November 9, 2011
American futurism of the 1950s wasn’t filled with just flying cars and jetpacks. There was also an overwhelming fear that nuclear war could break out between the United States and the Soviet Union. The August 21, 1953 issue of Collier’s magazine included an article by U.S. Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson titled “Panic: The Ultimate Weapon?”
Blaring fake headlines—such as “A-BOMB DESTROYS DOWNTOWN BUFFALO 40,000 KILLED” and “203,000 KILLED AS A-BOMB HITS BRONX; COUNTY IS RUSHING AID” and “35,000 KILLED AS A-BOMB HITS CLINTON SQ.”—the article counsels readers that something catastrophic is bound to happen, but when it does you must keep your wits about you for the good of your country.
With a heavy focus on the problems presented by widespread panic, Peterson’s article is a horrifying glimpse at a futuristic world of death and destruction; inescapable, even from Main Street, U.S.A.:
You have just lived through the most terrifying experience of your life. An enemy A-bomb has burst 2,000 feet above Main Street. Everything around you that was familiar has vanished or changed. The heart of your community is a smoke-filled desolation rimmed by fires. Your own street is a clutter of rubble and collapsed buildings. Trapped in the ruins are the dead and wounded — people you know, people close to you. Around you, other survivors are gathering, dazed, grief-stricken, frantic, bewildered.
What will you do — not later, but right then and there? On your actions may depend not only your life and the lives of countless others, but your country’s victory or defeat, and the survival of everything you hold dear.
Ninety per cent of all emergency measures after an atomic blast will depend on the prevention of panic among the survivors in the first 90 seconds. Like the A-bomb, panic is fissionable. It can produce a chain reaction more deeply destructive than any explosive known.
If there is an ultimate weapon, it may well be mass panic. Mass panic — not the A-bomb — may well be the easiest way to win a battle, the cheapest way to win a war. That’s why military leaders so strongly emphasize individual and group discipline. At the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., a small force of Athenians routed the powerful Persian army — after it panicked. In our own Civil War many battles were decided when inexperienced troops suddenly broke and fled. Hitler, in 1938, created a special staff to cope with this invisible but ever-threatening sixth column. In 1940, the shock wave of panic caused by Nazi Panzer blows and fifth column activities hastened the collapse of France.
War is no longer confined to the battlefield. Every city is a potential battleground, every citizen a target. There are no safe areas. Panic on Main Street can be as decisive as panic in the front lines. Just as a single match can burn a dry forest, so a trivial incident can set off a monstrous disaster when the confusion and uneasiness of the population have reached tinder point.
“Every city is a potential battleground, every citizen a target. There are no safe areas.” There’s something about reading the bleak assessment of a government official charged with protecting the United States against nuclear attack that helps put all of the fear and paranoia of the Cold War into context. It’s hard not to think that the world is going to end when the government is quite literally telling you that you’re a target and nowhere is safe.
The piece even offers a more geographically specific, “Preview of Disaster in Manhattan.” It was surprisingly common for Collier’s to imagine the destruction of New York City in the early 1950s. Just three years before this article was published, famed illustrator Chesley Bonestell did a cover for the August 5, 1950 issue of Collier’s with a gigantic mushroom cloud over Manhattan — the words, “HIROSHIMA, U.S.A.: Can Anything Be Done About It?” asking readers to consider the complete destruction of America’s largest city. Peterson’s 1953 article even makes comparisons to Hiroshima and how such a scenario might play out in New York City. For the October 27 1951 issue of Collier’s, Bonestell again illustrated what a hydrogen bomb would look like over lower Manhattan. This time, however, he included bombs over Moscow and Washington, D.C.— but decimated New York was certainly a perennial favorite of Collier’s.
Peterson offers a vivid description of what might happen if a post-atomic bomb panic were to strike New York City :
Most strategic targets in the United States lie in heavily populated areas. The industrial and business centers of such cities are crowded by day and in some metropolitan areas only staggered lunch hours and working periods permit the orderly evacuation of buildings. If all the office buildings in the downtown financial district of Manhattan were emptied suddenly, as in a panic, some people estimate the narrow streets would be several feet deep in humanity.
