September 19, 2012
It was 50 years ago this coming Sunday that the Jetson family first jetpacked their way into American homes. The show lasted just one season (24 episodes) after its debut on Sunday September 23, 1962, but today “The Jetsons” stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism. More episodes were later produced in the mid-1980s, but it’s that 24-episode first season that helped define the future for so many Americans today.
It’s easy for some people to dismiss “The Jetsons” as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future. And it’s for this reason that, starting this Friday, I’ll begin to explore the world of “The Jetsons” one episode at a time. Each week I’ll look at a new episode from the original 1962-63 series, beginning with the premiere episode, “Rosey the Robot.”
Five decades after its debut, not a day goes by that someone isn’t using “The Jetsons” as a way to talk about the fantastic technological advancements we’re seeing today. Or conversely, evidence of so many futuristic promises that remain unfulfilled. Just look at a handful of news stories from the past few days:
- In fashion. (“Who better than the Jetsons to be inspired by for an out of space theme?”)
- Johnny Depp talks about the West Memphis Three emerging from prison after nearly two decades. ( ”By the time you came out, it’s ‘The Jetsons.’ It’s a whole ‘nother world.”)
- James Cameron talks about the future of interactive movies. (“There might be a certain amount of interactivity, so when you look around, it creates that image wherever you look,” Cameron says. He concedes it is far off: “You’re talking ‘Jetsons’ here.”)
- The future of cars, as depicted at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (“Considering that 2025 is only 13 years away, you would think that nobody’s going to go ‘Jetsons’ with their presentation, but the LAASDC doesn’t roll like that.”)
- The sound of kitschy futurism in modern music. (“Silencio allows Sadier’s various musical influences to breathe and linger, without being upstaged by the motorik propulsion, and ‘Jetsons’ kitsch, of the Stereolab formula.”)
Thanks to my Google Alerts for words and phrases like Jetsons, Minority Report, utopia, dystopia, Blade Runner, Star Trek, apocalypse and a host of others, I’ve been monitoring the way that we talk about the future for years. And no point of reference has been more popular and varied as a symbol of tomorrowism than “The Jetsons.”
Golden Age of Futurism
“The Jetsons” was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to “The Jetsons” as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks. But the creators of “The Jetsons” weren’t the first to dream up these futuristic inventions. Virtually nothing presented in the show was a new idea in 1962, but what “The Jetsons” did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume.
And though it was “just a cartoon” with all the sight gags and parody you’d expect, it was based on very real expectations for the future. As author Danny Graydon notes in The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide, the artists drew inspiration from futurist books of the time, including the 1962 book 1975: And the Changes to Come, by Arnold B. Barach (who envisioned such breakthroughs as ultrasonic dishwashers and instant language translators). The designers also drew heavily from the Googie aesthetic of southern California (where the Hanna-Barbera studios were located)—a style that perhaps best represented postwar consumer culture promises of freedom and modernity.
The years leading up to “The Jetsons” premiere in September 1962 were a mix of techo-utopianism and Cold War fears. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 created great anxiety in an American public that already had been whipped up into a frenzy about the Communist threat. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, but less than a year earlier the Bay of Pigs fiasco raised tensions between the superpowers to a dangerous level. Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.
I spoke over the phone with Danny Graydon, the London-based author of the official guide to “The Jetsons.” Graydon explained why he believed the show resonated with so many Americans in 1962: “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope — the beginning of the ’60s, sort of pre-Vietnam [protests], when Kennedy was in power. So there was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future. I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time.”
Where’s My Jetpack?
As Graydon points out, “The Jetsons” was a projection of the model American family into the future. The world of ”The Jetsons” showed people with very few concerns about disrupting the status quo politically or socially, but instead showed a technologically advanced culture where the largest concern of the middle class was getting “push-button finger.”
It’s important to remember that today’s political, social and business leaders were pretty much watching ”The Jetsons” on repeat during their most impressionable years. People are often shocked to learn that “The Jetsons” lasted just one season during its original run in 1962-63 and wasn’t revived until 1985. Essentially every kid in America (and many internationally) saw the series on constant repeat during Saturday morning cartoons throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone (including my own mom) seems to ask me, “How could it have been around for only 24 episodes? Did I really just watch those same episodes over and over again?” Yes, yes you did.
But it’s just a cartoon, right? So what if today’s political and social elite saw ”The Jetsons” a lot? Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.
This nostalgia for the futurism of yesteryear has very real consequences for the way that we talk about ourselves as a nation. So many people today talk about how divided we are as a country and that we no longer dream “like we used to.” But when we look at things like public approval of the Apollo space program in the 1960s, those myths of national unity begin to dissolve. Public approval of funding for the Apollo program peaked at 53 percent (around the first moon landing) but pretty much hovered between 35-45 percent for most of the 1960s. Why is there a misconception today about Americans being more supportive of the space program? Because an enormous generation called Baby Boomers were kids in the 1960s; kids playing astronaut and watching shows like “The Jetsons”; kids who were bombarded with images of a bright, shiny future and for whom the world was much simpler because they saw everything through the eyes of a child.
Why Only One Season?
