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World in a Wine-Glass, The (1931)


Main image of World in a Wine-Glass, The (1931)
For Secrets of Nature
35mm, black and white, 8 mins
DirectorMary Field
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films
PhotographyF. Percy Smith
MusicJack Beaver

A microscopic study of minute life on a wisp of straw placed in a wineglassful of water.

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This 1931 remake of the earlier, silent Secrets of Nature film An Aquarium in a Wine Glass (1926) uses close-up photography, dark ground microcinematography and animation to introduce the viewer to the class of protozoa popularly known as infusoria: tiny animals that grow when organic matter is infused in water.

The World in a Wineglass, like all the Secrets made from footage supplied by Percy Smith, was a product of the vibrant world of amateur natural history, more observational than analytical. The commentary steers away from latinate or even technical terms - the word 'protozoa', for example, is nowhere used, even though it was well established in scientific use at this point. Instead, the commentary uses homely names such as 'purse', 'bell' and 'slipper'. The appeal of amateur science is directly suggested in the film's opening words, which sound like an invitation to the audience member to join the ranks of spare time microscopists:

"if you suddenly think you would like to have an aquarium, the cheapest way to get one is to fill a glass with water, and then put in a wisp of hay. In a few days, if you look through a microscope, you will find your aquarium in full swing."

The commentary describes the infusoria as 'mysteriously appearing', implying spontaneous generation, although the tone of the film is descriptive of biological processes rather than implying any magical causation.

Unlike other Secrets released at this time, the soundtrack features no music, only commentary, in the 'light firm baritone' that Mary Field favoured for these films. The tone is somewhere between didactic and whimsical, a balancing act which was doubtless part of the producers' aim to ensure the films the widest possible audience.

Timothy Boon

Dr Timothy Boon is Senior Curator of the Science Museum

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Video Clips
1. Creating the aquarium (2:10)
Field, Mary (1896-1968)
Smith, F. Percy (1880-1945)
Secrets of Nature (1922-33)