ODome Blog Post: How Domes and the big screen cinemas link back in history to military training technology

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[This is a version of a blog post that I wrote for ODome in 2017, published in January 2019 and updated in January 2021 with additional information courtesy of Ewan Ward-Thomas]


I was really pleased when I was contacted by the team at ODome,  and even more so when I was asked if I would contribute a blog post to their site for them. For the previous 20 years have been involved with both the showing of films as a projectionist and also writing about the technical side of cinema. A lot of this information can be found via my website, madcornishprojectionist.co.uk. However, I have always been interested in both the wider use of the moving image in all its different forms, but also the history and interaction of the technology.

A Brief History

It is both interesting and important to realise where cinema came from originally along with how a lot of the things that we are seeing introduced in ‘cinema’ today is a rediscovery and invention of ideas from years gone by. The main benefit this time is that with modern technology it will help to be able to tell the story in a more interesting way. There are plenty of places where you can read a full account of the history of film and cinema, but below is a brief one. Cinema as we really know was first demonstrated to the public in 1894 with the first demonstrations happening in London in 1895 at what is now the Regent Street Cinema (the first actual demonstration to an audience was in a building that was formerly where the Cineworld Empire Cinema is now in Leicester Square). After these demonstrations cinema or bioscope shows, became a bit of a side stall at fairs as they travelled around the country

Over time these side stalls got bigger and more complex to the point that there would be steam engines powering organs with stages with dancers and a how additional show to go with them. The projector technology at this point was very basic, with the projector being hand cranked and the light being paraffin or something similar. Some projectors were adaptations of the magic lanterns that had been around for centuries. Like the magic lanterns shows, these were often travelling shows.
It was only after the 1909 Cinematographic Act that more permanent cinema buildings came about. The Cinematographic Act came about after one of the worth tragedies in the history of cinema happened when the nitrate film that was being used at the time caught fire and quickly took hold in the auditorium, resulting in the loss of life. The new act, amongst other things, included the requirement that projectors were in a separate protected room from the audience. This, therefore, meant that there was a requirement for purpose-built venues for films to be shown, often sharing the stage with live theatre that was still very big at the time.
The first sound film, the Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, and sound slowly came in over the next few years.

360 Domes is Nothing New

Before the second world war, cinema was mainly a small academy image with mono sound, sound starting to come into cinema in 1929 onwards. The end of the ‘silent movies’ had only really just happened, and of course, television had only just started and then paused for the war years.
People had experimented with using multiple cameras and projectors at various points. During the second world war, the American military had developed a concept of what we would understand as being a simulator. What they would do is to project a film of aeroplanes onto the side of a large dome auditorium and then there would be gunners in the middle who would then attempt to shoot at them. (More information on this can be found here: http://www.in70mm.com/cinerama/archive/gunnery/index.htm)Through some clever mechanical system, it would then be possible to work out what was hit. During these training sessions, it is told that many of the soldiers would comment on how it would be great to watch a film within the space.
In the UK there was a similar use of the technology, this video by the Friends of Langham Dome provides a good summary of this technology:

and an extract from a British Pathe newsreel on it here: Dome Trainer – British Pathé:

Thanks to the grandson, Ewan Ward-Thomas, of the inventor Lt-Commander Henry Stephens: “As you mention, this was the first (secret until 1945) anti-aircraft simulation technology invented by my grandfather, Lt-Commander Henry Stephens, for the Royal Navy in 1940 and used all over the world in over 300 sites.

There was a huge demand for this technology with 43 domes being built across the UK including one at Langham (Norfolk) which survives today. This was a forerunner of today’s immersive experiences including IMAX screens, aircraft pilot simulation and computer games. This revolutionary invention saved thousands of lives and shortened the Second World War.@

After the war, the technology was developed in 1952 ‘Cinerama’ was released to wide acclaim. Instead of a tiny little picture, Cinerama had a massive 120-degree screen (designed to include your peripheral vision) using three separate 35mm projectors linked together. For the first time, there were multiple audio channels as well as reproducing the sound in a format that had never been experienced before. This new Cinerama format was instantly a massive success, and people would queue for hours to watch a film – mainly travel logs showing the audience a view of the world. The same films would play for years on end. And then in 1962, the format came across to the UK at the same time as the mobile version of Cinerama happen in Europe:

Cinerama was amazing but was very costly – both in terms of installation in the cinema auditoriums, but also in terms of equipment (it required three separate interlinked 35mm projectors and projectionists). Like all these technologies, it was refined and improvements were made so that in 1954 20th Century Fox launched Fox Cinema Scope, their way of having a large image on a cinema screen, but this time they just required one single lens in order for it to work:

This is ultimately what lead to the large screen ratio that we see in the cinema today. In 1967 IMAX launched. While IMAX is its own technology and specification it is very easy to see where some of its DNA has come from through Cinerama and other similar technology:

In 1963 a mobile version of Cinerama was created that allowed the complete system to go on the road. This was a full-size auditorium that was inflatable so that there were no internal pillars to get in the way of the view of the screen. This will have been a spectacular thing to have seen as this clip from YouTube demonstrates:

So Planaratiums and the new mobile 360 Domes that are now becoming more common are the next steps from the above technology. The development of digital projection technology allows for the easier portability and mobility of the use of this medium and wider use of applications, but it has a long and connected heritage with the wider history of cinema.

Further Information and Reading

If you would like to know about the history of Cinerama, then a 2003 documentary, Cinerama Adventure, is a great film to get hold of, you can view a trailer for it here:


Langham Dome
BBC One – The Dome: A Secret of World War Two, The Dome
Private Papers of Lieutenant Commander H C Stephens RNVR
History of Iterarama
Projected Picture Trust Specials
Cinemiracle/Cinerama in Germany
A Preview of IMAX’s Portable Theater….By Looking Back
Wide Screen Museum
When We’re Ready: a History of Cinema Technology