May 31, 2012
Today, new futuristic-looking technologies often attract investors hoping to make gobs of money. And airships of the past were no different. In the first few decades of the 20th century people scrambled to figure out how they might cash in on these exciting new inventions, which were slowly beginning to prove themselves technologically reliable.
But not everyone thought that commercial flight was a good investment. The January 2, 1909, issue of Literary Digest re-published portions of a December 10, 1908 editorial in Engineering News under the headline, “A Warning to Air-Ship Investors.” The article spells out the various ways people of the era thought there may be money in flight — transporting freight, passenger travel, warfare — but the author remains extremely skeptical that any of those applications would pay off financially anytime soon.
Literary Digest explains that “companies to build, sell, and operate new types of flying-machines will before long be seeking stock subscriptions in every city in the country. How shall we distinguish the false from the true? The advice of the [Engineering News] is to keep clear of the whole business.”
From the December 10, 1908 Engineering News:
So far as the possibilities of freight transportation are concerned, it may be passed with a word. Wherever ordinary methods of transportation on land are available, it will be absurd to carry goods of any sort through the air. The cost of such transport would be measured not in mills per ton mile, as in rail or water carriage, or cents per ton mile, as in wagon haulage, but in dollars or hundreds of dollars per ton.
It is true that for exploration in difficult country, as over the Arctic ice or in rough mountain regions, there are possibilities in the air-ship. But such use, of course, is rather scientific than commercial.
The article continues by laying out the impracticality of passenger air travel, seeing it as more of an amusement that might be useful at fairs, rather than as a practical means of transportation. Interestingly, the author also calls out the high-speed automobile as a toy of the rich which allows them to “vent their surplus energies.”
For the carriage of passengers, the necessary risks attendant upon flight through the air, either with the dirigible balloon or the aeroplane, are certain to limit passenger traffic to the field of sport and amusement. This is, of course, a much more considerable field than is often realized. The public is willing to pay very high prices for mere amusement, and it is altogether probable that a few years hence aeroplane flights will be a drawing card at county fairs and other public occasions, just as ordinary balloon ascensions have been for a century past. The experience of the high-speed automobile, too, has proved the existence of a very large leisure class of wealthy men who find vent for their surplus energies in undertaking all sorts of risky exploits. Flight through the air may very likely become as popular a fad a few years hence as automobile racing is to-day; but it will have just as little relation to the serious, practical, every-day business of carrying freight and passengers for the great workaday world as have the hundred-horsepower automobiles that break speed records in France or America.
Warfare of the future isn’t even seen as a possible use for airships. As Engineering News explains, flying machines are far too vulnerable to bullets from the ground.
It is said that the leading military nations are vying with each other at the present time in the development of military air-ships, but this does not prove that these structures can be made practically useful in the serious business of actual warfare… Of all the apparatus ever proposed for use on the battle-field, a flying-machine is beyond all question the most vulnerable. It offers an ideal mark to the bullets of the enemy. Its limitations of weight forbid its protection by any sort of armor. Had the flying-machine been developed forty or fifty years ago, when projectiles were limited to small velocities and short ranges, it might have performed some service in observing the enemy’s forces; but with modern infantry rifles discharging projectiles with an initial velocity of 2,700 feet per second, and with light artillery fitted to discharge a perfect hail-storm of bullets having equal velocity and range, the rise of an air-ship at any point within several miles of a hostile army would be merely the signal for its immediate destruction.
Engineering News was correct that military airships were being developed. These planes would advance considerably in the lead up to the First World War, where they were not only used for reconnaissance, but also mounted with machine guns and used for strategic bombing. In 1909, on July 27, the Wright Brothers tested a military airplane in Fort Meyer, Virginia. Film from the National Archives of the Wright Brothers testing that plane is embedded below.
May 29, 2012
Today most universities offer online courses that allow students to study and take tests without physically being on campus, but in the 1930s the distance learning technology of the future was television.
Both radio and television were initially envisioned as methods for point-to-point communication, but once radio broadcasting became mainstream in the 1920s universities saw the potential of the medium to reach a broad audience with educational programming. This was especially true in rural farming communities where long distance commuting to a university was out of the question.
