August 31, 2012
When I was a kid growing up in the late 1980s and early ’90s there were only two things that I was certain of when it came to my future: I was going to grow up to be an animator for Disney, and I was going to have a robot.
Sadly, my drawing skills peaked around the age of 10 and I still don’t have a robot.
The 1980s saw a steady rise in the use of industrial robots (especially in Japan) which led people to believe that domestic robots were indeed just around the corner. We’ve already looked at two different restaurants of the mid-1980s — one in Southern California, the other in Tokyo — that did their best to make robot waiters a reality. But it was the household robot servant of the future that was promised to every kid who ever saw Rosey zipping around on The Jetsons.
The 1981 children’s book Tomorrow’s Home by Neil Ardley included some illustrations of what those robots might look like. Above we have a picture of the child’s bedroom of the future.
Soon another day dawns and it’s time to get up. If there’s no one to rouse you, then you will have told the home computer to wake you at a certain hour. It draws the curtains back, talks to you, plays some music or starts the radio — however you like to start the day. Or maybe you don’t need to get up early today, so you’ve asked the computer to await your instructions on waking. Once you’re awake, you may not feel like getting up right away. You can summon one of the household’s electronic servants, and instruct it to bring you breakfast in bed, or perhaps to put out a particular set of clothes for you. Then you can ask the computer to display the day’s news and any mail it has received for you. But you can’t stay in bed all day, so it’s off to the bathroom before dressing. Here you may get into a special machine that will wash and tone up your body to clean and refresh you totally for the day that lies ahead.
If you’d prefer to go all the way to the kitchen for breakfast, you’ll still find a helpful robot serving up your cereal. Though it looks like you have to dispense your own milk. Forget flying cars and jetpacks, where’s my milk robot!?!
August 22, 2012
Americans are gearing up for the presidential election this coming November, but many people are sadly unaware of an even more important vote taking place right now: 2012 inductees to the Robot Hall of Fame.
For the first time since its founding in 2003, Carnegie Mellon University’s Robot Hall of Fame is allowing the public to vote on which robots will be inducted. The robots are divided into four categories: Education and Consumer, Entertainment, Industry & Service, and Research. The final decision on which robots make the cut will be based half on the public vote and half on a “survey of experts.” You can place your vote here until September 30, 2012.
Past inductees to the Robot Hall of Fame have included HAL 9000, Gort, and the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover. This year’s nominees are listed below. Every category is incredibly competitive, with some tough choices all around. Don’t be shy about sharing your picks in the comments.
Education and Consumer
Industry & Space
As a sidenote, I may have to give up on my campaign to get people to spell Rosey’s name the proper way. After the Robot Hall of Fame spells it “Rosie,” it seems my case for the original spelling is that much harder. (It appears as “Rosey” in the opening slate of the first episode, The Jetsons: The Official Guide, as well as on toys and memorabilia from the 1960s.)
August 20, 2012
Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are great for bands trying to finance an album or independent filmmakers hoping to shoot a movie. But it’s interesting to see these alternative finance tools being used more and more for projects that are often associated with large public institutions — namely, monuments and museums.
Last year, a group in Detroit raised over $67,000 to build a Robocop statue. And as of this writing Matthew Inman of the popular webcomic The Oatmeal has raised over $700,000 (of his $850,000 goal) to build a Tesla Museum. Trevor Owens, a digital archivist with the Library of Congress, had an interesting post on his personal blog last week about why cultural heritage organizations should be paying close attention to these new methods of funding.
But crowdfunding a monument isn’t an entirely new idea. In 1922, Hugo Gernsback hoped to build a monument and museum in New York dedicated to the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Gernsback’s magazine, Science and Invention, was especially popular with amateur inventors so he brought his appeal directly to them in the October 1922 issue, just two months after Bell’s death in August.
“It is thought that if every inventor in the United States would subscribe only $1.00, the monument could be built,” Gernsback wrote. Readers of Science and Invention were encouraged to send in a coupon which could be clipped from the bottom of the page, expressing whether they’d support such a monument. Inventors weren’t asked to send money right away, but instead were asked to pledge support. If enough support was shown it’s assumed that Gernsback would then solicit donations in a future issue. In a similar way, sites like Kickstarter ask for people to pledge money and that money is only taken if a project’s funding goal is met.
