November 13, 2012
This is the eighth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The personal humanoid robotic assistant (or robot maid; robot butler; whatever you’d like to call it) easily makes the short list of retro-futuristic dreams still unfulfilled — up there with the flying car, the jetpack and the meal-in-a-pill. Sure, some people have the Roomba — that Cheetos-hungry robo-pet that crawls around your living room floor — but the dream of the humanoid robot, the robot that can interact with the family naturally, the robot that can speak and understand commands; this is the robot we know and love from media like The Jetsons. And it’s the robot we’re still so desperately longing for.
The eighth episode of The Jetsons originally aired on American television on November 11, 1962 and was titled “Rosey’s Boyfriend.” This episode devotes a fair amount of time to Rosey, an iconic character from the series who actually doesn’t enjoy much screen time in the original 1962-63 season. We first met Rosey in the premiere episode when Jane hopes to get a state-of-the-art robot maid and is stuck with an older model without the latest bells and whistles. Rosey is a devoted household servant who, despite being an older unwanted model, has many redeeming qualities. By the end of the first episode Rosey, of course, becomes a valued member of the family.
In this episode, Rosey falls in love with Mack, a helper robot built by the apartment building superintendent Henry. Mack appears to be made out of a filing cabinet and the kind of rolling stand you might find on the bottom of an office chair. This romance parallels Judy Jetson’s own love story, wherein she’s “boy crazy” and her latest crush is all consuming. Though Rosey supposedly isn’t programmed for love, that doesn’t stop her from being an incredibly sensitive robot and falling for Mack; and for Mack to fall in love with Rosey. Sadly for Rosey, Mack gets deactivated when he begins to malfunction. Elroy re-activates Mack and lets Rosey talk to him via the visaphone in Henry’s workshop. Rosey’s robo-depression is cured — provided she gets five minutes of visaphone time with Mack each day.
We often turn to the Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” (1958-63) by Arthur Radebaugh to understand the futuristic thinking of the early space age. Many of the techno-utopian ideas of that strip made their way into The Jetsons. The September 13, 1959 edition of the strip showed a robot floating on a cushion of air. It also had cameras mounted on its head — in 360-degree vision. The strip explained that industrial designers at Sundberg, Ferar Inc. were developing this “mechanical maid” of the future, a kind of self-propelled serving cart which would “move linen, glasses, china and silver to the table.” After dinner, as the strip showed, the dirty dishes would be whisked away by the robot to be cleaned and stored.
Coincidentally, this strip ran on the same day that the Chicago Tribune ran a column by Evelyn Zemke about the domestic work of the housewife of the year 2000. You may recall from our look at the first episode that the technologically advanced world of the future is not without its faults: the electronic brain serves the wrong breakfast and the robot vacuum cleaner goes a bit haywire. Rosey’s love interest Mack, seems to suffer from a similar case of crossed wires. These technological mishaps no doubt exist to allow the people of 1962 to identify with malfunctioning consumer appliances of the postwar era.
Rosey would inspire countless robots in later decades. Some “robots” like Miss Honeywell (a magician’s human assistant used to sell appliances and computers) would in the late 1960s bare a striking resemblance to Rosey, right down to her color scheme. The 1970s and ’80s would see an explosion in expectations around the household robot, including many a fraudulent company. Every new technology seems to invite hucksters–and robots of the 20th century were no different. Among the most noteworthy scam artists was New Jersey’s Quasar Industries, which made many promises in the 1970s that the household domestic robot had arrived. Klatu, the household android (sometimes known as just Quasar) wasn’t capable of even half the tasks that Quasar advertised — vacuuming, cleaning the dishes, mowing lawns and even walking the dog! But that didn’t stop the company from insisting that the future was now. In the 1978 illustrated book Exploring the World of Robots, kids learned about Quasar and Miss Honeywell (more generically known as “The Maid Without Tears):
There may be walking robots to do the dusting, and to lay and clear the table. The robots in the picture are real. One is called Quasar. Quasar can vacuum carpets, mow lawns, carry trays of food, and even take the dog for a walk! At the door is another robot, called the Maid Without Tears.