Universities in the U.S. may have been at the forefront of experimenting with radio broadcasting, but frankly, they weren’t great at attracting sizable audiences. As Douglas B. Craig explains in his book Fireside Politics, “many university stations [of the 1920s] began operations with high hopes of bringing education to the masses, but soon faltered as broadcasting costs increased, audiences diminished, and professors demonstrated that lecture-hall brilliance did not always translate into good radio technique. These problems were quickly reflected in an unfavorable allocation of frequency or broadcast times, sending many of these stations into a downward spiral to oblivion.”
The handful of universities that were successful at attracting large audiences did so by introducing an almost confrontational approach to their presentation. University of Chicago Round Table, which began as a local Chicagoland broadcast in 1931 but ran nationally on NBC radio from 1933 until 1955, adopted a talk radio format that would be quite familiar to today’s audiences. Rather than a single professor lecturing on a given topic, University of Chicago Round Table had three professors or scientists sitting around a triangular table while facing each other. These people would then debate scientific subjects like whether there was life on other planets and whether light is a wave or a particle. As Marcel C. Lafollette notes in “A Survey of Science Content in U.S. Radio Broadcasting, 1920s through 1940s, the goal of University of Chicago Round Table was to “keep it moving and keep it conversational” — a rule of broadcasting that holds true today.
Experiments in television brought universities that had failed at radio a fresh start, but it was still unclear as to whether these technologies should be used for narrowly targeted or broadcast purposes. In 1933, the University of Iowa became the first American university to broadcast TV. The first public demonstration of television in the state had occurred just two years earlier at the 1931 Iowa State Fair, and there was tremendous excitement by scientists at the University of Iowa to see what it could accomplish. Unreliable and unclear at the time, the rudimentary television technology of the early 1930s meant that the few experimenters who owned a TV (most likely constructed by themselves, rather than purchased in a store) had to turn on their radio in order to hear the broadcast, as the audio and visual couldn’t be broadcast together. As noted in the March 16, 1933 Monticello Express (Monticello, IA):
University of Iowa’s radio and television stations WSUI and W9XK are now ready to present the first scheduled series of sight and sound educational programs ever given by an American university. This announcement was made by the department of electrical engineering last Friday. The first broadcasts will probably be made once a week between 7 and 7:30 p.m., exact evening to be determined upon later. Details of the broadcasts are now being arranged and it is expected that a regular schedule of illustrated lectures will commence next week. Illustrated lectures have been chosen for program material because they are adaptable to radio and television synchronization pictures being confined to small areas with details.
In 1935, New York University professor C. C. Clark conducted a class using a shortwave radio transceiver (a radio that can both send and receive messages) from his home. Because the radio went both ways, Prof. Clark was able to take questions from the class. The April 1935 issue of Short Wave Craft magazine reported on Clark’s experiment as a harbinger of the bold new way that classes may one day be conducted by television.
The article in Short Wave Craft included the drawing below, which proclaimed that it would be a scene “commonplace for tomorrow.” Interestingly, the article also makes mention of the need for advertising to sustain such ventures — a controversial prospect at the dawn of television broadcasting.
The scene [below] will be a commonplace one tomorrow, without a doubt, when television will be as indispensable to our every day home life as the radio program receiver is today. Television advertising will be a “brand-new art” which our advertising experts will have to develop and perfect in the future.
The article claims that practical television broadcasting is just a year or two away, but doesn’t mention the experiments at the University of Iowa. The magazine goes on excitedly about the commercial opportunities of television even though the FCC wouldn’t yet allow stations to sell advertising in 1935.
As the illustration shows we will undoubtedly have lectures of every conceivable kind present to us right in our homes, when practical television arrives, possibly a year or two off. Mathematics, geometry, and dozens of other subjects will be “apple pie” so far as broadcasting them through the air by radio is concerned, when television is available for the purpose, compared to the present situation when it is quite impractical to attempt giving lectures on geometry or other subjects, which really require diagrams or pictures to make them clear to the uninitiated. Tomorrow our whole radio broadcast background, so far as the listener is concerned, will be changed when television becomes a common everyday convenience. Not only will various subjects be taught or lectured upon and brought into our homes, but the latest styles in men’s and women’s clothes, furniture, etc., will be flashed on our home television screen, and dozens of other advertised products, travel tours, etc., as well.
