Powers of Ten (film)

Coordinates: 41°51′53.93″N 87°36′48.21″W / 41.8649806°N 87.6133917°W / 41.8649806; -87.6133917
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Powers of Ten
Title card for the 1977 version
Directed byCharles and Ray Eames
Based onCosmic View by Kees Boeke
Narrated by
Music byElmer Bernstein
Distributed by
  • IBM
  • Pyramid Films
Release date
  • September 4, 1977 (1977-09-04)
Running time
9 min
CountryUnited States

The Powers of Ten films are two short American documentary films written and directed by Charles and Ray Eames. Both works depict the relative scale of the Universe according to an order of magnitude (or logarithmic scale) based on a factor of ten, first expanding out from the Earth until the entire universe is surveyed, then reducing inward until a single atom and its quarks are observed.

History and background[edit]

The first film, A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe,[1] was a prototype and was completed in 1968; the second film, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero,[2] was completed in 1977.

The Powers of Ten films were adaptations of the book Cosmic View (1957) by Dutch educator Kees Boeke.[3] Both films, and a book based on the second film,[4] follow the form of the Boeke original, adding color and photography to the black and white drawings employed by Boeke in his seminal work.

The 1977 film has a number of changes from the prototype, including being entirely in color, moving the starting location from Miami to Chicago, removing the relativistic (time) dimension, introducing an additional two powers of ten at each extreme, a change in narrator from Judith Bronowski to Philip Morrison, and much-improved graphics.[1]

In 1998, Powers of Ten, the 1977 version, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[5][6]


1968 version[edit]

This version of the film has two clocks in the corner showing the comparison between the viewer's time and that of Earth time. As the viewer's speed increases, Earth time, relative to the viewer, also increases. It was installed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum's Life in the Universe gallery at the time of the museum's opening in 1976, until the gallery's closure in 1978.

There is also a 1968 National Film Board of Canada film entitled Cosmic Zoom which covers the same subject using animation. It is wordless, using sped-up music during the return trips to normal size.

1977 version[edit]

The film begins with an overhead view of a man and woman picnicking in a park at the Chicago lakefront — a 1-meter (3.3 ft) overhead image of the figures on a blanket surrounded by food and books they brought with them, one of them being The Voices of Time by J. T. Fraser. The man (played by Swiss designer Paul Bruhwiler) then sleeps, while the woman (played by Eames staffer Etsu Garfias) starts to read one of the books. The viewpoint, accompanied by expository voiceover by Philip Morrison, then slowly zooms out to a view 10 meters (33 ft) across (or 101 meters in scientific notation). The zoom-out continues (at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds), to a view of 100 meters (330 ft) (102 meters) (where they are shown to be in Burnham Park,[7] near Soldier Field, then 1 kilometer (3,300 ft) (103 meters) (where we see the entirety of Chicago), and so on, increasing the perspective and continuing to zoom out to a field of view of 1024 meters, or a field of view 100 million light years across. The camera then zooms back in at a rate of a power of ten per 2 seconds to the picnic, and then slows back down to its original rate into the man's hand, to views of negative powers of ten: 10−1 meters (10 centimeters), and so forth, revealing a white blood cell and zooming in on it—until the camera comes to quarks in a proton of a carbon atom at 10−16 meters.[1]


Physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf noted: "It is a brilliant short documentary [...]. If I wanted to show an alien how we view the world, I would show this movie".[8]

Related books[edit]

  • Morrison, Philip; Morrison, Phylis Morrison (1994) [1982]. Powers of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding another Zero. Scientific American Library. ISBN 978-0-7167-6008-5.

Related films[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Repp, Philip (April 2001). "Loop: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education - Three Information Design Lessons". Archived from the original on 5 April 2015. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  2. ^ Overbye, Dennis (April 26, 2005). "Philip Morrison, 89, Builder of First Atom Bomb, Dies". The New York Times (New York ed.). ISSN 0362-4331. OCLC 1645522. Retrieved March 25, 2015. He helped write the script and narrated the 1977 film "Powers of Ten," also by Charles and Ray Eames, in which a camera zooms from a couple having a picnic in Chicago out to the limits of the cosmos and then back down through the woman's hand to the level of atoms and quarks. In 1992, he and his wife, Phyllis, with the Eameses, turned it into a book. Correction: April 28, 2005, Thursday: An obituary on Tuesday about Dr. Philip Morrison, a Manhattan Project scientist who helped assemble the first atomic bomb and later campaigned against it, misstated the release date of "Powers of Ten," a film narrated and partly written by Dr. Morrison that takes viewers to the outer edge of the cosmos. It was released in 1968. (It was rereleased in 1977.)
  3. ^ Boeke, Kees. Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. John Day Co., 1957.
  4. ^ Morrison, Philip, et al. Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. Scientific American Books, 1990.
  5. ^ Films Selected to The National Film Registry, 1989-2010.
  6. ^ "About Powers of Ten". powersof10.com. Eames Office. 2010. Archived from the original on 23 July 2014. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  7. ^ Hughes, James (December 4, 2012). "The Power of Powers of Ten". Slate. Retrieved September 12, 2022.
  8. ^ Calmthout, Martijn van (2017-05-06). "'Je moet afleren om aan onbelangrijke dingen te werken'". de Volkskrant (in Dutch). Retrieved 2023-04-15.
  9. ^ Eva Szasz (1968). Cosmic Zoom (film). Ottawa River: National Film Board of Canada.
  10. ^ Bayley Silleck and Morgan Freeman (1996). Cosmic Voyage (IMAX). Venice, Italy: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

External links[edit]

41°51′53.93″N 87°36′48.21″W / 41.8649806°N 87.6133917°W / 41.8649806; -87.6133917