One day people may not go out to work at all. They will work from home, using television and robots. The robot brain will suggest meals for the day. It will order our shopping, finding out from other robots in the local shops where the best buys are. The goods will be packed and delivered to our home by robots.
We’re still waiting for the arrival of the Rosey and other robot butlers, but for today we may have to be content with simply feeding our Roombas.
November 6, 2012
Twentieth-century Americans saw many different predictions for what the world of politics might look like in the 21st century. Some people imagined a world where politics ceased to matter much in daily life. Others saw a world where computers would allow for direct democracy and people voting from their homes. Some people thought that once women were allowed to vote, men would soon lose that privilege. Still others saw the complete conquest of the western hemisphere by American forces — and a president from Montreal by the year 2001.
Today Americans head out to the polls and while they may not be able to vote yet by home computer, they can rest assured: you’re allowed to vote regardless of gender.
Government by Computer
The 1981 kids book World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play by Neil Ardley imagined the impact that the emergence of smaller and smaller computers for the home might have on government. While the book acknowledges that there might be downsides to government storing records of citizens or using electronics for surveillance, there would also be benefits by enabling direct participation in the political process:
In a future where every home has a videophone computer system, everyone could take part in government. People could talk and air their views to others on special communication channels linking every home. These people would most likely be representatives of some kind — of a political party, a union, an industry and so on. But when the time comes to make a decision on any issue, everyone would be able to vote by instructing their computer. A central computer would instantly announce the result.
This kind of government by the people is a possibility that the computer will bring. It could take place on any scale — from village councils up to world government. In fact, it is more likely to happen in small communitites, as it would be difficult to reach effective national and international decisions, if millions of people always had to be asked to approve everything. Nevertheless, the computer will enable really important decisions to be put before the people and not decided by groups or politicians.
The February 11, 1911, Akron Daily Democrat in Akron, Ohio relayed the “breezy and imaginative” world of 90 years hence wherein the Senate will have swelled to 300 members (it currently has 100) and the House 800 (it currently has 435). And oh yes, the United States will completely take over the entire western hemisphere and the president will hail from a city formerly in Canada:
An unique feature of the coming inauguration will be the official program now being prepared by the inaugural committee. The elaborate designs for the front and back covers and the wealth of half-tone and other illustrations within, will make it really remarkable as a work of art and valuable as a souvenir. Besides a full description of the parade and the inaugural ceremonies the book will contain several interesting and timely articles by writers of note, among which will be a picture of the inauguration of the year 2001. The author assumes that the United States, then will have acquired the whole of the western hemisphere attaining a population of 300,000,000; that the President will be from Montreal, U.S.A., will have forty cabinet members to appoint; that the Senate will consist of 300 members and the House 800, and that Washington on that day will entertain 3,000,000 visitors, most of whom view the inaugural parade from airships.
Women Dominate in the Year 2010
The 1910 film Looking Forward featured a Rip Van Winkle type character who awakens in 2010 to find that men no longer have the right to vote. Produced ten years before American women gained the right to cast their ballots in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, the film depicts a world of men oppressed by women as soon as they’re allowed to vote.
The film is probably lost to history (as so many of this time period are), but thankfully a description exists from Eric Dewberry. His paper, “A Happy Medium: Women’s Suffrage Portrayals in Thanhouser Films, 1910-16″ explains the peculiar premise. Dewberry’s knowledge of the film comes from a description in the December 28, 1910 New York Dramatic Mirror:
The comedy Looking Forward (1910) centers around Jack Goodwin, a chemistry student who discovers a liquid compound which allows people to fall asleep for a determinate period of time without the pitfalls of aging. One day, Jack drinks the potion and wakes up in the year 2010. In addition to the marvels of futuristic “rapid transit facilities,” Jack is shocked to discover that men are in the social and political minority, and do not have the right to vote. In an attempt to “restore order,” Jack becomes a ‘suffragehim’ and is sent to jail for his activities. The female mayor of the city falls in love with Jack and offers to free him from prison if he will marry her. Jack wishes to restore “the rights of men,” however, and refuses to leave prison and accept the proposal unless the mayor signs a decree giving men their liberty. Upon signing, the end of the film shows Jack correcting the bride during the wedding ceremony, leading the Mayor down the aisle instead of vice versa and transferring the veil from his head to her head.
