April 17, 2012
The introduction of broadcast radio caused some in the newspaper industry to fear that newspapers would soon become a thing of the past. After all, who would read the news when you could just turn on the radio for real-time updates?
Newspapers had even more to fear in 1938 when radio thought it might compete with them in the deadtree business as well.
The May, 1938 issue of Hugo Gernsback‘s Short Wave and Television magazine included an article titled “Radio to Print News Right In Your Home.” The article described a method of delivering newspapers that was being tested and (provided it didn’t interfere with regular radio broadcasts) would soon be used as a futuristic news-delivery method.
The magazine proudly included a previous prediction from a different Gernsback publication four years earlier, before the FCC had granted trials:
Hugo Gernsback, in the April 1934 issue of Radio-Craft forecast the advent of the “radio newspaper.” Here’s the front cover illustration of that magazine. Compare it with the pictures on the opposite page!
The article opens by explaining that this futuristic device is already in use:
As you read this article, radio facsimile signals are probably circulating all around you. At least 23 broadcast stations, some of them high power ones, and a number of short-wave stations are now transmitting experimental facsimile signals under a special license granted by the Federal Communications Commission.
This invention of a wireless fax, as it were, was credited to W.G. H. Finch and used radio spectrum that was otherwise unused during the late-night hours when most Americans were sleeping. The FCC granted a special license for these transmissions to occur between midnight and 6am, though it would seem that a noisy printing device in your house cranking away in the middle of the night might have been the fatal flaw in their system. It wasn’t exactly a fast delivery either, as the article notes that it takes “a few hours” for the machine to produce your wireless fax newspaper.
The article explained exactly how the process worked:
The photo or other piece of copy, such as news bulletins, is placed in the scanner at the transmitter. At the rate of 100 lines per inch picture to be transmitted is scanned, and the transmitter sends out periodic impulses which vary in strength with the degree of light or shade on the picture. When these signals are received, by wire or radio, they are passed into a recording stylus. This stylus moves back and forth over a piece of chemically dry processed paper (the Finch system) in a line, wide or narrow as the case may be, is traced on the paper. A facsimile such as that shown in one of the accompanying pictures is obtained, and it thus becomes an easy matter to reproduce printed matter, drawings and photos, etc.
The article mentions two parties that are experimenting with the technology (Mr. Finch and RCA) but goes on to explain that nothing about the system had been standardized yet.
Many different systems of transmitting and recording devices by facsimile have been tried. The one used by the Finch system employs a special chemically treated paper. When a current passes through the moving stylus needle, the reaction causes a black spot to appear on the paper, the size of the spot at a given point depending upon the strength of the received impulse. At the transmitter the light beam is focused on the picture to be sent and the reflected light falls on a photo-electric cell.
Whether Finch and RCA knew it or not, battles between formats would continue right on into the 21st century as the fight over newspaper paywalls, cord-cutters, and ebooks continues to dramatically shift our media landscape.
April 10, 2012
The Roaring Twenties brought Americans a new era of mass-produced goods and, with it, an emerging middle class clamoring for newly affordable automobiles. In 1925 you could buy a Ford Model T for just $290 (about $3,700 adjusted for inflation). That same car would cost you $850 when it was first introduced in 1908 (about $20,400 adjusted for inflation). This steep drop in the price of cars — coupled with a national fascination with flight — had every “small f” futurist dreaming up the flying car of tomorrow.
The June, 1927 issue of Science and Invention magazine looked at one possible flying car of the future — specifically, a flying ambulance . The magazine included pictures from a scale model display, dreamt up by a French inventor who is unfortunately left unnamed by the article. The ambulance would be completely independent of the plane and simply drive into position to be swept away to the nearest hospital. The inventor imagines that patients would be riding in much more comfort because the ambulance could be sailing through the air rather than traversing over rough roads.
The Ne Plus Ultra of comfort can be found in this conception of a French inventor, permitting automobiles to go into the air as flying machines. It surely would be a great convenience if travelers, without leaving their automobiles, could embark in an airplane by driving their car into its fuselage. This particular invention was developed by a high-speed ambulance service, and allowing patients to be transported without shock or discomfort, such as might be experienced of the automobile [if it] were driven over bad roads. The machine is fastened into the fuselage of the plane.
This machine is reminiscent of the aero-limousine which was exhibited at the Aviation Show in New York some years ago. This arrangement possesses the added advantage that the automobile may be driven out of the fuselage used separately from the plane in any way desired. The perfection of this invention should prove of military use.
Local governments across the country were scrambling to figure out how keep pace with (or often restrict) the burgeoning car culture that was erupting. It’s sometimes hard to imagine what the world looked like before the development of our modern highway system. In the year 1919, future President Eisenhower (then just a lieutenant colonel) participated in a drive across the United States from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco called the Transcontinental Motor Convoy. This caravan of 80 vehicles by the U.S. Army had the goal of demonstrating how vital a modern transportation infrastructure was to U.S. forces in the event of any future war. The journey took 62 days and Eisenhower would later describe the roads they used as ranging from “average to non-existent.”
Eisenhower, of course, would be instrumental in developing America’s modern highway system in the mid-1950s. But long before these highways would crisscross the United States some people found hope in the aerial technologies which might make transportation that much easier.
April 5, 2012
1929 is a rather infamous year in American history.
It was the year that the first science fiction comic strip was introduced; Babe Ruth became the first major league baseball player to hit 500 home runs; and the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in Hollywood. But you’ll be forgiven if you only remember 1929 as the year that kicked off the Great Depression.
The “Roaring Twenties,” was a decade of tremendous technological, cultural and economic growth. Incredible advancements were made in radio, movies and cars — all of which would make the country feel that much smaller and more connected. The 19th Amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote. And the stock market was heading up — way up.
The market was performing unbelievably throughout the decade: up 20 percent in 1927, and almost 50 percent in 1928. Most people thought that (minor blips aside) the stock market would just keep climbing. But everything ground to a halt on October 24,1929.
The bubble burst on that day and though things would level off a bit on Friday, the market again went into free fall when it opened on Monday, October 28. The next day would become known as Black Tuesday when the market lost 11 percent of its value immediately upon opening. The rest is Great Depression history.
It’s curious then to note an article in the December 30, 1928 issue of the Ogden Standard-Examiner from Ogden, Utah which foresaw a different vision for 1929.
With the headline “Prosperity Paramount in 1929 Astrologers Forecast” the newspaper printed the predictions of astrologers from the year 1928 who insist that, though 1929 might start out a bit rocky — continuing the normal run of disasters, fears and everyday awfulness which have plagued humanity since the dawn of time, I suppose — it will be remembered as a year of prosperity for all.
The article is filled with generalizations and platitudes; but when plain, direct language is used about the course that 1929 will surely take, the predictions could not be more wrong. In fact, the predictions for October through December, 1929 are darkly amusing for just how tragically optimistic they were. Wages and expenditures were predicted to rise to new record heights, and no less than world peace was anticipated by the end of 1929. The astrologers also predict that, “High progress and prosperity may be recorded by all, professional, intellectual, educational and scientific activities.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the final prediction for December of 1929 may be the most macabre: “The year draws to a close with an abundance of capital for all needs and public developments, and unlimited credit for the worker.”
Prognostication is a tricky mix of art, science and luck. But it appears that the stars just didn’t align for these fallacious soothsayers.