It would be another four years before television’s coming out party at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and even then, the television receiver wouldn’t become a staple of American homes until well after World War II. In 1952, the FCC set aside 242 noncommercial channels to encourage educational programming. One year later, it became apparent that the funding required to produce such shows was sorely lacking. Still, Life magazine tried to keep the faith: “The hunger of our citizenry for culture and self-improvement has always been grossly underestimated; the number of Americans who would rather learn a little something than receive a sample tube of shaving cream is absolutely colossal.”
May 25, 2012
The October 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics looked at what technological advancements Americans might expect after WWII with an article titled, “Big Things Ahead — But Keep Your Shirt On,” by John Silence.
What makes this article so fascinating is that it looks at the advances of the future with optimism, but tempers that rosey outlook with realistic predictions. There were a number of stories in the early 1940s offering American readers a vision of the future after the war, but this is one of the few that asks people to keep their expectations in check. The article opens with the common assumptions of the day about the futuristic post-war world Americans would be living in:
Many of us have the idea that when Johnny comes marching home to his post-war world, he won’t know the old place. He’ll zing in on some contraption just short of the fourth dimension, and before he can zip himself out of his uniform and into his civvies, the walls of his pre-fabricated house will glow with electronic heat or his brow will be cooled by costless air conditioning.
The freezer in the basement will yield a perfect sirloin steak that the radio oven will broil to his favorite turn in something under 10 seconds, and while they’re bringing it in on an electric-plastic tray that keeps it hot, the dehydrated mush is being turned back into honest potatoes. And so on.
The piece then warns that you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much. It’s really one of the most sober and subdued pieces of futurism I’ve read from the last 100 years, but it gives us a fascinating look at the thinking of the time:
But don’t expect too much. And don’t expect it all at once. For many reasons, we aren’t going to turn things upside down as soon as the last shot is fired in this conflict. The people who risk their money to provide the things you buy are going to hold back to find out if you’ll take it before they plunge too deep. And all their research may be overruled on appeal.
The article says that frozen food will be the food of the future, with refrigerated trucks making regular deliveries to homes that have large freezers in their basements:
Foods—Quick freezing has pretty much passed its tests. People will buy frozen foods, and they’ll also store their own produce in rented lockers or home freezers. Which way will the cat jump? There are some folks who think the frozen food industry may eventually—get that “eventually”—work around to a system whereby you’ll keep a large frozen food locker in your basement, and make your purchases from a refrigerated delivery truck that comes around every week or so.
The article has a little fun with the idea that huge windows would be in fashion after the war, but may not be terribly practical:
Housing—It isn’t cricket to throw cold water on your ideas about letting the sun heat your home through huge plate glass windows. But please bear in mind that Mama is going to have something to say, too, and if your big windows open up the innards of your house to prying eyes 20 feet across the lot line, you may come in some fine sunny day to find the drapes drawn and the furnace pumping away.
The piece pointed out that advances in medicine would revolutionize our world, though they may not get as much attention as advances in consumer goods.
Medicine—Among all the scientific advances being made during the war, medicine and surgical methods probably will draw the least public attention, but they probably will influence your post-war life more than any other. The mold drugs give one example. Penicillin, the wonder mold derivative, already has been released, in controlled amounts, to the public.
And speaking of consumer goods, the writer acknowledges the sales pitches that were so common from peddlers of the era:
Household appliances—When the post-war planner regales you with stories about automatic washers, ironers, dish washers, garbage disposal machines, tell him to smile when he says it. You had all those things before the war, and you’ll have them again, if you’ve got what it takes—and that’s money and time to wait for more to be made.
In describing the community of tomorrow the writer makes reference to an illustration from 1895 that humorously imagined the future. The writer predicts that any changes in the community of the future really can’t be foreseen, but will likely be basic and simple.
Community Planning—A half century ago an artist did the same kind of thinking about his future that many people today are doing about ours. He came up with an idea of what the skyscraper of the future—say about now—would look like. [...] He reserved a large section of the building for a hay and feed store! He reckoned without the automobile, which was to change the whole complexion of things within 10 years and make his drawing appear fantastic. We can still count on a wonderful new world opening up before our eyes, but the man who promises you a preview of it just can’t deliver. The furbelows and fripperies that ease the life of the next generation are going to be governed largely on basic, probably simple, changes in our way of living that perhaps no one today can see.
