July 31, 2012
Yesterday, we looked at Wernher von Braun’s 1954 vision for a manned mission to Mars. But long before people imagined how we might plausibly put boots on Martian soil, we dreamed how one day we might be able to communicate with the planet.
Thanks to “canals” spotted on Mars in the late 19th century, there were some people here on Earth who thought there were indeed intelligent Martians somewhere out there. American astronomer Percivall Lowell, who wrote Mars as the Abode of Life in 1908, argued that what looked like canals on Mars were constructed by intelligent beings to bring water from the frozen poles to the dry equator. Lowell’s “canals” were first written about in 1877 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who actually interpreted these passages as “channels,” or natural occurring formations that need not have been built by intelligent life to exist.
If there are indeed Martians out there, and no conceivable way to journey there ourselves, how might we communicate with them? The September 1919 issue of Popular Science Monthly featured a cover with a gigantic mirror mounted so that it could swing on an axis and reflect the sun’s rays up to Mars. The magazine imagined that Earthlings’ best bet would be to communicate with the planet in 1924, the next time when Mars would be closest to Earth.
The more imaginative modern astronomers are inclined to believe, with the late Professor Percival Lowell, that Mars is inhabited. Assume that Mars is inhabited. How can we talk to the Martians? What a world-wide sensation there would be if we were to receive from Mars a flash in response to a signal of ours!
In 1919, legendary animator Max Fleischer produced a short film called Hello Mars which was released in 1920. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a copy of it — and it’s entirely possible that one no longer exists — but if you know where to find a copy please let me know in the comments. The film, as Popular Science explains, sets about explaining the way in which humans might communicate with Mars in 1924 via mirrors (as seen on the cover of the magazine), huge flashing electric lights (thought to be too costly for the time) or gigantic strips of black cloth set out in the desert.
But how will the scientists signal Mars? At its nearest, the planet will be about thirty-five million miles away in 1924. Various proposals have been made by Professor Pickering, Professor Wood, and the imaginative Professor Flammarion. In order to visualize and explain how these distinguished astronomers will communicate with Mars, Mr. Max Fleischer has directed the preparation of a motion-picture film for the Bray Studios. Through the courtesy of Mr. Fleischer and the Bray Studios we are enabled to present on these two pages excerpts from the film.
The first (and most expensive) method of contacting Mars that’s explained in the film/magazine shows how millions of electric lights could be placed somewhere on Earth so that it might be visible from space.
The well known French astronomer, Professor Camille Flammarion, who has done more than any other man in Europe to popularize the notion of Mars’ habitability, suggested that an enormous area on the Earth should be covered with electric lights. It would be a costly experiment. A huge tract of land — a considerable portion of the Desert of Sahara, for instance — would have to be “planted” with millions of lamps. The current to illuminate the lamps would have to be generated in a power house big enough to run a railway. Andrew Carnegie once said that he hated to die rich. Here is a chance to get rid of several million dollars at one swoop.
The illustration above explains how a strips of cloth attached to electric motors may be set out in the desert in order to “wink” at the red planet.
The picture at left looks like a neatly cut-up farm. It represents Professor R. W. Wood’s proposed method of communicating with Mars. The Professor would cover some huge white space on the earth, a portion of the Desert of Sahara, for instance, with strips of black cloth. These strips he would wind and unwind by means of electric motors. The result would be a series of winks. When the black strips are wound up, the white sand below reflects the sun’s rays; when the strips are unrolled, the white area is covered. This is probably the cheapest method of optical signaling yet proposed.
Since this article was published in 1919, it’s important to remember that the world was still reeling from the devastation of WWI. The magazine imagines that not only would we have much to tell Martians, but we would likely have much to learn.
To the right we have the earth flashing a message to Mars. Who knows but some day we may tell the Martians all about our great war, all about the struggle for democratic ideals, all about the terrible upheaval through which we have just passed! Perhaps we will learn from an older and wiser planet how we ought to run the Earth.
July 30, 2012
Assuming everything goes according to plan, NASA’s Curiosity rover will touch down on the surface of Mars this Sunday, August 5th at 10:31 PDT. Curiosity travels in the cosmic wake of not only the pioneering landers and rovers that have made journeys to Mars before, but also the innumerable visionaries who showed us how we might get there —well before it was possible.
