“By golly! You do find mathematics in the darndest places!”
On June 26, 1959, the featurette Donald in Mathmagic Land was released to theaters. This Academy Award-nominated short would go on to become one of the most popular educational films ever released by Disney. It was also shown on the first program of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, introduced by Professor Ludwig von Drake, who played the True Spirit of Adventure in the featurette. The story was written by Milt Banta, Bill Berg, and Dr. Heinz Haber, and starred Clarence Nash as the voice of Donald.
Donald, dressed in a hunter’s outfit, enters a dark room with his gun and looks around, remarking on how strange this all seems to be. He follows a trail of numbers, and finds the creature making the markings is a walking pencil, who challenges Donald to a game of tic-tac-toe, which Donald loses. He continues to walk, surprised by the square roots he runs into. He calls out hello to anyone who will hear him, and the voice of the narrator greets him. The narrator informs Donald that he is in Mathmagic Land, the land of great adventure, and that he, the narrator, is the True Spirit of Adventure. The spirit tells Donald he will take him on a journey through the wonderland of mathematics.
As Donald storms away, saying math is for eggheads, the spirit informs Donald that without “eggheads,” there would be no music. He takes Donald back in time to Ancient Greece to meet Pythagoras, the father of mathematics and music. Donald is still confused, so the spirit shows Donald how music is full of mathematics. The first example shown is a harp, demonstrating how an octave is created. Donald and the spirit then sneak in on a meeting of the Pythagoreans, who are playing music in their meeting. Donald interrupts them, saying they need to play something with a beat. The Pythagoreans, the spirit explains, helped create the music we know and love today. As the spirits of the Pythagoreans disappear, Donald is left with a surprise – he is made a member of the Pythagoreans.
The segment then moves to another Pythagorean discovery: the pentagram, filled with mathemagic. The first concept explained is the golden section, then we move to the golden rectangle, which the pentagram creates many times over. The Greeks believed the golden rectangle to be a natural law of beauty. The spirit then shows how the pentagon, another Pythagorean shape, is found in nature, before moving on to other shapes found in nature.
Donald, who is enjoying his adventure so far, is delighted to hear that one can find mathematics in games, as well. The spirit begins with the game of chess, explaining it with the concept of Alice in Wonderland, with Donald playing the part of Alice. After a slight adventure with the chess pieces, Donald is able to watch a game in safety, but is bored by it. The spirit then begins to list sports with a geometric field, like baseball and football. The game that gets Donald really excited, however, is billiards. The spirit then shows an expert playing three-cushion billiards, and the mathematics used to get the perfect shot.
The spirit then tries to get Donald to play a game with his mind, only to find that Donald’s mind was completely cluttered with antiquated ideas, bungling, false concepts, and superstitions. He cleans out Donald’s mind, then has Donald think of a perfect circle, and puts a triangle in it. When asked what he sees, Donald sees a sphere. The spirit then has Donald take one thing and see how many items he can come up with using those shapes. Donald is then taken to a hall filled with doors, with most of them open. Some of the doors Donald discovers are locked, to which the spirit replies that they are the doors of the future, with the key being mathematics. The short then ends with the Galileo quote: “Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.”