Today, we make a spectacle. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I saw my first IMAX movie in
Fort Worth. It was a half-hour film called
Speed. The theatre seats were raked at
a 45 degree angle. The enormous screen curved from
nearly overhead down to the floor. My eye couldn't
encompass the whole scene. Instead, it roamed the
picture -- up and down, left and right. I was
encased in a remarkable visual experience.
I've always been troubled by motion sickness. Now I
rode fast cars on winding roads. I flew airplanes
off the edge of cliffs. It was exciting, but I get
sick just remembering it.
Showmen have tried to give that kind of reality for
a long time. Robert Barker invented the true
forbear of the IMAX in London in 1789. He exhibited
a 360-degree view of Edinburgh.
It was a modest beginning, but it held the
potential for a new art form. By 1791 Barker had
expanded to a 10,000-square-foot canvas of the
English fleet at Spithead. Now spectators stood on
a raised platform in the center. Like the IMAX
picture, this one rose from below the line of sight
to above it. Barker added other scenes -- cities,
naval battles, that sort of thing.
He also invented a new name for the experience. It
was "Panorama." That's how the word panorama became
part of our language. Barker made it up from the
Greek for "entire view."
The art form spread. When Barker's patent ran out
in 1801, Robert Fulton -- of all people --
introduced the Panorama to France. People added
colored lights. They created illusions of motion by
unwinding very long pictures from huge spools.
Joshua Reynolds admired the Panoramas. He went back
again and again to see them. Other painters
disagreed. Constable looked at the clever way
Panoramas manipulated perspective. Then he
dismissed them because their "object was
The Panorama rage began dying out by 1820. They
revived during the 1870s and 1880s. But the sad
thing about those marvelous old paintings was that
they were too hard to store. Today we have the
shabby remains of a few. We have the sketches for
others. We have a few loose fragments. We have to
recreate the art before we can see how it touched
So museums are reconstructing the old art. More
important, new and better Panoramas are being
created and displayed today -- chiefly in Europe,
but some in America as well.
IMAX may be the spawn of the old Panoramas, but in
an odd way, it cannot replace a static picture. We
crave the freedom to explore a scene at our own
tempo. Those old Panoramas gave us next best thing
to standing right on the rim of the Grand Canyon --
or in the frozen moment of victory at Trafalgar.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds