January 27, 2012
When Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus met President Kennedy in 1962, JFK told him, “The only science I ever learned was from your comic strip in the Boston Globe.”
The comic strip that Kennedy was referring to was called “Our New Age” and ran in about 110 Sunday newspapers all around the world from 1958 until 1975. Much like Arthur Radebaugh‘s mid-century futurism comic “Closer Than We Think,” which ran from 1958 until 1963, “Our New Age” was a shining example of techno-utopian idealism. Not all of the strips were futuristic, but they all had that particular brand of optimism that so characterized postwar American thinking about science and technology.
Each week the strip had a different theme, illustrating a scientific principle or advancement in an easily digestible way. Some of the strips tackled straightforward scientific topics like meteors and volcanoes, while others explained the latest scientific developments in synthetic fibers, space travel and lasers. The strip seemed to say that the building blocks of the future were laid out before us, we just had to build it.
Athelstan Spilhaus wrote “Our New Age” from its inception until 1973, but it went through three different illustrators: first Earl Cros, then E.C. Felton, then Gene Fawcette. I have a strip from 1975 (when Fawcette is still credited as the illustrator) but after Spilhaus stopped doing the strip in 1973 the identity of the writer was unclear.
As Spilhaus tells it, he was inspired to start the comic strip in October of 1957 after the Soviets launched Sputnik — the first human-made satellite — into space. He was concerned that American kids weren’t showing enough interest in science and technology. “Rather than fight my own kids reading the funnies, which is a stupid thing to do, I decided to put something good into the comics, something that was more fun and that might give a little subliminal education,” he said.
“Our New Age” had an enormous audience almost immediately. A 1959 article in Time magazine noted that the strip appeared in 102 U.S. and 19 foreign newspapers.
Athelstan Spilhaus was a flamboyant and remarkable futurist who led quite an extraordinary life. He was the first Unesco ambassador to the UN, started the National Sea Grant Program, was the inventor of the bathythermograph, was involved with the infamous “Roswell incident” when his Project Mogul weather balloons crashed, and even tried to get an experimental city built in Minnesota with Buckminster Fuller. The Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) never got off the ground for a number of reasons, not least of which because Spilhaus and Fuller had some major disagreements about the project.
During the majority of the time that he was writing “Our New Age,” Dr. Spilhaus was the dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. While in Minnesota, Spilhaus became good friends with another under-appreciated futurist thinker, journalist Victor Cohn. People were constantly asking Spilhaus, a jet-set man who had his hand in everything, how he could be involved in so many seemingly disparate projects. He told his friend Victor, “…I don’t do ‘so many things.’ I do one. I think about the future.”
Sharon Moen at the University of Minnesota is currently writing a book about Spilhaus, due out this fall. I spoke with her on the phone.
Having been born and raised in Minnesota, I was personally interested to hear that Spilhaus was involved in the creation of the skyway system in Minneapolis and St. Paul. (The skyway system is a sort of a 2nd floor human habitrail that links many of the buildings downtown and allows pedestrians to stay indoors during the winters, rather than brave the cold at street level.) Skyways had been tried in other cities, though not on such a large scale as Spilhaus had envisioned. “Athelstan had a lot of big ideas. And one of the things that he was amazing at was taking ideas and re-applying them,” Moen told me.
Kennedy named Spilhaus the U.S. commissioner to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Moen told me that an early idea for the fair’s theme (before Spilhaus was brought on board) involved a “wild west” motif. But just as Sputnik had inspired Spilhaus to start writing “Our New Age,” it seems the space race had pushed the Seattle Fair into a showcase for American futurism.
Moen explained to me how important the Seattle World’s Fair (not to mention the later fairs he consulted on) were to Spilhaus: “A lot of his thinking was solidified at the World’s Fair. It’s what got him into what cities could be and recycling and farming oceans. He was really excited about the future.”
The December, 1971 issue of Smithsonian magazine published a profile on Dr. Spilhaus and mentioned that some weren’t so pleased that a distinguished academic was writing Sunday comic strips. The articles notes that his writing “Our New Age” was, “thought by some an undignified avocation.”
Dignified or not, there’s no question that influencing an American president, and reaching a worldwide audience with a message promoting science was no small feat. Spilhaus himself responded to the academics who questioned his supposedly undignified side project: “Which of you has a class of five million every Sunday morning?”