Less Politics, I Hope
In the 1984 edition of his book Profiles of the Future (that’s the edition I have, so I can’t speak to other editions) Arthur C. Clarke predicted that politics would become less important in the future — at least that was his hope.
I also believe – and hope – that politics and economics will cease to be as important in the future as they have been in the past; the time will come when most of our present controversies on these matters will seem as trivial, or as meaningless, as the theological debates in which the keenest minds of the Middle Ages dissipated their energies. Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive, concern of full-grown men.
The TV Influence
There’s absolutely no denying that broadcasting has transformed the modern political campaign. Radio created the need for the political soundbite, and television created campaigns absolutely beholden to images. The 1949 book Television: Medium of the Future by Maurice Gorham was written at the dawn of television’s acceptance into the American home. Gorham argued that the naysayers of the day were wrong; that the television will have no more an impact on the opinion of the voting public than the radio.
Fears have been expressed lest this new reliance on television may lead to choice of candidates for their face rather than their real qualities; that the film-star types will have it all their own way. Personally I see no reason to think that this is a greater danger than we have faced in the radio age. Is it worse to vote for a man whom you have seen and heard than for a man whom you have heard but never seen except for fleeting glimpses in photographs and films? Is there any more reason why a man who is good on television should be a charlatan than a man who is good on radio? Or any inherent merit in a fine radio voice uttering speeches written by somebody else?
November 5, 2012
This is the seventh in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The seventh episode of “The Jetsons” premiered on American television November 4, 1962, and was titled “The Flying Suit.” In this episode we’re introduced to Mr. Cogswell (we don’t learn until the 1980s that his first name is Spencer) whose company Cogswell’s Cosmic Cogs is Mr. Spacely’s direct competitor. We discover that the cigar-chomping Cogswell is trying to merge with Spacely Sprockets in a sort of 21st century semi-hostile takeover.
Cogswell’s company has developed the X-1500 flying suit which will likely force Spacely Sprockets to sell out to Cogswell, but thanks to a comedic mix-up at the 30-second dry cleaners, George winds up with the flying suit, depriving Cogswell of his invention. Both companies are confused about the source of their respective powers (and lack thereof) after the mistake at the cleaners and George is convinced that his son Elroy has developed a pill that allows people to fly.
But after both sides return to the cleaners and the mix-up is rectified (unbeknownst to both parties) the status quo is restored, with George returning to his regular job and the two companies returning to their bitter rivalry manufacturing cogs and sprockets.
Life on the Ground
As I mentioned last week, the sixth episode of the series, titled “The Good Little Scouts” shows what might be our first glance at the ground. The Jetsons’ world is largely made up of many buildings on platforms in the sky — but often we get a look at something ambiguous; something that may be resting on the earth. In “The Flying Suit” we get our first look at something more clearly on the ground. Strangely enough, that something is a bird.
“What’s happening on the ground?” is one of the most common questions people have when they work from vague memories of The Jetsons, having watched the show as children. Last week someone vandalized the Wikipedia page for Jetsons, inserting a story about why the people of the future live up in the sky: apparently zombies had attacked and forced people to build homes where they couldn’t be preyed upon by the undead. This, of course, isn’t true (though someone has no doubt written up this fanfic already). What is true, is that we do get a few glimpses of life on the ground in the year 2062.
Aside from the bird who has been forced to live on the ground thanks to so many humans zipping around in the sky, we learn that hobos and layabouts live on lower levels. Perhaps the more jarring revelation about meeting a character in poverty is that people can still be in such a situation a hundred years hence. It’s obviously not given a lot of screen time (and only serves to assist a joke) but the idea that poor people still exist in the year 2062 is counter to many of the post-scarcity narratives so prominent in 20th century futurism.
Americans were told, even in the depths of the Depression, that the people of the 21st century would be capable of providing for everyone; that a new form of economics would evolve wherein no one would do without the most basic of goods. In fact, people would thrive and the evolution of humanity and the American economy itself would mean that no one could go hungry. But just as the Jetsons sought to project the model American family into the future without challenging any social norms, the world of 1962 American poverty (albeit a cartoonish version of it) is projected into 2062.