The writer expects that tomorrow’s cars will be leaner and more efficient with engineers figuring out how to produce more with less. Curiously, he also holds out hope for a steam-powered car.
Motoring—On the basis of our wartime scare on the scarcity of petroleum products, it would almost seem safe to predict that the automobile of the future will be lighter and more efficient, getting as much as 50 or 100 miles to a gallon of the best grades of gasoline. The engineers probably will add strength while casting off weight. But who is to say that we won’t be extracting a fuel like gasoline from other products that will permit us to continue running our two-ton heaps because, if for no other reason, we like ‘em? And besides, although steam was tried and discarded once as an automobile power source, such improvements have been made in boilers and heating plants, as well as in the engines themselves, it is entirely possible someone will market, some day, a steam automobile that will go when you press your foot on the accelerator first thing in the morning. There are startling things afoot in both power and fuel developments. But they will be announced slowly and carefully. Watch also transmissions, especially in the hydraulics and electrical fields.
The writer predicts quite accurately that after the war the American public will see FM radio and television.
Radio—What can we look for may be these things:
- At first, a set just like we’ve always had, because the manufacturer will have all he can do at first just to fill the demand.
- Then, likely, FM, because it was about ready for the public when the conflict started, and the transmitters are already reaching a good portion of listeners.
- Television—later. Because of the short carrying qualities of television waves, it will come out first in heavily populated centers where there are transmitters.
The machine tools of war are seen as the most obvious advances that would be quickly converted for peacetime purposes.
Machine Tools—It’s most likely that the greatest advances are being made now, and not waiting until after victory is won. The stress and pressure for speedy production is bringing about advancement in the field of specialized machine tools that make our country the undisputed leader of the world’s industrial production. It may be this will prove our real victory in the war.
Futurists of the 1940s had a particular interest in helicopters, predicting that there would be a flying machine in every garage after the war. But the writer of this article is quick to explain the hurdles to such a helicopter-centric society.
Aircraft—A helicopter in your back yard? The picture is bright. You go out behind the apple tree, give the rotors a whirl, and whizz!—you’re on the office roof. At the end of the day, whizz!—and you’re back in Suburbia, tending your delphiniums. Beautiful picture, isn’t it? But you’ll probably have to keep your machine in perfect condition, to be passed on by some safety agency, and it won’t be the perfunctory windshield wiper and horn test, either. The neighbors may not care if you crack your own skull, but they won’t want you doing it on their sun porches. So for some years after the war is over, the first helicopters, and other airplanes for that matter, will be flown by people who can scrape together enough money to insure: (1) a machine in perfect condition; (2) maintenance that will keep it that way; (3) expert training in the operation of the machine. The designers say helicopters are harder to fly than airplanes.
May 23, 2012
Online dating sites like eHarmony and OkCupid claim they can find you the perfect romantic match by using algorithms. These kinds of sites have catchy slogans like “date smarter, not harder,” implying that they’ve finally perfected a scientific approach to matchmaking. Just answer a few questions, and their super-secret love science will find the person who is right for you.
While much of the “science” behind online dating sites has been called into question, that doesn’t seem to dissuade us from wanting to make the messy (and often frustrating) world of romantic love into something quantifiable. This idea, of course, is nothing new—and at least one futurist thinker of the early 20th century hoped that new technological developments might one day create the perfect matchmaking device.
The April 1924 issue of Science and Invention magazine ran an article by Hugo Gernsback, the magazine’s publisher, which examined the different “scientific” ways to determine if a marriage will succeed or fail.
How much would the average man or woman give to know beforehand if his or her prospective married life is to be success or failure? At present, marriage is a lottery. It seems impossible to predict beforehand how your prospective mate will turn out in the future. Through certain fundamentals, which can easily be ascertained, one can be reasonably certain as to one’s choice. We take extreme care in breeding horses, dogs and cats, but when we come to ourselves we are extremely careless and do not use our heads nor the means that science puts in our hands for scientific breeding. There are certain basic tests which can be made today and which will give one a reasonable assurance of married happiness.
