March 30, 2012
There’s no city that Americans fictionally destroy more often than New York.
New York has been blown up, beaten down and attacked in every medium imaginable throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. From movies to novels to newspapers, there’s just something so terribly apocalyptic in the American psyche that we must see our most populous city’s demise over and over again.
Before WWII, these visions of New York’s destruction took the form of tidal waves, fires or giant ape attacks — but after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in Hiroshima and Nagaski, the atom was suddenly the new leveler of cities.
The August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s magazine ran an illustration of a mushroom cloud over Manhattan, with the headline reading: “Hiroshima, U.S.A.: Can Anything be Done About It?” Written by John Lear, with paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick, Collier’s obliterates New York through horrifying words and pictures. The first page of the article explains “the story of this story”:
For five years now the world has lived with the dreadful knowledge that atomic warfare is possible. Since last September, when the President announced publicly that the Russians too had produced an atomic explosion, this nation has lived face to face with the terrifying realization that an attack with atomic weapons could be made against us.
But, until now, no responsible voice has evaluated the problem constructively, in words everybody can understand. This article performs that service. Collier’s gives it more than customary space in the conviction that, when the danger is delineated and the means to combat it effectively is made clear, democracy will have an infinitely stronger chance to survive.
The illustrator who painted the cover was Chesley Bonestell and it is no doubt one of the most frightening images to ever grace the cover of a major American magazine. Opening up to the story inside, we see a city aflame.
A kind of wire service ticker tape runs across the top of the images inside the magazine:
BULLETIN NOTE TO EDITORS — ADVISORY ONLY — NEWARK NJ — HUGE EXPLOSION REPORTED IN LOWER NEW YORK CITY. IMMEDIATE CONFIRMATION UNAVAILABLE. WIRE CONNECTIONS WITH MANHATTAN ARE DOWN. NEW YORK HAS ADVISED IT WILL FILE FROM HERE SHORTLY . . . BULLETIN — HOBOKEN NJ — DOCK WORKERS ON THE NEW JERSEY SIDE OF THE HUDSON RIVER THIS AFTERNOON REPORTED A THUNDEROUS EXPLOSION IN THE DIRECTION OF NEW YORK CITY. THEY SAID THEY SAW A TREMENDOUS BALL OF FIRE RISING INTO THE SKY
The first few pages of the article tell the story of a typical Tuesday in New York City, with people going about their business. Suddenly a radiant heat is felt and a great flash engulfs the city. People in Coney Island mistake it for a lightning bolt. A housewife in the Bronx goes to the kitchen window to investigate where the light came from, only to have the window smash in front of her, sending thousands of “slashing bits” toward her body. As Lear describes it, it doesn’t take long for “millions of people, scattered over thousands of miles” to discover what has taken place.
The aftermath is one of great panic with emergency vehicles unable to move and people rushing to find transportation. Collier’s would touch on this theme of urban panic a few years later in their August 21, 1953 issue. One of the many fictional characters we follow in this story (an Associated Press reporter named John McKee) somehow manages to hail a cab in all this madness. McKee eventually gets to his office and begins reading the bulletins:
(NR) New York — (AP) — An A-bomb fell on the lower East Side of Manhattan Island at 5:13 P.M. (edt) today — across the East River from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The story goes on to describe how news coverage is largely crippled by the fact that 16 telephone exchanges were out, leaving 200,000 telephones useless. Ham radios, naturally, come to the rescue in their ability to spread emergency messages.
The cover ran almost 5 years to the day of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The military was able to go in after the attack and measure the extent of the devastation. The graphs below, which ran with the Collier’s article, explain what kind of impact would be felt at various distances from ground zero.
The article explained that our understanding of what a nuclear attack on New York would look like came straight from U.S. measurements in Japan:
The opening account of an A-bombing of Manhattan Island may seem highly imaginative. Actually, little of it is invention. Incidents are related in circumstances identical with or extremely close to those which really happened elsewhere in World War II. Property damage is described as it occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with allowance for differences between Oriental and Occidental standards of building. Death and injury were computed by correlating Census Bureau figures on population or particular sections of New York with Atomic Energy Commission and U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey data on the two A-bombs that fell on Japan. Every place and name used is real.
This Collier’s article wasn’t the first to warn of the devastating effect an atomic bomb could have on New York. A four-part series ran in newspapers across the country in April of 1948 which also described how awful a nuclear attack on New York could be. Written by S. Burton Heath, the first article in the series ran with the headline, “One A-Bomb Dropped In New York Would Take 800,000 Lives.”
One atomic bomb, exploded over New York’s Times Square on a working day, could be expected to kill several hundred thousand men, women and children.
No reputable atomic expert, in Washington or elsewhere, will estimate the exact number. The New York fire department says 100,000. On the basis of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it would be more than 800,000. The most reliable experts say the fire department’s guess is absurdly low. They think the bigger figure is too high.
After the surreal devastation that we witnessed during the terrorist attacks upon New York on September 11, 2001 ,we have some idea of what true horror looks like when inflicted upon a major American city. But a nuclear bomb is still something altogether different. The level of destruction that would result from nuclear warfare remains an abstraction for many — until you flip through old magazines of the Cold War.