If ”The Jetsons” is so important and resonated with so many viewers, then why was the show canceled after just one season (though it was revived in the 1980s)? I’ve spoken to a number of different people about this, but I haven’t heard anyone mention what I believe to be the most likely reason that “The Jetsons” wasn’t renewed for a second season: color. Or, more accurately, a lack of color. ”The Jetsons” was produced and broadcast in color, but in 1962 less than 3 percent of American households had a color television set. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 that 50 percent of American households had a color TV.
The Jetsons’ future is bright; it’s shiny; and it’s in color. But most people watching on Sunday nights obviously didn’t see it like that. The immersive world of “The Jetsons” looks far more flat and unengaging in black and white. And unlike the other network shows it was up against on Sunday nights (which was in most markets “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC and “Car 54 Where Are You?” on CBS) “The Jetsons” suffered disproportionately more from being viewed in black and white.
NBC also had an incumbent advantage. If you’d made “Walt Disney’s Wonderful of Color” appointment viewing for the past year (Disney jumped ship from ABC to NBC in 1961 where they not only began broadcasting in color, but added “color” to the name) it’s unlikely you’d switch your family over to an unknown cartoon entity. “The Jetsons” was the first show ever broadcast in color on ABC, but it was still up to individual affiliates as to whether the show would be broadcast in color. According to the September 23, 1962 New York Times only people with access to ABC’s owned-and-operated stations in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles were guaranteed to see the show broadcast in color—provided you owned a color set.
I’ve takens some screenshots from the DVD release of the first season to show just how dramatic a difference color can make with a show like this.
There’s also this promo from 1962, which gives us a taste of what “The Jetsons” looked like devoid of color. It’s bizarre for those of us who grew up on “The Jetsons” to see their fantastical world reduced to black and white:
There are a lot of “what-ifs” in “The Jetsons” universe that may have had substantial bearing on politicians, policymakers and the average American today. If we accept that media has an influence on the way that we view culture, and our own place in the future—as “The Jetsons” seems to ask us to do—we have to ask ourselves how our expectations might have changed with subtle tweaks to the Jetson story. What if George took a flying bus or monorail instead of a flying car? What if Jane Jetson worked outside of the home? What if the show had a single African-American character? These questions are impossible to answer, of course, but they’re important to recall as we examine this show that so dramatically shaped our understanding of tomorrow.
1985 and Beyond
Obviously the 1985-87 reboot of “The Jetsons” TV show played an important role in carrying the futuristic toon torch, but it’s in many ways an entirely different animal. The animation simply has a different feel and the storylines are arguably weaker, though I certainly remember watching them along with the original reruns when I was a kid in the 1980s. There were also movies produced—1990′s The Jetsons was released theatrically and the made-for-TV movie crossover The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones first aired in 1987. But for our purposes, we’ll just be exploring the first season and its immediate influence during the American Space Age. With talk of a live-action Jetsons movie in the works, it will be interesting to see how a revamped Jetsons might play today.
A few style notes that I’ll get out of the way:
- I spell Rosey the way it appeared in merchandise of the 1960s. Yes, you’ll sometimes see it spelled “Rosie” in video games and comics of the 1980s, but since our focus is the first season I’m sticking with Rosey.
- The show never mentions “within world” what year the Jetson family is living, but for our purposes we’ll assume it to be 2062. Press materials and newspapers of 1962 mention this year, even though the characters only ever say “21st century” during the first season of the show.
- Orbitty is from the 1980s reboot of The Jetsons. Orbitty, a pet alien, is essentially the Jar-Jar Binks of the Jetsons’ world and you probably won’t see me mention him again.
Meet George Jetson
The Jetsons, of course, represents a nostalgia for the future; but perhaps more oddly, it still represents the future to so many people who grew up with it. I’m excited to get started on this project and welcome your comments throughout this process, especially if you have vivid memories of the show from when you were a kid. I know I certainly do — I turned it into my career!
Update: The first paragraph of this post was revised to clarify that more episodes of “The Jetsons” were produced in the 1980s.
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!?!
April 17, 2012
The introduction of broadcast radio caused some in the newspaper industry to fear that newspapers would soon become a thing of the past. After all, who would read the news when you could just turn on the radio for real-time updates?
Newspapers had even more to fear in 1938 when radio thought it might compete with them in the deadtree business as well.
The May, 1938 issue of Hugo Gernsback‘s Short Wave and Television magazine included an article titled “Radio to Print News Right In Your Home.” The article described a method of delivering newspapers that was being tested and (provided it didn’t interfere with regular radio broadcasts) would soon be used as a futuristic news-delivery method.
The magazine proudly included a previous prediction from a different Gernsback publication four years earlier, before the FCC had granted trials:
Hugo Gernsback, in the April 1934 issue of Radio-Craft forecast the advent of the “radio newspaper.” Here’s the front cover illustration of that magazine. Compare it with the pictures on the opposite page!
The article opens by explaining that this futuristic device is already in use:
As you read this article, radio facsimile signals are probably circulating all around you. At least 23 broadcast stations, some of them high power ones, and a number of short-wave stations are now transmitting experimental facsimile signals under a special license granted by the Federal Communications Commission.
