July 2, 2012
The March 1931 issue of The Country Gentleman magazine included this advertisement for Timken bearings. With the bold headline “100 YEARS AHEAD” the ad promises that the farmer of the future may be unrecognizable — thanks to Timken bearings, of course. Our farmer of tomorrow wears a suit to work and sits at a desk that looks oddly familiar to those of us here in the year 2012. We’ve looked at many different visions of early television, but this flat panel widescreen display really stands out as exceptionally visionary. Rather than toil in the field himself, the farmer of the future uses television (something more akin to CCTV than broadcast TV) and remote controls to direct his farm equipment.
Television technology wasn’t yet a practical reality in 1931, even though inventors had been making a go of it since 1880. But this high-tech vision of the future is even more astounding when you consider that when this advertisement ran the vast majority of farms didn’t even have electricity. In 1930, just 10.4 percent of the 6 million farms in the U.S. had electricity.
The ad tries not to position America’s agricultural advancements as merely things to come. This being Great Depression era advertising — where messages of reassurance are common — the ad copy makes sure to explain that American farmers are more technologically advanced than those of any other country in the world. But, of course, Timken bearings are the economical way to catapult you into a bold new agricultural future.
From the 1931 advertisement:
With science making such astonishing progress in all of its advanced branches, the above pictorial prediction may not be so far afield of the manner in which farming operations will actually be conducted 100 years hence… Operation of farm implements by means of television and remote electrical controls may then be more than merely an imaginary illustration… But even today, measured in terms of human progress, the American farmer is at least 100 years ahead of the rest of the world… In no other country under the sun will you find anywhere near 5,000,000 automobiles helping the farmer to a bigger and better life as you do in America… Over $2,500,000,000.00 worth of farm machinery — and radio valued at millions of dollars, are but a few of other factors that make American farm life profitable and pleasurable…Timken has both a direct and indirect bearing on practically everything you use or enjoy. For in the making of almost every important article, Timken Bearings play their part in keeping down costs… Your automobile, your telephone, your radios, your farm machinery are in countless cases fabricated with Timken Bearing equipped machinery… And after being economically manufactured with the aid of Timken, much of your power equipment, and an overwhelming majority of your automobiles and trucks have Timken Bearings. This is done so that your equipment will last longer — give more satisfactory service… Among the most important mechanical contributions of the last century are Timken Tapered Roller Bearings… With this advanced product all types of machinery enjoy friction freedom, which to you, the user, means longer life, lessened upkeep and reduced costs. If you would favor your pocketbook see that every piece of farm machinery that you purchase is Timken Bearing Equipped… The Timken Roller Bearing Company, Canton, Ohio.
If I hadn’t found it myself, I’d be extremely skeptical that this illustration was actually from 1931. That flat panel display is just too spot-on. For the sake of comparison, this was the American farmer of 1930:
June 26, 2012
It’s hard to imagine a world before the ubiquitous security camera. In major cities around the world, it’s just expected that we’re all being photographed maybe dozens of times a day.
The CCTV camera has permeated popular culture and is an icon frequently used by artists who are concerned with the rise of the surveillance state. But its predominant image as the Orwellian eye in the sky wasn’t always a given. Just as people were experimenting with the potential uses of broadcast TV in the 1930s, so too were people envisioning different ways to utilize closed-circuit television in the 1950s.
And with the emergence of color television technologies in the early 1950s, the opportunities were even more expansive; CCTV might be used as a way to teach doctors-in-training or sell brightly colored dresses in a shop window while it’s modeled from inside the store.
The January 1951 issue of Radio-Electronics magazine explained how people of the future might put color CCTV to use. The battle over color broadcast TV that the article mentions was an early format war between three different companies looking for FCC approval. CBS had a field-sequential system, Color Television Incorporated (CTI) had a line-sequential system, and RCA had a dot-sequential system. In 1950, the CBS system was the front-runner but it was ultimately abandoned in 1953 and an improved version of the RCA system became the standard.
While the battle over color television broadcasting rages, another type of color television has been taking over without fanfare or opposition. The field being conquered peacefully is industrial closed-circuit television. Already established in monochrome, it is finding color a valuable adjunct.
The term “industrial television” has been interpreted to mean roughly all non-entertainment uses of the new medium, including its employment at fashion shows and in banks. In a number of applications, industrial television supervises operations too dangerous for human beings. It makes possible certain types of advertising displays and saves manpower in work requiring observation at a number of separate points.
Possibly the most publicized application of closed-circuit color television is televising surgical operations. Since internes can learn operating techniques only by watching skilled surgeons, making the operation visible to larger numbers is important.
The idea of a live model showing off a dress through CCTV seems interesting. I’m not aware of any department stores that actually did this. If you are, please let me know in the comments. I’m sure someone must’ve tried this.
