Before mythbusters, before the Discovery Channel, even before Nova, MIT had its own science television show. The Science Reporter aired weekly on Boston’s WGBH television station from 1955 to 1967. The show’s mission was to “inform the educated layman about new and significant developments in science which will have a direct effect on his private and public life.” A look at the titles of shows reveals a Cold War-era fascination with the extraterrestrial–“Cosmic Ray Showers,” “The Exploration of Space,” “Space-Age Torture Chamber”–and an interest in the local–“Building the Boston Planetarium.”
“We were in the Cold War, and there was an enormous concern about our rivalry with the Soviet Union,” explains Deborah Douglas, science and technology curator at the MIT Museum. “One of the ways we demonstrated the superiority of the American system was through technology.” The Science Reporter was a means of presenting that technology to the public.
The program grew out of the Lowell Institute lectures. The Lowell Institute, founded in 1836, presented free public lectures on the arts and sciences by invited scholars from Boston-area universities affiliated with it, including MIT. In 1951, the institute founded the WGBH radio station, which broadcast the lectures. The broadcasts proved so popular that the station, hoping to transfer its success to another medium, acquired a television channel four years later. Harvard president James Conant first introduced the idea of public educational television to the universities affiliated with the Lowell Institute, but it was the support of MIT president James Killian that brought the idea to fruition. Killian rented WGBH space in the building that then occupied the site of today’s Student Center and committed the Institute to the support of the Science Reporter. The show, however, continued the tradition of drawing lecturers from the Lowell Institute’s affiliated universities.
The Science Reporter was informal and unrehearsed, and the quality of a given episode depended upon the featured professor. Some had trouble talking in front of a camera. Others were comfortable and confident and had prepared experimental demonstrations. Despite its roughness, the Science Reporter became popular. By 1963, the show was being broadcast on 82 stations around the country, and the professors received mountains of fan mail after their appearances.
In the 1960s, the show became more sophisticated, broadcasting in color and gathering experts from universities around the country. It drew funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and National Educational Television (the forerunner of PBS), as well as from MIT and the Lowell Institute. By 1966, the Science Reporter was the most successful educational program on the air. But its popularity began to work against it. In 1964, National Educational Television dropped its support to start Spectrum, a science program of its own. And in 1966, according to MIT News Office director F. E. Wylie, NASA offered to fund the entire season, but only if it were given complete control over content, and the programs became “slick, Hollywood-style films.” The show folded after that season.
Today there are entire channels devoted to educational shows in the format of hour-long lectures with dynamic examples and experiments. Some Science Reporter topics, such as “Stress Evaluation in Illness” and “Synthetic Drugs,” could easily be issues taken on by modern television shows. As Douglas says, “they remind us that MIT has long been interested in the public understanding of science.”