Happy Birthday Horizon!

Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, looks back on fifty years of the BBC’s flagship science programme. Read more of Tim’s research on Horizon here.   

Fifty years ago today, the very first episode of Horizon, the BBC science programme, hit the airwaves. Two and a half minutes into The World of Buckminster Fuller, the voiceover announces the aim of the series: ‘Horizon aims to present science as an essential part of our twentieth century culture, a continuing growth of thought that cannot be subdivided’.

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

The 1991 Horizon logo. Credit: BBC

Behind that confident statement lay 17 months of detailed discussions between a close knit group of TV producers and science writers. They had set themselves a hard task: to produce a new kind of science television programme. And there had been plenty of science on screen in the previous 15 postwar years of British TV.

So they resolutely turned away from the style of earlier programmes such as Science is News or Eye on Research and set out to copy the era’s most successful and popular arts magazine series, Monitor. In copying this, the production team determined to make a programme that was focussed on the culture, ideas and personalities of science. They rejected being driven by the news agenda and they refused to simply teach the content of science.

In the five decades since, more than 1100 programmes have been broadcast. The producers have always seen themselves as televisual journalists, ever in search of the good science story. Some of the programmes have had major impact. For example, Alec Nisbett’s Killer in the Village (1983) brought AIDS to the attention of the world, and Now the Chips are Down (Edward Goldwyn, 1978) revealed the information revolution to come.

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

Still from Horizon: Inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1991 and 1996). Credit: BBC

There is a long association between the Science Museum and Horizon. In the first Christmas special in 1964, Science, Toys and Magic (Ramsay Short), featured the Museum’s then science lecturer John van Riemsdijk demonstrating antique scientific toys.

Until recently, most of Horizon’s programmes and history have remained in the vault. But now, as the fruit of a 50th anniversary collaboration between BBC History and the Science Museum, 17 former editors and producers have been interviewed about the programme’s five decades, a ’50 Years of Horizon’ ebook will soon be published and there is a good selection of past programmes available online.

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