November 30, 2012
Today advertisers use futuristic tech like jetpacks and robots in their TV ads so that potential consumers think of their brand as forward thinking and innovative. In the 1920s, the cutting edge gadget that advertisers most wanted to associate themselves with was television. But, since the technology was still in its infancy, they faked it.
The August 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine included two illustrations showing ways that businesses could create “fake” television demonstrations to lure customers inside their stores.
The illustration above depicts a bogus TV demo in a store window, divided by a wall. On the left side of the window display, people saw what was meant to look like a TV projector being sent a wireless signal by a woman sitting in the right side of the display. Instead the projection was just a movie made earlier with the same actress, who did her best to mimic the pre-recorded actions.
Another method of creating fake TV broadcasts was to use a series of mirrors. In the illustration below, unneeded wires give the impression that the TV signal is being sent between the two rooms. In reality, mirrors have been strategically set up so that the actress’s image appears on the fake TV set in the next room.
Businesses that couldn’t stage fake TV demonstrations still used television as a theme in their advertisements. The illustration below hung at Martin’s Lunch Room at 15 Wall Street in Norwalk, Connecticut around 1929. The poster’s message was that even though technology is developing at a rapid pace, you can still find great customer service with a human touch at their restaurant.
As we’ve looked at many times before, the idea of TV being a purely broadcast medium (rather than a point-to-point service which today we might call videophone) wasn’t yet a certainty until the late 1940s. In fact, TV had many false starts before it would become a practical reality in American homes after World War II. But fittingly enough, it would be TV itself — along with the dwindling influence of the downtown department store — that would cause advertisers to abandon storefronts, opting instead to promote their wares via commercials. Of course, what was promised in those commercials wasn’t always genuine… but that’s a story for another time.
November 28, 2012
This is the tenth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
From the very first episode “The Jetsons” promised a push-button future of leisure. But this vision of easy-living sometimes has a dark side. A side where robots might cease helping you—and begin stealing your job.
In the tenth episode titled “Uniblab,” which originally aired on November 25, 1962, the action is largely driven by George and an antagonist robot by the name of Uniblab. This episode is arguably the darkest in its message to kids that one day you may very well be replaced by a machine.
Before we reach the main narrative, we’re introduced to a number of new technological wonders. Jane complains that Judy’s “micro-books” are always getting lost. We see a shot of Jane picking up Judy’s “Encyclopedia A-Z,” which she thanks her mother for finding and darts off to school with. Education in the 21st century is apparently filled with miniature books and rocketship field trips to distant countries.
The miniaturization brought on by the electronics revolution and the emergence of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century created the expectation that everything would get smaller. It wasn’t until decades later that many would even consider something like Wikipedia, a much more decentralized and intangible form of encyclopedia.
Elroy complains that he’s not feeling well and that he’d have to stay home from school. Rather than take him to the doctor, Jane calls up the doc on the videophone. Today this retro-futuristic vision moves closer and closer to reality. Recently there was a minor uproar in the UK over plans to move some of Britain’s National Health Service consultations online, including the use of Skype videophone calls. The Health Minister said it would save about £3 billion ($4.8 billion). Despite protests by some people concerned that quality of care would be diminished, this is far from a new idea and there are many people in various countries utilizing different telemedicine techniques.
Earlier this year we looked at one vision of futuristic telemedicine from 1925. Writing in the February 1925 issue of Science and Invention, publisher Hugo Gernsback envisioned a world where advances in communications would render physical travel to the doctor (and anywhere else for that matter) increasingly unnecessary:
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 time 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.
Such ideas were part of the larger chorus of optimists who extolled the virtues of jetpacks, flying cars and meal pills. But skeptical views of futuristic technology persisted. No less mainstream a publication than Parade magazine highlighted the potential downside in the January 4, 1959 issue under the headline “Will Robots Make People Obsolete?”:
Almost nothing familiar on earth today will survive in this robotized world of the future. For instance:
- Only a privileged few will have the right to work at a job.
- The dream of youngsters will not be to grow up rich and successful, but to be one of the favored few workers.