From the October 1922 issue of Science and Invention magazine:
This illustration depicts a proposed monument to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the Telephone, who died recently. The idea of a monument was proposed by Mr. H. Gernsback, Editor of this magazine, and the idea is as follows:
Somewhere alongside Riverside Drive, New York, or some other prominent point, a monument in the form of a telephone receiver, from 200 to 250 feet high, should be erected, somewhat along the lines of the design show. The Monument would be built entirely of black marble or dark granite.
The interior would be hollow, with the exception of the foundation on which the imitation telephone receiver rests. This bottom section could be fitted out as a museum with all the historical models of Dr. Bell’s inventions, which could be houses here for the benefit of visitors and students.
It would seem proper that the American inventors should get together and build a lasting monument of this kind by popular subscription. A voting coupon is printed on the bottom of this page, where readers may vote as to their opinion on the plan outlined. It is thought that if every inventor in the United States would subscribe only $1.00, the monument could be built.
This, if you recall, wasn’t the only monument Gernsback wanted to build. Also in 1922 Gernsback proposed building a 1,000 foot tall monument to electricity. He hoped the monument would stand as a testament to future civilizations, explaining precisely what technological breakthroughs had been accomplished in the early 20th century. Sadly neither monument was ever built, though Bell does have his own monument in Brantford, Ontario, Canada which was completed in 1917, well before his death in 1922. Bell also has his own museum in Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The United States does have the Volta Laboratory and Bureau in Washington, D.C., though it was built by Bell himself in 1893.
Listen to long-lost recordings made by the Volta Laboratory, the studio of Alexander Graham Bell:
August 15, 2012
Twenty-eight years ago this month an exhibit called Yesterday’s Tomorrows opened to the public at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. I wasn’t even a year old yet, but this 1984 exhibit would have a profound effect on my life many years later after I discovered the exhibit book by Smithsonian curators Joseph Corn and Brian Horrigan.
Back in 2007, the Paleofuture blog was still just a hobby for me, but once I discovered Yesterday’s Tomorrows I felt a sense of validation that this weird and wonderful topic of retro-futurism was indeed worthy of serious study. Maybe my blog more than an excuse to write about how cool flying cars and jetpacks might be; maybe we could learn something deeper about the American experience from all these hopes, dreams and fears for the future. After all, I may have been a lowly blogger, but here were two brilliant Smithsonian historians who had tackled the subject of historical futures so thoroughly nearly a quarter of a century earlier.
The book that I discovered and would prove so influential to my life is divided into five main chapters. The first chapter looks at the rise of futurism in America and its role in American life at the dawn of the 20th century through books, magazines, advertising and toys. The second chapter is devoted to the community of tomorrow and what future American cities and towns were supposed to look like. The third chapter involves Brian’s specialty and delves into the houses of tomorrow, while chapter four was Joe’s area of expertise: the transportation of the future. The last chapter explores the weapons and warfare of yestertomorrow, highlighting the various ways people imagined humanity (and of course, robots) might fight in the future.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows was undoubtedly the retro-futurism bible and so, back in 2007, I did some quick Googling in an attempt to track down Joe or Brian. I learned that Brian was working at the Minnesota Historical Society. I emailed him in the fall of 2007 and we had lunch at Cossetta’s down the street from the History Center in St. Paul. I had recently moved back to St. Paul after going to school in Milwaukee for a few years. During lunch I learned that not only did Brian live in St. Paul, but that we lived on the same street! Needless to say, Brian and I really hit it off and became fast friends. I have fond memories of sitting out on his porch on Sunday afternoons drinking martinis while we talked about history and politics and futurism.
In 2008, Brian introduced me to the great Joe Corn when he was visiting Minnesota to see some old friends. I immediately liked Joe and was honored to have some time to ask him questions about historical futures and America’s rate of technological progress. I’ll never forget his challenge to me — that I never accept preconceived notions about people and their attitudes toward the future. Generations are made up of people, and though it may be tempting to try to lump those people together to fit our needs, don’t assume you know what an individual was thinking based upon what generation they might belong to.
I really wish I had had the opportunity to see Yesterday’s Tomorrows in the flesh, as it were. The exhibit opened on August 9, 1984 and was on display at the National Museum of American History until September 30, when it then went on a tour of the United States. Though I was but a drooling rugrat in 1984, I have some wonderful artifacts from the exhibit that were generously given to me by Brian. One of those artifacts is the pamphlet from the exhibit shown above.