Jetpack Lite: The Flying Suit of the Future
As we’ve seen time and again while exploring the world of “The Jetsons,” the show takes many plausible, futuristic ideas of the 1950s and early ’60s and adds a heightened cartoon twist. In this episode the idea of personal flight machines — jetpacks of the early 1960s which were becoming more plausible with each passing day — were done away with to provide a comedic storyline of futuristic travel.
Since the dawn of humanity it seems we’ve been fascinated with flight. Powered flight being a relatively recent invention, and it strikes me as something special to live in a time when we can know such common-sense-defying thrills as human flight. Yet for many retro-futurists of today, we’re still waiting on that jetpack.
Wendell F. Moore applied for a patent in 1960 and on February 13, 1962 was granted patent number 3,021,095 for his rocket belt. I use the term “jetpack” because it’s more commonly understood as the personal aircraft device that people of the retro-future would zip around on. But as Mac Montandon explains quite well in his 2008 book Jetpack Dreams, the devices researched and developed successfully at Bell Aerospace in the early 1960s are more appropriately named rocket belts.
The patent explicitly explains the desire for the rocket belt to be used by military personnel, but much like other innovations of the American military, the public expected that they would one day get a jetpack of their very own.
From the 1960 propulsion unit patent of Wendell Moore and Bell Aerospace in New York:
For a number of years, there has been a need for increasing the mobility of military personnel, for example, infantrymen, by way of providing some means to directly lift and transport an individual soldier. It is of primary concern in connection with the present invention to provide such means in the form of a safe, reliable and easily controllable rocket propulsion system having sufficient total impulse to lift and propel an individual for distances up to approximately two or three miles.
It is a further object of this invention to provide a device in accordance with the above which is capable of being utilized by the average soldier with an absolute minimum of training.
That desire to achieve “two or three miles” was the largest hurdle that the jetpack would face, as it’s not efficient to propel a person in such a manner — you simply can’t store and burn enough fuel in such a compact device to make it a practical means of transportation. Thus, the jetpack has been relegated to concerts and Super Bowls as an entertaining spectacle.
We may not have a jetpack, and we may not be living on platforms in the clouds, but take solace my fellow retro-futurists: the world still has 50 years to deliver on the techno-utopianism that was the promise of the Jetsons’ future.
November 1, 2012
There seems to be two occasions when people most enjoy making predictions: anniversaries (think the American Bicentennial, New Year’s, etc) and dates that include round numbers (any year ending in zero). Such was the case in 1950 when many people halfway through the 20th century enjoyed predicting what life would be like in the year 2000 — obviously the roundest numbered year of our modern age.
The January 1950 issue of Redbook magazine asked, “What will the world of 2000 A.D. be like? Will the machine replace man? How will our children and grandchildren spend their leisure? How, indeed, will they look?” The mag asked four experts — curiously all men, given that Redbook was and is a magazine aimed at women — about what the world may look like fifty years hence.
Aldous Huxley, author of the 1931 dystopian novel Brave New World, looked at working life in the year 2000. Specifically, how people might work in the home, in the laboratory, in the office, in the factory and on the farm.
Aldous Huxley began his article by describing the major challenges that would confront the world at the dawn of the 21st century. He predicted that the global population would swell to 3 billion people — a figure less than half of the 6.1 billion that would prove to be a reality by 2000.
During the next fifty years mankind will face three great problems: the problem of avoiding war; the problem of feeding and clothing a population of two and a quarter billions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three billions, and the problem of supplying these billions without ruining the planet’s irreplaceable resources.
Let us assume—and unhappily it is a large assumption—that the nations can agree to live in peace. In this event mankind will be free to devote all its energy and skill to the solution of its other major problems.
Huxley’s predictions for food production in the year 2000 are largely a call for the conservation of resources. He correctly points out that meat production can be far less efficient than using agricultural lands for crops. Moreover, he discusses the growing importance of synthetic materials (a reality we take for granted in so many ways today). His description of synthetics was incredibly prescient, if not very surprising, coming from a man whose most famous novel imagined a high-tech world built on mass production.