- Juvenile delinquency will take the form of vandalism against robots.
- Everyone wil aspire for some kind of “blue ribbon” for an amateur activity, hobby or sport – possibly an award for the best ship model built out of matchsticks or the most colorful rock garden in town.
- Heroes and celebrities will be the persons who devise new parlor games.
From the beginning of this episode we’re introduced to a slightly more ominous soundtrack. A downbeat, more techno-stylized version of the show’s theme buzzes and swings as we pull into the Jetsons’ apartment building. This mood picks up again as we learn that Uniblab the robot is George’s rival, rather than his helpful co-worker.
This tricky robot is even actively deceitful, as Uniblab encourages George to speak ill of his boss, Mr. Spacely, which the robot then records for him to hear later. In the end, Uniblab’s “oil” gets spiked with a special tonic causing him to malfunction as a hiccuping drunk, embarrassing Mr. Spacely in front of his investors. Thus, as always, balance and the status quo is restored — if only for the time being, as children of the 1960s and ’70s learn that they may battle their own Uniblab at some point in the future.
November 23, 2012
In 1936, a quarterly magazine for book collectors called The Colophon polled its readers to pick the ten authors whose works would be considered classics in the year 2000. Sinclair Lewis, author of the 1935 hit It Can’t Happen Here, was a natural choice for the top spot. Just five years earlier Sinclair had been the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But some of the authors are likely forgotten names to even the most ardent reader here in the year 2012:
- Sinclair Lewis
- Willa Cather
- Eugene O’Neill
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
- Robert Frost
- Theodore Dreiser
- James Truslow Adams
- George Santayana
- Stephen Vincent Benet
- James Branch Cabell
The editors at the magazine supplemented the published list with their own ideas of who might still be read in the year 2000. Their list included authors like Thomas Wolfe, H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway and Hervey Allen.
How do you think these readers of the 1930s did with their predictions? Who would you put on a list of authors read today who will still be read into the year 2080 and beyond? What do you think the future holds for the book, a form of technology that’s getting harder and harder to define as it becomes less popular as a physical object and more often a collection of words that reside in our devices?
November 19, 2012
This is the ninth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
When I was a kid I didn’t quite understand how TV and movies were made. Around the age of four or five, I had a basic understanding of how live TV was recorded with cameras and beamed to homes all around the country. And I understood that every time I put my Captain EO VHS tape (I think we recorded it off TV, since it was never issued officially) into the VCR, I would get to watch Michael Jackson singing and dancing. But I conflated the two and believed that every time I put in that VHS tape I was somehow telling people in some distant production studio to stage a live performance of Captain EO.
As a kid, there’s something magical about learning how the things you like are made, even if you’re a bit fuzzy on the details. Whether it’s crayons or robots or movies, I and many others have fond memories from childhood where we felt like we were being let in on a wonderful production secret. There’s no story that writers, actors and producers of media like telling more than their own and these self-reflexive tales serve an important guide in our long-term understanding of the media itself. Even if it’s done for laughs, we’re meant to absorb something akin to a mission statement when producers poke at the artifice of their own creations.
The ninth episode of “The Jetsons” aired on November 18, 1962 and featured pneumatic tubes, flying cars, videophones, and even another look at the ground in 2062! But the most important aspect of this episode, titled “Elroy’s TV Show,” was that it gave kids a peak behind the curtain, letting them in on the secret of how television was made. People who grew up prior to the YouTube generation most often learned about media production from watching the media itself. And “The Jetsons” delivered, poking fun at TV writers as lazy, directors as control freaks and actors (and their overbearing parents, in this case) as impossibly difficult prima donnas. George, Elroy and Astro travel to Jupiter to shoot Elroy’s TV show and kids of the 1960s were let in on the secret of how television is made, albeit in a heightened cartoonish form.