January 25, 2012
As I noted last week, the term “wireless telephone” in the early 1920s didn’t necessarily mean a device that could both transmit and receive messages. In fact, most radio devices during this time were simply either a transmitter or a receiver. However, some inventors were having a lot of fun tinkering with what was essentially walkie-talkie technology, in that they were developing transceivers — devices that could both transmit and receive radio messages. An article in the March 21, 1920 Sandusky Register in Sandusky, Ohio retold the story of a man in Philadelphia named W. W. Macfarlane who was experimenting with his own “wireless telephone.” With a chauffeur driving him as he sat in the back seat of his moving car he amazed a reporter from The Electrical Experimenter magazine by talking to Mrs. Macfarlane, who sat in their garage 500 yards down the road.
A man with a box slung over his shoulder and holding in one hand three pieces of stove pipe placed side by side on a board climbed into an automobile on East Country Road, Elkins Park, Pa.
As he settled in the machine he picked up a telephone transmitter, set on a short handle, and said:
“We are going to run down the road. Can you hear me?”
Other passengers in the automobile, all wearing telephone receivers, heard a woman’s voice answering: “Yes, perfectly. Where are you?”
By this time the machine was several hundred yards down the road and the voice in the garage was distinctly heard.
This was one of the incidents in the first demonstration of the portable wireless telephone outfit invented by W. W. Macfarlane, of Philadelphia, as described by the Electrical Experimenter.
Mrs. Macfarlane, sitting in the garage back of the Macfarlane home, was talking through the wireless telephone to her husband, seated comfortably in a moving automobile 500 yards away.
The occupants of the car were a chauffeur, a reporter and a photographer. All wore the telephone receivers and could hear everything Mrs Macfarlane was saying. The chauffeur had no other apparatus than the receiver with the usual telephone cord attached to a metal clip to his steering wheel.
Lying beside Mr. Macfarlane was the foot-square box, the only “secret” in the whole demonstration. What is in the box is the inventor’s mystery. This box weighs about twelve pounds. The other machinery used consisted only of the usual telephone transmitter and receivers and the three pieces of stove pipe standing erect on a plain piece of board. This forms the aerial of the apparatus.
As the article notes, this story was first reported in an issue of Hugo Gernsback’s magazine The Electrical Experimenter. Gernsback was an important popular figure in the development of radio and in 1909 opened the world’s first store specializing in radios at 69 West Broadway in New York. The reporter from the Experimenter asked Macfarlane if his device, which he said cost about $15 to make (about $160 adjusted for inflation), had any practical uses in the future. Macfarlane instead looks backward and wonders how it might have shaped World War I, which ended less than two years before.
“If this could have been ready for us in the war, think of the value it would have had. A whole regiment equipped with the telephone receivers, with only their rifles as aerials, could advance a mile and each would be instantly in touch with the commanding officer. No runners would be needed. There could be no such thing as a ‘lost battallion.’”
January 20, 2012
In December 1950, newspapers across the country ran a piece distributed by the Associated Press titled “How Experts Think We’ll Live in 2000 A.D.” That article was written by a number of different editors at the AP and covered everything from the future of movies to the state of the economy in the year 2000. It also contained predictions from editor Dorothy Roe about the typical woman of the year 2000. Roe describes her as having perfect proportions: six feet tall and competing with men in sports like football and wrestling. Roe’s meal-pill-popping woman of tomorrow also has prominent positions in the world of government and business, with a final sentence proclaiming that she may even be president.
The woman of the year 2000 will be an outsize Diana, anthropologists and beauty experts predict. She will be more than six feet tall, wear a size 11 shoe, have shoulders like a wrestler and muscles like a truck driver.
Chances are she will be doing a man’s job, and for this reason will dress to fit her role. Her hair will be cropped short, so as not to get in the way. She probably will wear the most functional clothes in the daytime, go frilly only after dark.
Slacks probably will be her usual workaday costume. These will be of synthetic fiber, treated to keep her warm in winter and cool in summer, admit the beneficial ultra-violet rays and keep out the burning ones. They will be light weight and equipped with pockets for food capsules, which she will eat instead of meat and potatoes.
Her proportions will be perfect, though Amazonian, because science will have perfected a balanced ration of vitamins, proteins and minerals that will produce the maximum bodily efficiency, the minimum of fat.
She will go in for all kinds of sports – probably will compete with men athletes in football, baseball, prizefighting and wrestling.
She’ll be in on all the high-level groups of finance, business and government.
She may even be president.
The illustration to the right appeared in the December 24, 1949 Daily Capital News (Jefferson City, Missouri) as part of an earlier syndicated Associated Press piece about the woman of the year 2000. This piece also mentions the expected physical growth and strength of women in the future, quoting Ann Delafield, a woman known for the “reducing plans” she advertised in women’s magazines of the early 1950s. Humorously, Ms. Delafield seems to believe that an abundance of sunshine is contributing to the growth of women during this era.