By 2000, let us hope, the peoples of the world will have adopted a program to increase the planet’s output of food and other necessities, while conserving its resources. Because all available land will be needed for food production, concerted efforts will be made to derive all the fibers used for textiles from inorganic materials or vegetable wastes. Food crops will be cultivated on the land now devoted to cotton, flax, hemp and jute, and, since wool will no longer be used, the huge flocks of sheep which now menace Australian and North American watersheds will be greatly diminished. Because of the need to give overworked soil a rest and to extract the greatest possible number of calories from every acre under cultivation, meat production, which is fantastically wasteful of land, will be cut down, and increasing attention will be given to the products, vegetable no less than animal, of the ocean. Landlocked inlets, lakes, ponds and swamps will be scientifically farmed.
In many parts of the world forests are being recklessly destroyed. To conserve them we shall have to develop new types of synthetic building materials and new sources for paper. That the production of a comic supplement should entail the death of thousands of magnificent trees is a scandal which cannot much longer be tolerated.
How will individuals be affected by all this? For many farmers the changes will mean a shift from one kind of production to another. For many others they will entail a transfer to the chemical industry. For the chemical industry is bound to grow more important as world erosion compels us, for the sake of the land, to rely increasingly on synthetics derived from practically inexhaustible inorganic materials.
The world of 2000 A.D. was seen by many to be one of increased leisure. But Huxley sees that potential for better working conditions and increased standards of living as obtainable only through a sustained peace. These same predictions of a leisure-oriented society, by Huxley and others living mid-century, would inspire the push-button cliche later parodied in the 1962 TV show “The Jetsons.”
Perhaps Huxley’s most inaccurate prediction is his assumption that an increase in productivity will mean an increase in wages for the average worker. As we’ve seen over the last half a century, increased worker productivity has not led to a dramatic increase in wages.
That enormous technological advances will be recorded during the next fifty years is certain. But to the worker as a worker, such advances will not necessarily be of great significance. It makes very little difference to the textile worker whether the stuff he handles is the product of a worm, a plant, a mammal or a chemical laboratory. Work is work, and what matters to the worker is neither the product nor the technical process, but the pay, the hours, the attitude of the boss, the physical environment. To most office and factory workers in 2000 the application of nuclear fission to industry will mean very little. What they will care about is what their fathers and mothers care about today—improvement in the conditions of labor. Given peace, it should be possible, within the next fifty years, to improve working conditions very considerably. Better equipped, workers will produce more and therefore earn more. Meanwhile most of the hideous relics of the industrial Middle Ages will have been replaced by new factories, offices and homes. More and more factories and offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today. Decentralization may help to check that march toward the asylum, which is a threat to our civilization hardly less grave than that of erosion and A-bomb.
Huxley rightly predicts that the world would have to face the challenges that go along with having an aging population. Huxley himself would only live to see the year 1963, but he acknowledged what life would be like for young people reading his article.
If the finished product means little to the worker, it means much to the housewife. New synthetic building materials will be easier to keep clean. New solar heating systems will be cheaper and less messy. Electronics in the kitchen will greatly simplify the task of the cook. In a word, by 2000 the business of living should have become decidedly less arduous than it is at present. But, though less arduous, it will last on the average a good deal longer. In 2000 there will be more elderly people in the world than at any previous time. In many countries the citizens of sixty-five and over will outnumber the boys and girls of fifteen and under. Pensions and a pointless leisure offer no solution to the problems of an aging population. In 2000 the younger readers of this article, who will then be in their seventies, will probably be inhabiting a world in which the old are provided with opportunities for using their experience and remaining strength in ways satisfactory to themselves, and valuable to the community.
All in all, I’d say that Huxley’s predictions were fairly accurate in spirit. Like so many prominent people of mid-century, he fails to predict or consider the dramatic social changes that would occur which had a direct impact on the 21st century workforce. But his idea that “work is work” and people simply want to find the best work they can with the best conditions and pay seems to be a timeless observation.
What do you say? I’m by no means an expert on Huxley and would welcome the opinion of others who may be able to read between the lines and offer insight into his vision of the year 2000.