From 1952 until 1954, the weekly magazine Collier’s published a series of articles on space exploration spread out across eight issues. Several of the articles were written by Wernher von Braun, the former Third Reich rocket scientist who began working for the U.S. after WWII. The Collier’s series is said to have inspired countless popular visions of space travel. This impact was in no small part due to the gorgeous, colorful illustrations done by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep.
The last of the Collier’s space-themed series was the April 30, 1954, issue that featured a cover showing the planet Mars and two headlines: “Can We Get to Mars?” and directly underneath: “Is There Life on Mars?” The article, “Can We Get to Mars?,” by von Braun is a fascinating read that looks at everything from the impact of meteors on spacecraft to the stresses of living in cramped quarters during such a long journey. Even when astronauts finally arrived on Mars, they’d still be subjected to claustrophobic living conditions, as you can see from the illustration above by Fred Freeman. The astronauts—who in this illustration have landed on an icy Martian pole—live in inflatable, pressurized spheres that are mounted on tractors.
Von Braun’s story in the 1954 issue explained that he didn’t believe he’d see a man on Mars within his lifetime. In fact, von Braun believed that it would likely be 100 years before a human foot would touch Martian soil. But there was absolutely no doubt that we would get there.
Will man ever go to Mars? I am sure he will—but it will be a century or more before he’s ready. In that time scientists and engineers will learn more about the physical and mental rigors of interplanetary flight—and about the unknown dangers of life on another planet. Some of that information may become available within the next 25 years or so, through the erection of a space station above the earth (where telescope viewings will not be blurred by the earth’s atmosphere) and through the subsequent exploration of the moon, as described in previous issues of Collier’s.
But unlike NASA’s current Mars mission, von Braun’s vision for travel included humans rather than simply rovers. As Erik Conway, historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains, “There have also always been—since at least Wernher von Braun—people proposing expeditions to Mars with humans, with astronauts. Von Braun’s idea was to send a flotilla of spacecraft, not just one. As you’ve seen in the Collier’s magazines and so on, he was a big promoter of that. And that affected how the American public saw Mars as well. So it was being promoted as a future abode of life for us humans—and it still is in a lot of the enthusiast literature. That hasn’t changed. It’s just the funding isn’t there to actually accomplish it.”
The funding may not be there today, but the space interest revival we’re currently seeing under the unofficial leadership of astrophysicist and media personality Neil deGrasse Tyson could very well help change that. Look for a reboot of the late Carl Sagan’s 1980 mini-series Cosmos in 2013, starring Tyson.
For now, we’ll just have to settle for the exciting discoveries that (hopefully) will be beaming down from Mars next week and some good old fashioned space art. Below are samples of the amazing illustrations from the April 30, 1954 issue of Collier’s by Bonestell, Freeman and Klep.
Wernher von Braun imagined that spacecraft would be assembled 1,000 miles from earth near a wheel-shaped space station.
The cropped illustration above, by Chesley Bonestell shows four of the ten spacecraft von Braun imagined would undertake the journey.
The first landing party takes off for Mars. Two other landing planes will wait until runway is prepared for them, and the remaining seven ships will stay in 600-mile orbit. Arms on cargo ships hold screenlike dish antenna (for communication), trough-shaped solar mirrors (for power).
The illustration above by Rolf Klep explains how the earth and Mars must be positioned in order for a successful flight to occur.
This illustration above of astronauts preparing for their return flight was done by Chesley Bonestell.
After 15 month exploration, the Mars expedition prepares for return flight to earth. Two landing planes are set on tails, with wings and landing gear removed. They will rocket back to the 600-mile orbit on first leg of journey
This illustration, by Fred Freeman shows all ten spacecraft as they travel to Mars.
Illustration shows how the landing planes are assembled in 600-mile Martian orbit. Pointed noses are removed from three of 10 ships that made trip from earth; wings and landing gear are fitted to them. Cutaway of plane in the foreground shows personnel, tractors in ship
July 23, 2012
In 1985, author Orson Scott Card made a name for himself with the publication of his now-classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game. His book would go on to win the 1985 Nebula Award for best novel, the 1986 Hugo Award for best novel and would become required reading around the world (I remember reading it in a middle school English class).
But Card is perhaps better known today for his socially conservative political activism. The celebrated author is a National Organization for Marriage board member and has repeatedly spoken out against same-sex marriage, most recently supporting North Carolina’s controversial Amendment One.
