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Chicago Academy of Sciences: Dr. William J. Beecher

Dr. William J. Beecher

Since November I have been hand inspecting the Chicago Academy of Sciences collection, consisting of over 1300 film materials, and this past month have officially made it halfway though this interesting collection. Dr. William J. Beecher was the director for the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1958 to 1983. Between those years, Beecher acted as the educational collaborator for commercial education films, including ones for Coronet Films, WMAQ-TV (NBC Chicago), as well as producing a series for the Academy entitled “This Is Your World,” which covered topics such as the Indiana Dunes, snake hunting, birds, and pond ecology. His films are now part of the moving picture collection of the Chicago Academy of Sciences (the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum).

Outside of these larger films for the Academy, it was clear that Dr. Beecher and his camera were inseparable– he left behind over one thousand 100′ reels of 16mm film, creating a collection that give an intimate look into Beecher’s life and passions.

Birdwatching was Dr. Beecher’s first love. Many of the films feature the birds of Chicagoland, whether it was in whitethroats in Lincoln Park, tanagers in Riis Park, or phalaropes in Calumet. The sheer amount of birdwatching footage shows the patience and dedication Beecher had for what was more than a hobby, but a lifestyle.


Białowieża Forest in Belarus and Poland

Castle in Japan

Dr. Beecher and his companions took trips all over the world, documenting their travels constantly with his camera. He shot sunsets in Kenya, parrots in Guadalcanal, Kauri trees in New Zealand, storks in India and Sherpas in Nepal. He captured the natural diversity of the United States, filming blooming cactus flowers in Arizona, hiking in the Smoky Mountains, vultures in Big Bend, and sequoia in California.

one of Dr. Beecher’s many photographic tests

In addition to being a filmmaker, director, and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher was also an inventor. He shot many tests on a variety of zoom lenses, and created the Beecher Mirage binoculars, which are still in production today.

The most diverse filmmaker of the Chicago Academy of Sciences collection, Dr. William J. Beecher produced an immense catalog of films that not only give an intimate insight to nature, but encapsulate Dr. Beecher’s lasting legacy.


bonus read: a pupil of Beecher’s recalls the impact the doctor made on his life.

Missed last time’s post about Sidney Downey? Read it here.


-Lauren Alberque

Discovering Kodacolor at CFA

Kodacolor box found in the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ collection

While processing the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ (Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum) collection, I came across an unfamiliar stock among some 1930s-40s home movies. Found on metal 100’ and 50’ spools sans box, the edge markings read “Kodacolor Safety Film” and dated from 1936. What struck me immediately was that not only were these “Kodacolor” films black and white, but displayed different physical properties than Kodak’s B&W reversal stock produced at the same time. Under a loupe, the film appeared to have a large, pixel-like grain akin to standard definition video. Tilting the film over a light source revealed a shift in density similar to a Fresnel lens. Not typical black and white reversal, that’s for sure.

I hopped on the computer and did some research on Kodacolor stock. While Kodak has used the Kodacolor trademark for a few products, the lesser-known 16mm Kodacolor was an early lenticular color stock. Introduced in 1926, Kodacolor was a means of giving amateur filmmakers access to color pictures before Kodachrome became commercially successful.

The concept of Kodacolor’s lenticular system involved a special filter that separated light into red-green-blue as it entered the camera lens. The stock itself was panchromatic black & white, which meant it registered red, green, and blue light as opposed to orthochomatic’s only blue-green sensitivity (hence red-lit darkrooms for processing orthochromatic film). The film itself layered the emulsion away from the lens, behind a complex base composed of tiny lenses for splitting the light coming into the camera lens— think of television’s miniscule RGB components working to form a whole picture. The black & white film would then be projected through a RGB filter that would split the light back onto the screen, projecting a full-color image.

The Kodacolor filter split white light into red, green, and blue wavelengths

Unfortunately, Kodacolor was plagued with inconveniences. The extremely slow film (modern day 0.5 ISO!) could only be shot in bright daylight to compensate for the light loss in both the camera’s filter and the projector’s filter. It goes without saying that the need for both filters was also cumbersome. Soon, Kodachrome’s subtractive color system proved more accessible (and assumingly more cost-effective), dominating the amateur motion picture market. Roughly ten years after its introduction, Kodacolor ceased manufacture.

At the moment, we have no means of viewing the Kodacolor film at the archives in its intended color. A 1928 home movie in CFA’s Susan H. and Charles P. Schwartz Collection shows the defined grain of the lenticular stock when viewed without the Kodacolor filter.

In comparison, check out these videos of George Eastman unveiling Kodacolor (in Kodacolor no less):

and a 1934 home movie demonstrating the transformation from black & white to a full color spectrum:


More on Kodacolor here.


-Lauren Alberque