Brian also gave me some newspaper clippings that described the exhibit in great detail. A writer in the August 10, 1984 Washington Post was especially impressed by the 18 minute film at Yesterday’s Tomorrows, which was produced and directed by Karen Loveland and Ann Carroll:
The show ranges from utopian and dystopian views of mankind’s future to children’s playthings. All those toys we wish our parents had kept for us, some people have — and in mint condition. The display covers the play-time continuum in the final frontier: a 1937 Buck Rogers ray gun, a 1952 Space Patrol diplomatic pouch and a 1966 Star Trek phaser.
The highlight of the show is an 18-minute continuously playing movie, tracing science fiction in film clips from the Jules Verne-inspired “Un voyage dans la lune” in 1902 to “Blade Runner,” inspired by Philip K. Dick, in 1982. As the announcer intones, “All of us have wondered what the world would be like 10, or 100 or 1,000 years from today…”
The exhibit included over 300 models, toys, illustrations, photographs and other artifacts that gave people a glimpse into the future that never was. Brian gave me a handful of photos which show the exhibit as it stood, working jetpack and all.
The August 9, 1984 Washington Post declared that the most impressive of the artifacts at Yesterday’s Tomorrows had to be a scale model construction of a Dymaxion House from 1927:
The show’s greatest artifact, hands down, is a model constructed by Jay Johnson from the original plans of Fuller’s wonderful 1927 Dymaxion House. Metal cables from an aluminum mast suspend the glass walls and inflated rubber floor. The living quarters are raised for view and air.
That Dymaxion model is on the left in the picture below.
This next picture includes the nuclear powered car of the 1950s and if we look closely we can see some artwork from Wernher von Braun’s Collier’s space series and a 1943 rendering of a helicopter from Alex S. Tremulis in the background.
I’m forever indebted to both Brian and Joe, without whom I very likely wouldn’t have the profession I enjoy today. In 2010, I had the honor of giving a talk hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society with Brian at the Turf Club in St. Paul. Thank you Joe and thank you especially to Brian — your work and guidance have meant the world to me, an accidental historian doing his best to fill the shoes of the two great men who preceded him in this exploration of yesterday’s tomorrows.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows started at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. but went on to many other cities around the U.S. The exhibit was also revived in the early 2000s and went on a limited tour of the U.S. at that time. If you visited the exhibit in the 2000s or in any of these cities from its original tour in 1984-85, I’d love to hear your impressions of the experience in the comments: the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the Willamette Science and Technology Center in Eugene Oregon, the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, the Oakland Museum in California, the Museum of Science in Boston and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Stamford Connecticut.
August 8, 2012
According to Athelstan Spilhaus, writing the comic strip “Our New Age” was his way of slipping a little subliminal education into the Sunday funnies. Each week the strip took a different topic—such as ocean currents or heredity or the moons of Mars—and explained in a very straightforward way just what made that area of scientific discovery so interesting. Sometimes, he would dabble in futurism, looking at automated hospitals or the robot teachers of tomorrow—but the December 26, 1965 edition of the strip stands out as its most forward-looking. Spilhaus clearly had some fun writing about these mid-’60s predictions that included everything from citizens voting on specific laws by telephone to the dapper-looking kangaroo servants of the future.
The prediction for 1976? That human space flight (the moon landing was still 4 years away, mind you) would become so common place that rescue missions for astronauts stranded in orbit may be necessary from time to time.
According to the above panel, the world of 1986 would see synthetic food, no doubt similar to the meal in a pill or some other factory-made contrivance. And, by the year 2006, the strip argues, people will see the rise of a form of direct democracy enabled by advancements in telecommunications. (A similar version of direct voting by citizens was predicted in a 1981 children’s book called World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play.)
Today, the more techno-utopian among us hope that one day we may be able to upload our entire brains into computers. But this 1965 vision of the year 2016 would be happy with a simple direct-link. Basement biohackers are currently experimenting with different ways to alter the human body, but we’re still quite a ways from the technological singularity.
Time and again we’ve seen predictions of robot servants, like the Jetsons‘ Rosey. But every once and a while we come across more blood and bone visions of our futuristic servants. For instance, in 1967 nuclear chemist Glenn T. Seaborg predicted that, by the year 2020, we’d all be driven around by super-intelligent ape chauffeurs.
In that same vein, the last panel of this comic strip gave kids of the 1960s hope for a kangaroo butler in their future. Now, the kangaroo’s method of hopping may make balancing a tray such as that impractical, but you can’t deny that he certainly pulls off that bow-tie.