Two years after the publication of Ender’s Game, Card contributed to a time capsule which was compiled by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest and filled with predictions for the future. Specifically, the organizers asked contributors, “What will life be like in the year 2012?” The 1987 time capsule was opened this past April in Los Angeles and included contributions not only from Card, but 23 other science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and Jack Williamson.
However you interpret Card’s 1987 predictions ideologically, his vision of the future seems pessimistic to say the least—including worldwide economic collapse and human life without leisure. You can read his time capsule entry in its entirety below.
We must count ourselves lucky if anyone has leisure enough in 2012 to open this time capsule and care what is inside. In 2012 Americans will see the collapse of Imperial America, the Pax Americana, as having ended with our loss of national will and national selflessness in the 1970s. Worldwide economic collapse will have cost America its dominant world role; but it will not result in Russian hegemony; their economy is too dependent on the world economy to maintain an irresistible military force. A new world order will emerge from famine, disease, and social dislocations. The re-tribalization of Africa, the destruction of the illusion of Islamic unity, the struggle between aristocracy and proletariat in Latin America — without the financial support of the industrialized nations, the old order will be gone. The changes will be great as those emerging from the fall of Rome, with new power centers emerging wherever stability and security are established. The homogeneity of Israel will probably allow it to survive; Mexico and Japan may change rulers, but they will still be strong. If America is to recover, we must stop pretending to be what we were in 1950, and reorder our values away from pursuit of privilege.
The location of the time capsule ceremony points to how much can radically change in 25 short years. The ceremony took place in April 1987 at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, which was destroyed by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The time capsule was kept in a bank vault until it was opened at a ceremony this past April in Los Angeles.
We can probably expect Orson Scott Card to be making headlines in the coming year, though less for his politics and more for his creative output, as Hollywood is currently working on bringing Ender’s Game to the big screen. With director Gavin Hood (Rendition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) at the helm and actors Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley starring, the film is set to be released in November 2013.
Reading through the various 1987 predictions for the year 2012 gives us a fascinating peek at the minds of authors who spent a lot of time thinking about the future, and we’ll no doubt look at other predictions from this capsule of yestermorrow in the coming weeks.
July 19, 2012
Last week Geeta Dayal over at Wired published portions of a very cool 32-page program for the 1927 futuristic film Metropolis. The program is for sale at a rare book shop in London and seeing the blog post reminded me of an article in one of my magazines from 1927. It took me a little while to find (most of my archive is a terribly disorganized mess) but I finally found the magazine I was looking for — the June 1927 issue of Science and Invention.
The magazine featured a two-page spread titled, ”Metropolis—A Movie Based On Science,” with photographs and illustrations depicting how the movie’s cutting-edge effects were achieved. The use of miniatures, sparks of electricity with forced perspective and television-telephones are all explained in illustrations credited to “Bate.”
The creation of Metropolis and its many versions is a fascinating story. Director Fritz Lang‘s original cut of Metropolis was a financial flop and appeared in German theaters for only four months before it was pulled and recut. The film premiered in Germany but was actually released to American theaters before it received a wide German release. Strangely, American audiences never saw Fritz Lang’s edit of the film, since Paramount (the film’s American distributor) preemptively edited their version of the film. If you get a chance, I highly recommend that you check out the 2010 documentary Voyage to Metropolis, about the many different versions of this film and its ultimate restoration in 2008 to an “original” version after the discovery of an old 16mm version of the film in Buenos Aires. The Buenos Aires version is believed to be the closest to the original, with over 25 minutes more than any previously known edit, and Metropolis was released theatrically in 2010 with these additional (if badly scratched) scenes added. I got to see the new cut two summers ago when it screened in Minneapolis and it really is gorgeous.
Just as different versions of this film are constantly resurfacing all around the world, I suspect different promotional materials — be they programs, magazines articles or movie posters — will continue to captivate historians and film fans hoping to learn more about how this classic piece of futurism was originally filmed and promoted. In the case of this Science and Invention article the film was promoted to an audience interested in how science would be used in movie effects of the future.
The illustration above, which shows the use of miniatures in the Metropolis city of tomorrow, is explained in the magazine spread:
The miniature set which was used in the filming of this remarkable motion picture. Toy trains and automobiles were pulled along the bridges by means of wires. The airplanes were suspended by a wire which was pulled by an operator outside of the set. At times full size lower stories were used, the image of the upper stories being reflected in a mirror to blend with them.