It seems banks are always on the forefront of new security technologies. Just as the first practical use of microfilm was by a banker in 1925, this article imagined that new optics would allow for the quick and convenient transmission of signatures in order to verify the authenticity of a check.
Today, the use of TV cameras to investigate mining disasters is commonplace. In 2010, the 33 trapped Chilean miners were seen by a TV camera mounted on a probe sent below.
Another common use for cameras today, which was predicted in this 1951 article, is for the monitoring of traffic. Below, traffic tunnels of the future are looked after by a lone man (with apparently 24 monitors).
And then there’s the infrared camera of the future which will allow you to keep your possessions safe, even in the dark.
Lastly, there is the “staring at gauges” use of CCTV. The article includes a lot of these kinds of illustrations, but I’ve only included one example below. You get the idea…
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.”
April 27, 2012
New York has the Statue of Liberty, St. Louis has the Gateway Arch and Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign.
It seems rather fitting that the landmark most emblematic of Los Angeles — a city built on glitz and showmanship — is an advertisement.
If you’re at all familiar with the history of the Hollywood sign, you’ll likely remember that it started as an ad for a new housing development in 1923 called Hollywoodland. Using 4,000 light bulbs, the sign was illuminated at night and flashed in three succeeding segments: first “holly,” then “wood,” and then “land.” The sign would then light up in its entirety, all 4,000 light bulbs piercing through the dark of night to the city below.
Los Angeles didn’t invent outdoor advertising (that distinction may belong to the ancient Egyptians, who would post papyrus notices of rewards offered for runaway slaves), but it certainly played a prominent role in the city’s history and its visions of the future. As the automobile took the city by storm in the first half of the 20th century, it became increasingly necessary for advertisers to make their billboards larger so that speeding motorists wouldn’t miss their message.
The 1982 film Blade Runner showed viewers a dark, futuristic version of Los Angeles in the year 2019. Prominent ads for Coca-Cola and Pan Am blink back at you throughout the film, looming large and bright in this highly branded vision of the future.
Today, with digital billboard technology becoming commonplace, local governments all over the country have been fighting advertisers with outright bans. Cities claim that these relatively new forms of outdoor advertising are ugly and distract drivers. Of course, these were the exact claims that the opponents of billboard advertising were making in the early 20th century.
Part of the tremendous growth in outdoor advertising in Los Angeles had to do with the fact that there was relatively little regulation of billboards in California. As the March 1929 California Law Review noted in “Billboard Regulation and the Aesthetic Viewpoint with Reference to California Highways”:
What legislation has been enacted in California on the subject[?] Hardly any. This state prohibits the placing or maintenance of signs on property of the state or its subdivisions “without lawful permission,” or on private property without the consent of the owner or lessee, and the signs so prohibited are declared to be nuisances. A sign erected upon or over a state road or highway without a permit from the department of engineering is further declared to be a public nuisance, punishable as a misdemeanor. This is all the legislation on the subject in this state.
The essay goes on to contrast California’s lax billboard laws with the laws of other states at that time: like Kansas (billboards prohibited within 1000 feet of a highway, even if it’s on private property), Connecticut (billboards prohibited within 100 feet of any public park, state forest, playground or cemetery), or Vermont (billboards must meet the explicit approval of the secretary of state in kind, size and location). Vermont would later go on to make billboards entirely illegal in that state in 1968. In fact, four states (Hawaii, Alaska, Maine and Vermont) all ban billboard advertising anywhere within their borders.
The goal of the California Law Review paper was to propose new laws to regulate billboards. The paper suggested that a progressive tax be placed on billboards based upon their size; that billboards be restricted in areas that are deemed unsafe for motorists, such as at crossings, curves and hills; and that the size of billboards be restricted, the largest being relegated to “commercial districts.”
Today, battles over the regulation of billboards continue in Los Angeles. The last few years have seen major fights over so-called “supergraphics” — gigantic billboards placed on the sides of buildings, stretching many stories tall. They’re incredibly hard to miss — rivaling those predicted by Blade Runner in size, if not electronics — and are scattered around the city, most prominently downtown and along major freeways. The city has sued many of the media companies that negotiate and install these ads, claiming that they’re illegal, and winning over $6 million in lawsuits thus far.
It’s tough to say just how hard the city of Los Angeles will clamp down on the proliferation of billboards — be they digital or merely huge — but for the time being Angelenos will likely remain just this side of a branded, Blade Runner future. With just seven years until 2019, it seems legislation and litigation will be the only thing keeping Los Angeles from achieving full bladerunner.
[The 1917 Life magazine illustration was scanned from the 1956 book Predictions: Pictorial Predictions From the Past by John Durant. Photo of a "supergraphic" in disrepair in downtown Los Angeles by Eric Richardson, used under its Creative Commons license.]