March 28, 2012
Remember milkmen? Yeah, neither do I.
In 2007, I moved into an apartment building in St. Paul that was built during the early 1920s. I remember asking the building manager what the small, two-foot tall doors attached to the outside of each apartment were for. The doors had long been painted shut and no longer opened to the inside of the apartments, as it looked like they should. The manager explained that the doors were used decades ago by milkmen who would make deliveries during the day while people were at work.
In the 1920s virtually all milk consumed in the United States was delivered directly to the home. By the early 1970s, it was only about 15%. By the 1990s, it was less than 1%. Whither the man of milk?
There were many things that contributed to the demise of the American milkman: the rise of electric home refrigerators meant that frequent delivery of fresh products were unnecessary; the emergence of the supermarket as a one-stop-shop meant it was just as convenient to buy milk at the store as having it delivered; and the increase in automobile ownership after WWII meant that getting to the supermarket was now easier than ever. But arguably, the most important factor was the suburbanization of America.
After World War II, many young families moved to the suburbs, which made it more difficult for milkmen to deliver milk efficiently. As the milkman’s customers spread out, he would need to spend more time driving his truck between deliveries, which increased his costs. As the milkman’s expenses increased he was forced to raise prices on his products, which caused families to just tack on milk (and other dairy products that the milkman delivered) to their supermarket grocery lists.
Perhaps a mechanical assistant would have simplified the task of delivering milk in the suburbs? The August 6, 1961 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” imagined the milkman of the future, with an automatic robot helper at his heels. This anachronism of the retrofuture, as it were, is referred to as an “electronic dobbin.” The word “dobbin” means a horse that’s used for physically demanding tasks and is used in the comic strip to draw comparisons to the milkmen of the past.
When yesterday’s milkman walked between houses, his horse would quietly keep pace with him on the street. The Dobbin of tomorrow’s milkman will follow along in the same way — thanks to electronics.
The devices that control today’s missiles — in far simpler form — will make it possible for the milkman to drive his truck from inside or out, wherever he happens to be. A small set of buttons will actuate the radio-tuned steering and movement of the vehicle. And maybe those buttons themselves will give way before long to the “unicontrol” being developed in Detroit — a single lever that controls speed, direction and braking alike — intended for passenger cars less than a decade away.
If you’d like to read more about the decline of the milkman I’d suggest finding a 1972 paper by Odis E. Bigus titled, ”The Milkman and His Customer: A Cultivated Relationship,” which was originally published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. If you’d like to read more about Arthur Radebaugh, I wrote a short piece about him for the April, 2012 issue of Smithsonian.
March 23, 2012
Recently we looked at a 1946 prediction for a gigantic atomic-powered sphere that would traverse the country as a kind of hamster-ball land cruise for humans.
About a decade earlier there were predictions of a similar looking ball — but for use as homes. The September, 1934 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics imagined the house of the future as an enormous sphere that would make moving easy if the home owner simply wrapped large tires over the thing and towed it with a tractor.
If spherical, the house of the future can be easily transported to its building lot, set in place, and the fixtures added. The shell is first pressed into shape; then windows are cut, and only a protective tire is need for moving.
The article’s title was “When Home Owners Roll Their Own” and in some ways took the streamline moderne style of architecture to its logical conclusion: the sphere.
For well-known reasons, a tank or vessel shaped like a ball is strongest and lightest. Spherical tanks, gas containers, etc., have been made; the only problem is to construct them, since ordinary methods are not very successful.
A recent patent (No. 1,958,421) deals with pressing metal into shape in a curved container, and pumping in liquid under pressure to swell them out.
Should spherical houses come into favor, as modernistic architects predict, the shell of a house could be made thus; the necessary openings cut; and it would be rolled to the owner’s lot as shown. Properly built-in fixtures would even stand such moving.
The patent that the article refers to was filed on December 17, 1932 by E.G. Daniels. Patent 1,958,421 explains a new method of making spherical containers. It was common for magazines like Everyday Science and Mechanics and Electrical Experimenter to look at the recently filed patents and imagine what fantastical advancements of the future might be achieved.
March 21, 2012
The 1981 book World of Tomorrow: Future War and Weapons by Neil Ardley is (naturally) a little dark for juvenile literature. Space pirates slaughter families while they picnic on space colonies, armies poison each other to create vivid hallucinations, and people on Earth live in underground shelters after a horrifying nuclear war destroys life as we know it.
Most of the book hasn’t yet come to pass in its bleak depiction of a world engulfed by hyper-futuristic weaponry and mayhem. But one two-page spread sticks out as a prescient vision of our world today. Ardley’s description of the soldier of the future forecasts technologies that currently exist or are under development: GPS guided weapons, helmets with eye-tracking sensors and flame-resistant uniforms that can protect against 2nd or 3rd-degree burns:
In several ways the soldier of the future will resemble the soldier of the distant past. He or she will be heavily protected — not encased in a suit of iron but clothed in ultrastrong materials that will resist rifle fire and radiation. The soldier may look out through a mask that cleans the air of radioactive dust, chemical poisons or disease germs used by the enemy. To attack, the soldier could use a future version of the crossbow — a small portable missile launcher. However, the solider will not have to aim the weapon. Using a computer, the position of the target can be fed into the missile’s guidance system and it will streak home. If the target moves, the missile will pursue it automatically, or the soldier may “see” or even “think” it home using a guidance computer linked to the soldier’s own eyes or brain!