“Nature seems bent on producing a new race of Amazons. Within the next 50 years you’ll find the emancipated woman engaging actively in such sports as football, baseball and soccer. She’ll think nothing of chopping the wood and acting as family car mechanic.”
Miss Delafield has found that the shoulders of girls are 2 to 3 inches wider than their mothers’, their gloves are several sizes larger than Mom’s, and many a gal stoops down to kiss her teen age boy friend. Says Miss Delafield:
“Goodness knows what will happen if they continue to soak up vitamins and sunshine and just keep sprouting. Girls from the sunshine states, California, Texas and New Mexico can dwarf the girls from the Northeast.”
January 17, 2012
I recently came across a short, silent film from 1922 called Eve’s Wireless. Distributed by the British Pathe company, the film supposedly shows two women using a wireless phone. Apparently this video has been making the rounds for the past few years. Could it be an early demonstration of some futuristic technology? I hate to be the Internet’s wet blanket, but no. It’s not a mobile phone.
Rather than an early mobile phone, think of the box they’re holding as an early Walkman; because the two women on the street don’t have a telephone, but rather a crystal radio. The confusion comes from the fact that the term “wireless telephone” was widely used in 1922 for what we simply call “radio” today.
The film opens with two women walking down the street with an umbrella and a radio in a box. An inter-title slate (the words that would appear in a silent movie to help aid in narrative development and were sometimes known as “letter cards”) explains that “It’s Eve’s portable wireless ‘phone — and won’t hubby have a time when he has to carry one!”
In the next shot the women approach a fire hydrant and attach a ground wire from the radio to the hydrant. Crystal radios don’t need a power source (like a battery) because they derive their power from a long antenna, which Eve has strung up through an umbrella.
After they get the umbrella up, one of the women puts a small speaker up to her ear. The film then cuts to a shot of a woman speaking into a microphone.
She then holds that microphone up to a phonograph, which is presumably playing music.
Since the woman on the street only has a speaker to her ear and no microphone, it’s reasonable to assume that our Jazz Age disc jockey can’t hear her talking to her friend. What’s not entirely clear from the film is whether the woman playing the phonograph is playing it for many people or just the two women on the snowy street. The use of the word “telephone” in 1922 didn’t necessarily mean two devices that could both receive and transmit messages. Sometimes (as possibly was the case with Eve’s Wireless) the telephone was used for a one-way message.
You can watch the entire film for yourself.
The use of an umbrella as an antenna for a crystal radio dates back at least to 1910, as we can see from the image below, which ran in the February 20, 1910 Washington Post. The image is pretty amazing to 21st century eyes, but it’s not until we read the last few lines of the accompanying article that we realize the wireless communication is only traveling in one direction and is little more than a crystal radio, which needs a ground connection.
Wives can call husbands at their offices or on the way to Harlem or the suburbs in the car and say, “Do stop at the butcher’s on the corner and get some liver and bacon!” It’s the girl’s day out. And you know how she is! She never orders a thing ahead….
Advice to Married Men – Don’t you care when your wife says angrily, “Don’t tell me, I know you heard me. I called you all day and your wireless telephone was in perfect condition when you fastened it to your hat this morning when you left the house.”
Affect a look of surprise and reply, “Don’t be angry dear. I forgot to take off my rubbers and wore them all day.”
Indeed, by 1922, the term “wireless telephone” as used in Eve’s Wireless was actually quite old fashioned. The article below from the January 31, 1909 Nevada State Journal also shows an early use of the term for point-to-point radio communication with ships on the Great Lakes.
An article in the May, 1922 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine even mentions the shift in terminology in an article called “The Romance of the Radio Telephone.”:
The story of the radio telephone is a study of extremes. It is the most popular fad at this moment, yet only a short while ago it was the most unpopular invention ever introduced to the public. To-day it is in many good hands for full and sound exploitation; a dozen years ago the wireless telephone, as it was then called, was the prey of unscrupulous stock promoters who used it as a means of prying money away from the gullible public.
Flip through the pages of an early radio magazine like Radio Broadcast published before June of 1922 and you’ll come across countless uses of the term “wireless telephone.” But by the July, 1922 issue almost every article and advertisement in Radio Broadcast had stopped using the term. This was no accident.
The U.S. Commerce Department held a meeting in 1922 to standardize the technical language of radio. At that meeting the Committee on Nomenclature of the Radio Telephone Conference defined terms like “interference” and “antenna.” The Committee also recommended the adoption of the word “radio” rather than “wireless.”
