IET film collection

8 May 2012
Sir John Ambrose Fleming, IEE vice president in 1902

IET Archives film collection moves to new storage facilities at the London Metropolitan Archives, reports assistant archivist Sarah Hales.

January 2012 was a busy month for the IET archivists. Not only were the archives team making plans for the year ahead, but we were also devoting our time to cataloguing, labelling and boxing over a hundred 16mm films in order for them to be sent to new storage facilities at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA).

The project to organise the IET’s film collection is part of an initiative known as the London Screen Archives (LSA), managed by Film London, an organisation promoting film-making in London. The London Screen Archives is a network of all the organisations in London that hold film collections, and their connection to Film London allows them access to film preservation professionals for expert advice and help. One of the most recent LSA projects is to create a central storage facility of archival film collections based at London Metropolitan Archives, the main repository for local authority and other organisations based in London.

Storing and caring for old films is different to storing old paper documents. While both can still be classed as historical records the difference in format means that films require alternative methods of storage to ensure their long-term preservation. This distinction is particularly relevant to the IET Archives as we look after a significant moving image collection, and for a number of years several hundred 16mm films, videotapes and DVDs have been stored in the basement at Savoy Place. The majority of these films were created by the IET and include filmed lectures and talks, such as the Kelvin Lecture and President’s Inaugural addresses, ‘Talking Portraits’ of Honorary Fellows and Faraday Medallists, educational and recruitment films, promotional films about the work of the IEE Benevolent Fund (now known as IET Connect) and various films on different subjects that have been produced by organisations other than the IET.

Talking portraits

The films known as ‘Talking Portraits’ are particularly interesting in that they offer a fairly unusual representation (in terms of both content and concept) of an individual who has achieved greatness within the engineering field. As a painting or a photograph will project an image of a person, the ‘Talking Portrait’ films allow the individual to project themselves to a wider audience, discussing their work and providing a first-person narrative of their career. One of the earliest Talking Portraits in the collection is of Sir John Ambrose Fleming, which was first recorded in 1934. Fleming is remembered for having invented the first thermionic valve and the left hand rule for electric motors, and he was also IEE vice president in 1902, was made an Honorary Member in 1922 and awarded the Faraday Medal in 1928. He was 84 when he was recorded for his Talking Portrait.

In addition to films of IEE members and other engineering-related subjects, the Archives also includes films that wouldn’t normally be associated with the history of electrical engineering, including a black and white 1930s cartoon entitled the ‘Haunted Ship’! This is a Max Fleischer-style cartoon featuring two characters, Waffles the Cat and Don the Dog, exploring a sunken ship on a deep-sea adventure. We have no idea why such a film would be in the IET Archives, who gave it to us or when, but it certainly lightens up the tone of the collections!

A display of information and original archive material relating to the IET film collections is now on display in the Savoy Place reception area. For further information please contact the Archivists at archives@theiet.org or telephone them on +44 (0)20 7344 8436. Further information about LSA can be found at www.filmlondon.org.uk/networks/lsa

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