Walt Disney’s History of Science

Some interesting reading this morning. In a recent blogpost by Adam Richter, PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, he argues that popular, American attitudes toward science derive largely from Disney World attractions, particularly  “Tomorrowland,” where “progress” is a major theme. Indeed, this theme of progress is pervasive in Disney productions. Connected with this theme of progress is corporate industry. Attractions such as the “Test Track,” “Spaceship Earth,” and “Ellen’s Energy Adventure,” are sponsored by Chevrolet, Siemens, and ExxonMobil respectively, and hosted by celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye. “For historians of science,” he writes,” I think it’s helpful to view Disney World’s attractions as artifacts that reflect particular American attitudes toward science since the mid-20th century.” Disney’s whiggish vision of the past and progressive vision of the future are, of course, deeply flawed—if not profoundly troubling. Richter, however, sees this as an opportunity. If historians of science could tap into that kind of imagination, creativity, and articulation, the public would greatly benefit.

But Walt Disney achieved his ends largely through anachronism. In the comment section of Richter’s post, Gabriel Finkelstein, historian and expert on Emil du Bois-Reymond at University of Colorado Denver, suggested a recent piece by Andre Wakefield in History and Technology, “Butterfield’s Nightmare: the history of science as Disney history” (2014). Wakefield argues that “narratives that link the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution together in an imagined causal series are prone to Disneyish anachronism.” This is the “American mid-twentieth-century form of Whiggishness.” An interesting and provocative example Wakefield discusses is Disney’s production Our Friend the Atom (1957), a scientific propaganda film. As Wakefield notes, Our Friend the Atom “represented a joint venture between General Dynamics, which manufactured nuclear reactors, and the US Navy.” It was also hosted by Nazi war criminal Dr. Heinz Haber. In telling viewers (children) the nature of the atom, Haber and Disney provide a “history of the atom,” complete with Democritus, Aristotle, the Dark Middle Ages, the “inventor-scientist-experts” of the seventeenth century, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, before concluding with our current Atomic Age. As Wakefield concludes, “Disney’s fable…is also a fable about the history of science and technology. Disney history collapses time. Past, present and future become indistinguishable. 2000 [sic] years of history disappear in the blink of an eye, giving way to the very sudden arrival of the Scientific Revolution, which then almost immediately becomes the Industrial Revolution. All of it portends a clean and happy consumer future of unbounded freedom and possibility.”

Disney history may be imaginative, creative, and attractive, but it is a fabricated history.