The magazine explained right down to the voltage how sparks were produced, creating a dystopian atmosphere for those working. In order to make the giant coils on the right appear to have sparks jumping between them, forced perspective was used with the sparks little more than a couple of feet in front of the camera.
The effect of sparks jumping about the machines was produced by placing a small high frequency apparatus near the camera as shown above. In the finished picture the sparks seemed to jump from the two huge coils placed on either side of the mechanism.
The illustration above explains how the magnificent glowing effects were produced using electricity and Geissler tubes.
The spectacular scene in the scientist’s laboratory. A weird effect was obtained by forcing compressed air through a closed tube containing liquid and illuminated by a lamp placed at the bottom.
Also discussed is the television phone. As the illustration above shows, a movie projector is used to make it appear as if two people are having a conversation. We’ve looked at the evolving definition of television many times on this blog, and it’s interesting to see that this article uses the term “television apparatus,” without mentioning the word telephone once. Before television was ever realized as a broadcast medium (and it would be decades after Metropolis was released), television was often envisioned as a point-to-point rather than broadcast technology.
Of course the city of the future would have all the inventions of which we dream today. The recently perfected television apparatus, is in common use. By using it, those who converse may also at the same time see the other party.
The illustration above shows, “A sectional view of ‘Metropolis,’ the city of the future,” with the Capitalist’s City above, power production rooms in the middle and the Workmen’s Underground Homes below.
The article illustrates how actors were moved through, “The maw of the huge machine which ruthlessly destroys body and soul.”
The illustration above shows how the “concentric rings of light which played about the manikin were hand operated” and gave the illusion that they were floating.
The last illustration in the two-page spread shows the destruction of the “Workman’s City,” which is again shot in miniature.
A small set was used and water, forced through pipes, was directed through the sides of the buildings and down from above. Pipes placed at street level ejected water in a geyser-like effect.
Aesthetically, Metropolis went on to influence countless other films about the future — from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, to the design of the robot C3PO in the Star Wars franchise.
July 9, 2012
Ever dreamed of owning your own flying car… from the 1950s? If you happen to have $1.25 million lying around, you can make that happen!
It seems every year we see companies like Terrafugia and Moller promise that the flying car will soon be an everyday reality. But people often forget flying cars have been around for over half a century. Greg Herrick, an aircraft collector in Minneapolis, is selling his 1954 Taylor Aerocar N-101D with an asking price of $1.25 million. His flying car of the retro-future sports a yellow and black body and as you can see from the photo above, still works!
Herrick has over 40 aircraft in his private collection and the Aerocar was one of the first he ever purchased. He bought the flying car in the early 1990s from a man in Idaho and says he was drawn to the Aerocar just as many people in the latter half of the 20th century were. ”I was just at the tail end of that generation that kind of grew up with that dream of… well, I guess every generation has had that dream since the [invention of the] automobile — of a flying car,” Herrick told me.
The Aerocar was designed by Moulton Taylor in 1949 and only five were ever produced. In order to take flight the Aerocar must be converted into an aircraft with wings that fold forward. Though it looks cumbersome, the vehicle was marketed in the early 1950s as being so effortless that a woman could do it “without soiling her gloves.” The video below is a newsreel about the Aerocar from November 5, 1951.
Herrick’s Aerocar was first listed for sale in December 2011. His most recent listing includes some of the specs:
The AEROCAR features side-by-side seating for two. Advanced for its time, most of the fuselage skin is of composite material and the car is front wheel drive. In flight the wings are high and unobtrusive. Powered by a Lycoming O-320 Engine the propeller is mounted at the end of a long tail cone, the latter angled up for propeller clearance. Cruise speed is about 100 mph. Takeoff speed in 55 mph and the airplane is controlled by the same steering wheel as is used for driving.
But why sell it? ”I like rarity. I like unusual things,” Herrick tells me. “I like things that represent progress or tell a story. But as time passes your tastes start to become more refined. And no matter what it is you’re doing you can’t collect everything and you can’t be an expert in every area. So my interests began to migrate toward the golden age of aviation between the wars — in particular the aircraft that were almost lost to history. So this airplane is kind of superfulous to my needs.”
But if you’re thinking about buying this blast from the past don’t forget that you’ll need two kinds of insurance! “When I bought the thing, I was looking at the insurance and I had to have two different insurance policies: an aviation policy and then I had to get an auto policy,” Herrick said. Making sure you have two kinds of insurance is certainly one of those realities that The Jetsons never warned us about.