosities. Near the end of that century, James Watt made radical improvements and throughout the 19th century steam engines became faster, more powerful, and more efficient. Near the end of the 19th century, the steam turbine represented another revolutionary improvement in efficiency and in power to weight ratio. And the process was repeated with the internal combustion engine.

Our pioneers built log cabins, but rapidly replaced them with much larger timber frame houses that used far less lumber per unit. In 1840 balloon construction represented a further dramatic improvement in the same direction.

Electronic computers started out in the 1940s as huge, hot, power hungry glorified calculating machines using vacuum tubes. The invention of transistors in the late 40s made radical improvement possible and the integrated circuit produced a further revolution a decade later. Since then, computers have been subject to “Moore’s law.” This states that the number of transistors or active parts that can be placed on the same size chip doubles ever 18 to 24 months: the electronic equivalent of a power to weight ratio increase. The consequences are mind numbing.

Information storage has had a comparable history. You can start thousands of years ago with the change from clay tablets to paper, then from scrolls to codices (books) in the early first millennium. Printing, besides its advantage of speed and mass production, also allowed for more compact storage of information.

“One picture is worth a thousand words” was first said in 1932, but photography had been invented nearly 100 years earlier and one ordinary photograph can contain far more information than 1000 words on the same sized sheet of paper.

We recently received three 5-inch reels of 8 mm home movies. Kodak introduced 8 mm as a home movie format in 1932. These are from a good 20 years later. They are in color. The film is wound on 5-inch reels, the same diameter as a DVD but eight times as thick. They run a maximum of 20 or 30 minutes each at much lower quality than a DVD and without sound. Even so, I’m impressed by a 65-year-old medium.

To know what is on a film, you have to watch the entire thing “in real time” and you have to use a projector made for that size specifically. We borrowed a 1950 projector, a neat and sturdy machine, but far short of the convenience and flexibility of a DVD player.

I have viewed one of our three films. It shows a family at Niagara Falls, men playing baseball (perhaps at the Tsintzinia Club, if so then of historical interest for us) and children playing in a river.

The films and reels are each enclosed in well-made steel cans painted brown or textured brown. This was industry practice because for decades some film, what was termed “nitrate film,” would often self destruct, sometimes to the extreme of spontaneous combustion.

Few people today still have home movie projectors, much less bother to use them. Old films, 8 mm, Super 8 and others, can be commercially converted to DVD, but many times people thoughtlessly throw the films away. They could contain priceless images of buildings and scenes now long gone. They can show weddings, Christmases and home interiors of the past. Anyone who owns old home movies should at least take the effort to review what is on them and check their condition. Many are well worth the cost of conversion. And people should give the original film and a copy of the DVD to the Fenton History Center.

The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

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If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St.

just south of the Washington Street Bridge.