Suppose such an emergency were compounded by enemy-inspired rumors. Word of possible safety in Battery Park could bring such a concentration of people to the tip of Manhattan Island that thousands would be pushed into the harbor to drown. At Hiroshima, 1,600 died when they took refuge in a park along the river and were forced into the water by new thousands crowding into the area.
The consequences of an uncontrolled mass stampede from such a population center as Manhattan are almost incalculable. Even if the four underwater traffic tunnels and the six major bridges leading from the island were left undamaged by an attack, disorganized traffic could soon bottle many of the avenues of escape. Those who did succeed in fleeing the island would pour into adjacent areas to become a hungry, pillaging mob — disrupting disaster relief, overwhelming local police and spreading panic in a widening arc. True, New York City presents a civil defense problem of unusual dimensions, but similar hazards face every city in the land under possible attack.
The article included a huge self test to determine how “panic-proof” you are. On a scale of “I’m not bothered” to “I blow up” the test asked things like how you feel when you’re alone and your doorbell and telephone ring simultaneously or how you feel when you see a picture of bodies after a fatal accident.
This test reads like it was designed by an insane guidance counselor. Question four says to “set an alarm clock ringing continuously on a table near you. Then count the crosses in the circle (right) without using a pencil to assist you.”
The piece also included a handy guide called “Panic Stoppers: How to keep from being a victim of panic.” Citizens are encouraged to buy a battery-powered AM radio, keep a three-day emergency supply of food and water, and even build a home bomb shelter. It’s quite interesting that one of the first tips is encouraging people to insulate themselves against panic by learning about “the enemy’s weapons – A-bombs, germ and gas warfare, sabotage and rumor war.”
November 4, 2011
Whenever people discuss retro-futurism the first things that often come to mind are flying cars, jetpacks, meal pills and robot butlers. These were the dreams of a leisurely utopian world that would be built on the most advanced technologies history had ever seen. The promise of these products and the sincere belief in their inevitability flourished in the 1950s. After World War II, Americans were told that we would harness technology to make our lives easier, our products cheaper and our workers more productive. It was a belief in a sort of Technological Manifest Destiny — promoted through advertisements, theme parks and Saturday morning cartoons.
When it comes to the shiny, happy, techno-utopian futures of the 1950s and 60s most people remember Hanna-Barbera’s “The Jetsons” or Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland. But one of the great forgotten techno-utopian artists of the mid-20th century, Arthur Radebaugh, deserves recognition as well for his contributions to the world of futurism. As the illustrator of a late 1950s-early 60s newspaper comic called Closer Than We Think and countless other advertisements and magazine covers, Radebaugh helped shape mid-century American expectations for what the future held.
Arthur Radebaugh (1906-1974) was born in Coldwater, Michigan and would eventually establish his homebase in Detroit—though he spent much of his time in the late 1950s and 60s wandering the country in his Ford Thames, which had been converted to house a mobile art studio. Radebaugh briefly attended the Chicago Art Institute in 1925 but dropped out and spent the late 1920s working as a bus driver, hotel clerk and a theater usher. He moved back to Michigan in the 1930s and worked as a sign painter. He married his wife Nancy in 1934 and began to get illustration work for magazines like Esquire. During World War II Radebaugh designed armored cars and artillery for the Army. After the war, Radebaugh went to Detroit where he was Chief of the Army’s Industrial Design Branch and later went on to work as a designer for companies like Chrysler, Bohn and Coca-Cola.
Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think was syndicated in the United States and Canada and ran for five years. The strip debuted January 12, 1958 with “Satellite Space Station” and ended on January 13, 1963 with a panel about the “Family Computer.” The strip reached about 19 million newspaper readers at its peak and gave people a look at some of the most wonderfully techno-utopian visions that America had to offer. In the May 5, 1958 edition of the strip, Radebaugh looked at the “push-button school” of tomorrow, with computer consoles as every child’s desk. The February 1, 1959 strip imagined the electronic home library of the future, with microfilm projections on the wall. The April 9, 1961 edition of the strip showed the factory farm of tomorrow. And the October 4, 1958 strip predicted jetpack mailmen hopping from house to house in Suburbatopia.