In the article Gernsback explains four different tests that can be administered to a couple in order to determine scientifically whether a marriage will work.
1) Physical Attraction Test
According to Gernsback, physical attraction is the single most important element for a successful marriage. He explains that in order to measure the level of a couple’s physical attraction for one another, electrodes must be attached to each person’s wrist so that an “electrical sphygmograph” can record their pulse. Then a chain is wrapped around their chests to measure breathing:
…around the chest of each is a chain which is secured to a piece of spring covered by a rubber hose. One end of the tube thus formed is sealed, the other connects to a manometer and also to a tambour supplied with a stylus. The stylus leaves a record on a moving paper tape showing the rate of respiration.
Essentially, if your pulse rate rises and you breathe more quickly while embracing or kissing your partner, Gernsback contends that this is scientific evidence of physical attraction.
2) Sympathy Test
The sympathy test involves one of the partners watching the other go through something mildly traumatic, like having blood drawn. In the illustration below, the young woman watches her partner and if her muscular contractions and sudden inhalations “due to excitement” are wild enough, then she’s supposed to be sufficiently sympathetic to him as a partner.
3) Body Odor Test
Interestingly, Gernsback claims that more marriages are probably wrecked by body odors than any other cause. During the body odor test, the couple is made to smell each other (“not a pleasant experience,” Gernsback opines) by one person being placed inside a large capsule with a hose coming out the top. The hose is led to the nose of the other person and if the smells aren’t found too objectionable (again, measured by devices strapped to the chest and wrist) then the romantic pairing is deemed safe.
4) Nervous Disorder Test
According to Gernsback it’s important that at least one partner can be calm under pressure. The nervous disorder test is perhaps the most amusing in that it imagines a man (let’s call him Professor Sixshooter) delivering a surprise gunshot in the air. The “nervous reaction” of both people is recorded on tape and if they both are too startled “marriage should not take place.” I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little uneasy if my partner wasn’t startled at the sound of a gunshot.
May 22, 2012
Remember paper maps? They used to be the only game in town. But the 2000s (the aughts? have we named that decade yet?) saw a radical shift in the way that befuddled drivers could figure out how to get from point A to point B. Suddenly, global positioning systems (GPS) became affordable enough that the average consumer could buy stand-alone units for their cars and GPS technology began showing up in smartphones (though often early smartphones were simply using cell tower triangulation). It wasn’t very long ago that consumer GPS devices were super-futuristic technology.
The 1989 book Future Stuff by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein looked at the various technologies that people might see in the 1990s and beyond. The book assigned an estimated year, an estimated price and gave the odds as to whether we’d see this technology at all. One of the technologies was “car video” navigation, as well as satellite navigation. The “video navigation system” relied on a rather primitive design—a “casette-tape data source” that allowed you to input an “electronic road map” on a video monitor mounted on your dashboard. The satellite navigation described in the book is much closer to what we actually see today:
The video navigation system, which we’ll see introduced early in the decade, should be passe by the end of the decade. It will be replaced by satellite navigation, an amazing system that will be able to pinpoint your car’s location anyplace in the world, alert you to an upcoming traffic jam and show you all alternate routes, warn you of approaching bad weather, and so on. Your car will be bouncing signals off satellites in space just like the most advanced communications systems.
Japan’s Nissan Motor Company is spearheading the technology with its Satellite Drive Information device. Your location will be shown on your car’s computer display screen, using Nissan’s Global Positioning System. Forget video road maps and memory banks. The picture on your screen will be the real thing transmitted via satellite. The display screen will even tell you where to make turns and also measure distances (to the next intersection or to your final destination).
Satellite navigation is going to make it difficult for someone even with the worst sense of direction to get lost.
So when did they think this technology would finally arrive? The authors predicted that it had a 70% chance of becoming a reality by 1998 and early models would cost $2,500 (about $4,340 adjusted for inflation). That prediction turned out to be fairly accurate. In 2000, a simple portable GPS device—which could indicate your current location—sold for $699. But the top-of-the-line portable GPS devices, which could provide driving directions, cost $2,799.