The book is obviously rooted in the concerns of the time. One concern was terrorism, especially as it related to aircraft hijackings. Hijackings were at their peak between 1968 and 1972, when there were 137 attempted commercial aircraft hijackings in the United States.
The illustration below shows soldiers of the future dealing with terrorists who have taken over an airport. Terrorists and hostages alike flee from the burning wreckage of a commercial plane.
The book doesn’t rule out the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in the future, while mentioning that domestic terrorism may be just as large a threat in the years to come.
A future nuclear conflict or one using neutron weapons or energy beams would destroy human forces. There would be little that soldiers could do to help win such a war. It seems likely that the future role of the soldier will not always be to fight foreign enemies but often terrorists within a nation. The soldiers of the future could be more like heavily armed policemen than a fighting force.
March 14, 2012
The 1920s was an incredible decade of advancement for communications technology. Radio was finally being realized as a broadcast medium, talkies were transforming the film industry, and inventors were tinkering with the earliest forms of television. People of the 1920s recognized that big changes were ahead, and no one relished in guessing what those changes might be more than Hugo Gernsback.
Gernsback was a pioneer in both radio and publishing, always pushing the boundaries of what the public might expect of their technological future. In 1905 (just a year after emigrating to the U.S. from Germany at the age of 20) Gernsback designed the first home radio set and started the first mail-order radio business in the world. The radio was called the Telimco Wireless and was advertised in magazines like Scientific American for $7.50 (about $180 today).
In 1908 Gernsback put out the world’s first radio magazine, Modern Electronics. Distributed by the American News Company, Modern Electronics was a huge hit and was said to be profitable from its first issue. In 1909 he opened the first radio storefront in New York, supplementing his mail-order radio sales by selling radio parts to amateur radio operators in the city.
In 1913 Gernsback started publishing a magazine called Electrical Experimenter, which in 1920 became known as Science and Invention. In the February, 1925 issue of Science and Invention Gernsback wrote an article that would combine his fascination with the future of radio communications and predict a device for the year 1975 that we still don’t see in any practical household form today.
Gernsback’s device was called the “teledactyl” and would allow doctors to not only see their patients through a viewscreen, but also touch them from miles away with spindly robot arms. He effectively predicted telemedicine, though with a weirder twist than we see implemented in 2012.
From the February, 1925 issue of Science and Invention:
The Teledactyl (Tele, far; Dactyl, finger — from the Greek) is a future instrument by which it will be possible for us to “feel at a distance.” This idea is not at all impossible, for the instrument can be built today with means available right now. It is simply the well known telautograph, translated into radio terms, with additional refinements. The doctor of the future, by means of this instrument, will be able to feel his patient, as it were, at a distance….The doctor manipulates his controls, which are then manipulated at the patient’s room in exactly the same manner. The doctor sees what is going on in the patient’s room by means of a television screen.
Quite impressively, the teledactyl was imagined as a sensory feedback device, which allowed the doctor to not only manipulate his instruments from afar, but feel resistance.
Here we see the doctor of the future at work, feeling the distant patient’s arm. Every move that the doctor makes with the controls is duplicated by radio at a distance. Whenever the patient’s teledactyl meets with resistance, the doctor’s distant controls meet with the same resistance. The distant controls are sensitive to sound and heat, all important to future diagnosis.
Gernsback positions his predictions about telemedicine within the rapidly changing communications landscape of the 1920s:
As our civilization progresses we find it more and more necessary to act at a distance. Instead of visiting our friends, we now telephone them. Instead of going to a concert, we listen to it by radio. Soon, by means of television, we can stay right at home and view a theatrical performance, hearing and seeing it. This, however is far from sufficient. As we progress, we find our duties are multiplied and we have less and less to transport our physical bodies in order to transact business, to amuse ourselves, and so on.
The busy doctor, fifty years hence, will not be able to visit his patients as he does now. It takes too much time, and he can only, at best, see a limited number today. Whereas the services of a really big doctor are so important that he should never have to leave his office; on the other hand, his patients cannot always come to him. This is where the teledactyl and diagnosis by radio comes in.
It wasn’t just the field of medicine that was going to be revolutionized by this new device. Other practical uses would involve seeing and signing important documents from a distance:
Here we see the man of the future signing a check or document at a distance. By moving the control, it goes through exactly the same motions as he would in signing he document. He sees what he is doing by means of the radio teleview in front of him. The bank or other official holds the document in front of a receiving teledactyl, to which is attached a pen or other writing instrument. The document is thus signed.
This diagram also explained how the teledactyl worked:
A year after this article was released Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories, the first magazine that was devoted entirely to science fiction. Gernsback published a number of different magazines throughout his life, but I’d argue that none were filled with more rich, retro-future goodness than Science and Invention.