Radebaugh loved experimenting with different mediums, including airbrush and fluorescent paints. The May 2, 1947 Portsmouth Times (Portsmouth, Ohio) ran a piece that looked at the work he was doing in the late 1940s when he was Chief of the Army’s Industrial Design Branch.
Radebaugh, whose studios are in Detroit, Mich., helped design armored cars, bazookas and artillery for the Army. Now, as an outstanding designer of futuristic life, he conceives jet-propelled space ships; heli-cruisers for Sunday drivers; streamlined overhead tramways carrying cars made from surplus Army aircraft fuselages. He paints most of these imaginative themes conventionally, then switches out the regular lights in his studio, turns on a ultra-violet beam, and adds his fluorescent paint. Illuminated by the invisible rays of the ultra-violet light, windows blaze light, stacks belch smoke.
Arthur Radebaugh died in a Veteran’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan on January 17, 1974. At the time of his death, his body of work in magazines and newspapers had been largely forgotten. But through the help of some very dedicated people online, including Tom Z., who has kindly provided many of the Closer Than We Think comic strips I’ve featured on Paleofuture over the years, Radebaugh has hopefully found a new audience to inspire.
November 2, 2011
The city of Burbank, California was incorporated in 1911 with a population of just 500. Today the population is just over 100,000 and the city is best known as the home of big name movie studios (and the closest Ikea to my apartment). Leading up to the incorporation of Burbank there was a lot of discussion about transportation services. The newly formed city wanted to build an extension of the Los Angeles streetcar line. Local artist and inventor Joseph W. Fawkes had become the first person in the U.S. to patent a monorail in 1907 and set out to convince Burbank that rather than an extension of the streetcar line, what the city really needed was a monorail. Fawkes imagined that an aerial monorail would provide service from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles, beginning at his own ranch off Olive Avenue.
Fawkes built a prototype, which was photographed for the Los Angeles Times. The photograph above comes from the beautiful book, Imagining Los Angeles: Photographs of a 20th Century City. The image can also be found in the USC Digital Libraries collection. The caption from the Los Angeles Times book explains the hurdles for Fawkes:
The idea never found backers—but if it had, the public might be enjoying futuristic monorail travel through the air between Burbank and downtown. In 1910 inventor J.W. Fawkes built a propellor-driven aerial trolley that he claimed would haul passengers at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. To demonstrate, he hung a quarter-mile-long overhead track in his Burbank apricot orchard and invited passengers aboard. Dubbed the Aerial Swallow, the trolley was about 40 feet long and powered by a Frankline air-cooled engine, which turned the propeller. But the prototype topped out at three miles per hour, and investors kept their hands in their pockets.
Fawkes unveiled his prototype to the public on Independence Day, July 4, 1911 and though the monorail was christened as the Aerial Swallow, his prototype would eventually become known as Fawkes’ Folley. Fawkes was the first to patent the monorail in the United States, but his wasn’t the first to appear in the country. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 included a steam-powered monorail. A monorail also operated in Brooklyn in the summer of 1878 and in 1888 the city of South St. Paul, Minnesota built an overhead monorail. Perhaps inspired by the bicycle craze of the 1890s, Long Island’s “bicycle railroad” monorail began trial runs in 1894.
The early 1910s saw others across the country who were attempting to introduce monorails to U.S. cities. William H. Boyes built his monorail in Seattle around 1911. City Island, New York built a monorail in 1910 that was closed just a year after its first trip — which happened to involve it derailing. And in 1912 the U.S. Senate built an underground monorail to shuttle senators between the old Senate office building and the Capitol building, which was replaced in the 1960s by a trolley system that in turn was replaced by a subway system.
Early 20th century monorails in the United States were inspired by what was happening in Europe at the time. An article in the August 15, 1912 Fort Wayne Sentinel heralded the gyroscopic monorail of the future, with an illustration of one that was currently operating in Prussia. Decades later, Walt Disney would be inspired to bring a monorail to Disneyland in 1959 after he saw the ALWEG monorail on his trip to Germany.
You could also find other monorails that pre-date modern popular science fiction and yet were still fanciful illustrations of the future to come. The August, 1918 issue of science fiction legend Hugo Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter magazine featured a monorail powered by two propellers.