Archive Gallery: How Science Made Movies Awesome

PopSci covers "talkies," newsreel cinemas, drive-in theaters, and other breakthroughs in 20th-century filmmaking

When was the last time a film scene blew your mind? Plenty of people will cite Avatar‘s dizzying 3-D battle sequences. Others may name the rotating hotel hallway scene in this summer’s Inception. Now ask your grandpa the same question. Chances are, he’ll answer that Avatar in IMAX was cool, in a seizure-inducing way, but it doesn’t compare to the first time he watched a movie in color.

Click to launch the photo gallery.

Popular Science has been around for 138 years, which gives us a couple of decades on the first commercial motion pictures. After the use of narrative and orchestra music became integral to cinema, filmmakers devoted themselves to elevating movies from experimental form of entertainment into an art form. Not only were we there to break the news when movies finally played sound, but we were privileged enough to receive a couple of enlightening articles from Charles Francis Jenkins, who helped invent the television, and D.W. Griffith, who is credited for creating America’s first feature film.

Although the debut of sound and color have gone down as the 20th century’s biggest cinematic breakthroughs, there are other developments that are worth noting, even for nostalgia’s sake. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, people flocked to newsreel theaters in awe that they could witness distant disasters and world events just hours after they unfolded. A decade later, the drive-in theater became a highlight of teen culture during the 1950’s.

While movie fads came and went, the appetite for better films only intensified, which in turn inspired up-and-coming producers to get more creative with special effects and light techniques. Speaking of movie tricks, Griffith impressively claimed to have developed 3-D movies (glasses and all) in 1923, so click through our gallery to see how that, as well as other innovations in cinema, turned out (Spoiler: they turned out amazing, and now we can enjoy cool stuff like Tron: Legacy as a result.)

America's first blockbuster. In 1923
Future Movie Theater: April 1923
Live Sports Parties: May 1923
D.W. Griffith Explains Cinematic Technique: June 1926
How Talking Movies Work: November 1926
Behind the Scenes at a Talkie Studios: April 1929
The Advent of Newsreel Cinemas: August 1930
How to Create Special Effects: March 1933
The First Drive-In Theater: August 1933
Mobile Theater: April 1937