The episode highlights the perennial debate over the role of TV programming in the American home. The latter half of the 20th century saw numerous fights over the regulation of TV programming and the battles were especially vicious when this episode premiered in 1962. The public airwaves were (and still are) regulated by the government and networks were obligated to devote some time each day to educational and public service broadcasting (such as news shows and the like). Of course, many of these FCC regulations are still on the books, but the 1980s declawing of the FCC meant that media deregulation advocates largely won that battle, arguing that TV networks should answer only to the market rather than what regulators deem to be the public interest. In fact, that’s what this episode argues, as Jane Jetson says that she doesn’t watch TV anymore since it’s “over her head.” Instead she wants more “doctor and cowboy shows.” When a TV producer named Mr. Transistor visits Jane to pitch a show based on the adventures of her son Elroy and her dog Astro, she says that she doesn’t want any more education on TV. Mr. Transistor replies, “I don’t blame you.”
The Jetsons was rather infamously billed by broadcasters in the 1990s as an example of “educational TV” because it taught kids about the future. Which, while that is in some ways true, it’s certainly a stretch. Many early experimenters saw television as a promising tool for educating people — especially in rural farming communities where distance prohibited some from traveling to a major university for their education. But today we take it for granted that television is an entertainment medium first and foremost, often forgetting the many battles of previous decades.
What are we meant to take from this episode? That despite the battles being waged over TV regulations, in the future Americans will get the action-packed (read: low-brow) programming they want. Entertainment finds a way, if you will. And while the episode is obviously not malicious in its intent to call educational programming uncool, such a message rings loudly throughout.
Elroy Jetson was voiced by Daws Butler who also did classic cartoon characters like Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound. But it was Lucille Bliss who was originally offered the job of Elroy. Bliss was a voice actress best know for her work as Smurfette on the 1980s TV show “The Smurfs,” and she died earlier this month. Bliss is reported to have lost the job of voicing Elroy Jetson in 1962 when she refused to be credited under a pseudonym. Apparently it was somewhat scandalous for an adult woman to be voicing a cartoon boy, though it’s obviously quite common and not at all controversial today.
November 16, 2012
Interest in the life of legendary inventor Nikola Tesla has seen a tremendous resurgence in the past two decades. And with good reason. The man was a genius who was able to take so many of the ideas swirling around in the 19th century ether and turn them into fantastic new inventions — both real and imagined. Tesla’s wondrous imagination made him quite the futurist and here at the Paleofuture blog we’ve looked at some of his remarkably prescient predictions over the past few years.
But the 21st century’s rather fashionable interest in Tesla has had some disturbing side effects. Specifically, people want to canonize the man (sometimes literally) and turn his personal and professional struggles into a sort of morality tale involving clearly delineated characters: some ostensibly good and others ostensibly evil.
Tesla boosters of the 21st century will tell you that Tesla was the embodiment of all that is good in the world — Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal did just that in one of his more recent comics, “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” They’ll tell you that Tesla’s struggles against professional adversaries like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse (both of whom Tesla worked for at various points in his life) were the most pure examples of good versus evil. This past year, people have been crowdfunding museums and films and any number of other events in an attempt to raise Tesla’s profile and are constantly couching his work in moralistic terms. But I hope that with this renewed excitement for the life’s work of a great inventor people don’t lose sight of one thing: he was a brilliant man, but he was just a man.
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough. He believed that by the year 2100 eugenics would be “universally established” as a system of weeding out undesirable people from the population.
The February 9, 1935 issue of Liberty magazine includes many other fascinating predictions by Tesla for the future of humanity, which we’ll no doubt look at in the weeks ahead. But for the time being I’ve transcribed only the eugenics portion of Tesla’s predictions below, to remind us that we should be cautious when making gods of men:
The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
The ideas behind eugenics would become substantially less popular after World War II, for obvious reasons. I doubt that Tesla understood the scope of the atrocities that were being committed in Europe (and at the hands of the California eugenics movement) at the time. But again, his ideas were clear: the world should be rid of so-called undesirables. However unpleasant the idea of eugenics is to reasonable people on its surface, this notion seems particularly strange coming from a man like Tesla, whose own mental illnesses would have likely put him in the “undesirable” category under any authoritarian regime.