The June, 1922 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine devoted a page to explaining the committee’s recommendations with the headline, “What to Call Them.” The first recommendation on the list was about the use of the word “radio”:
In place of the word “Wireless” and names derived from it, use the prefix “Radio”; Radio Telegraphy, Radio Telephony
In 1922, the language of radio was in transition because of radical technological improvements made by men like Lee de Forest and Edwin Howard Armstrong over the previous twenty years. The concept of broadcasting (transmitting from one transmitter to many receivers) was technically impractical until the mid-1910s, when Armstrong improved vacuum tube technology, making it possible to amplify a radio signal thousands of times more than was capable before. During World War I, the U.S. government commandeered all wireless transmitters, which kept Armstrong’s technology from being used by anyone but the military. But after the war, the practical uses of radio as a form of mass media started to be realized.
The article below appeared in the June 15, 1919 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and describes the advances that were just over the horizon; a futuristic time when the president might address the entire nation simultaneously over the radio. The president “at the ‘phone” as it were:
The terms “wireless telegraphy” and “wireless telephone” were kind of like calling the automobile a “horseless carriage.” Telephones and electric telegraphs in the early 1900s depended on physical lines that would transmit voices and electrical impulses from one person to another. An article by Prof. J. H. Morecroft in the July, 1922 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine explains why the transition was made from using the term “wireless” to the term “radio.”
The new idea of using radiated energy, as contrasted to the previous schemes, gives us the reason for the change of name from wireless telegraphy, up to now a proper name for the art, to that of radio communication, indicating that the power used in carrying the message was not due to conduction through the earth’s surface, or to magnetic induction, but to energy which was actually shaken free from the transmitting station antenna, and left to travel freely in all directions.
In 1922 telephones were hard-wired and your voice was carried over lines that would have to go to an operator. The operator would then patch you in with another physical wire to the desired recipient of your call.
British Pathe even referred to the supposed mobile phone in Eve’s Wireless as the first “flip phone” because the top of the radio receiver opened.
But as you can see from the photos and advertisement below, this was a popular design for crystal radios in the early 1920s.
Below are photographs from the Library of Congress which date from between 1910 and 1915. The handwritten description on the bottom reads, “Wireless Telephone, Los Angeles.”
You’ll notice that in the picture below it says “McCarthy Wireless ‘phone,” not “iPhone,” as my 21st century brain initially read it:
History often plays linguistic tricks on us. We all look back at earlier eras through the prism of our own biases. The evolution of language — especially when it comes to rapidly changing technologies — can make us think we’re watching or reading about something much more incredible than it is. However, there was a lot of exciting futuristic communications technologies that people were devising at the beginning of the radio age, and we’ll look at a few of those in the weeks to come.
January 13, 2012
The February, 1946 issue of Amazing Stories magazine included an illustration by James B. Settles which depicts a somewhat peculiar leisure vehicle of the future. After World War II, the American public was told that the harnessing of atomic energy in peacetime would eventually lead to unprecedented amounts of leisure time. Judging by Settles’ back cover illustration and the accompanying text, that leisure time might very well be spent in a gigantic “pleasure ball” traversing the country.
Now that atomic energy is coming, we have asked artist James B. Settles to picture for us one of the developments in amusement to which it might be put. He surprised us with this huge rolling cross-country pleasure ball.
With atomic energy, it has been postulated that man will have many leisure hours that he never had before. He will have most of the day to pursue as he pleases, either for pleasure, or in pursuit of a hobby, or in art, or in just plain being lazy.
Television at this time was very new. So new, in fact, that most people didn’t have one. In 1946 there were only about 6,000 television sets in the entire United States. Thus, the wording that someone might see an advertisement for this spherical cruise of the future “in” his television set, rather than “on” might strike modern readers as amusing. However, the mention of television advertising at all was positioning this “pleasure ball” within a brave new futuristic America.
Now, envisioning this future leisure-rich man casting about for a way to pass the day pleasantly, he might see an advertisement in his television set which might go something like the title of this article and of Settles’ cover — “Trade Your Trouble for a Bubble”– and decide to go sightseeing across the country in this giant rolling ball of transparent plastic, balanced by interior gyro stabilizers controlling a suspended core which ever remains erect as it travels around its giant “track-ring.”
This ring is magnetic, and powered by the atom, revolves along the roadway. The same power that makes the ball move forward (or backward) acts for stopping the ball. There are no huge motors, no complicated apparatus, just the simplest of gadgets, and a complex and very interesting interior which is the last word in pleasure palaces. Games, terraces, ramps, restful lounging places, dance floors, swimming pools and just plain sightseeing would make this huge ball a pleasant place to while away a day.