This invention of a wireless fax, as it were, was credited to W.G. H. Finch and used radio spectrum that was otherwise unused during the late-night hours when most Americans were sleeping. The FCC granted a special license for these transmissions to occur between midnight and 6am, though it would seem that a noisy printing device in your house cranking away in the middle of the night might have been the fatal flaw in their system. It wasn’t exactly a fast delivery either, as the article notes that it takes “a few hours” for the machine to produce your wireless fax newspaper.
The article explained exactly how the process worked:
The photo or other piece of copy, such as news bulletins, is placed in the scanner at the transmitter. At the rate of 100 lines per inch picture to be transmitted is scanned, and the transmitter sends out periodic impulses which vary in strength with the degree of light or shade on the picture. When these signals are received, by wire or radio, they are passed into a recording stylus. This stylus moves back and forth over a piece of chemically dry processed paper (the Finch system) in a line, wide or narrow as the case may be, is traced on the paper. A facsimile such as that shown in one of the accompanying pictures is obtained, and it thus becomes an easy matter to reproduce printed matter, drawings and photos, etc.
The article mentions two parties that are experimenting with the technology (Mr. Finch and RCA) but goes on to explain that nothing about the system had been standardized yet.
Many different systems of transmitting and recording devices by facsimile have been tried. The one used by the Finch system employs a special chemically treated paper. When a current passes through the moving stylus needle, the reaction causes a black spot to appear on the paper, the size of the spot at a given point depending upon the strength of the received impulse. At the transmitter the light beam is focused on the picture to be sent and the reflected light falls on a photo-electric cell.
Whether Finch and RCA knew it or not, battles between formats would continue right on into the 21st century as the fight over newspaper paywalls, cord-cutters, and ebooks continues to dramatically shift our media landscape.
February 29, 2012
The February 8, 1952 Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS) ran a piece from Henry C. Nicholas titled “Cheer Up! World Will Be Wonderful Fifty Years From Now!” Nicholas reports on the International Congress of Astronautics in London and the convention of the American Chemical Society in New York, saying that the predictions described in the article are not those of imaginative writers of science fiction, but rather the “sober conclusions of our greatest scientists, including many of our most famous Nobel laureates.”
This style of laying out fantastical advances of the future and proclaiming that they represent the conservative opinion of incredibly smart people is one of the most popular formulas of non-fiction futurism writing, dating back at least to John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. and his article for the December, 1900 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” And this 1952 article is a terrific example of the techno-utopian thinking that so many people today consider the Golden Age of Futurism.
There will not be another world war during this century. The next 50 years will witness an amazing increase in wealth and prosperity, with a continuous rise in the world standard of living. The threat of world overpopulation will disappear with ample space for everyone, thus removing one of the long existing causes for wars and revolutions.
By the year 2000 cures for most of the diseases of man will have been discovered. The average age will be about 100 years. Journeys through space in rocket ships will be an established form of transportation, with regularly scheduled trips to the various planets. A number of man-made moons will be circling around the earth.
The article quotes Dr. James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University, about the future of atomic war. Interestingly, the article claims that atomic energy will have proved a failure, making way for solar energy as an “inexhaustible source of new power.” This hope for the future of solar power actually wasn’t a new idea, as similar predictions were made during WWII about the prevalence of solar power after the war (should the world continue to exist at all).
An atomic world war was averted in the 1950s, though by the “narrowest of margins,” according to Dr. James Bryant Conant, world famous chemist and president of Harvard.
The Communist world and its opponents, which then controlled most of the world, became somewhat mellowed by “time and local conditions” and the startling new revelations of the mysteries of the universe.
Atomic energy had been a disappointment, both as a destructive weapon of war and its constructive peacetime development. In the 1970s atomic energy was replaced by solar energy as an inexhaustible source of new power.
With this development, which was fully established by 1985, the world at last realized its age-old dream of lifting most of its labor from the backs of man.
Dr. Adolph Butenandt of Germany and other Nobel laureates from Sweden, Finland, England, France and America, were in agreement with Dr. Conant that solar energy would revolutionize the world through supplying man with an inexhaustible and previously largely untapped source of cheap power.
The amount of such cheap power available to the world in the year 2000 will be beyond comprehension. The amount of sunshine energy, which yearly falls on only a few acres of land, when converted into man-made power was sufficient to supply enough electricity for a city of a million inhabitants.
The article also quotes Artturi Virtanen, a 1945 Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry. According to the piece, in the year 2000 the sea will be explored and exploited for its untapped resources, and the world’s food supply will increase 50 times over.
Fifty years from now the world will be able to increase its food supply 50 times over. This increased production will come largely from enhancing the efficiency with which plants use sunlight to make sugar from water and carbon dioxide.
Fishing will not be the only crop obtained from the sea. There is more wealth in any square mile of the sea than there is in any square mile of land.
With the abundant and almost costless power of solar energy it will be possible to mine the minerals and harvest the green growth that teems in the ocean. Fresh water will be obtained from the ocean and great deserts that are near the sea, like the Sahara in Africa, will become garden spots.
Birth control is seen as the answer to the world’s population crisis, as the article predicts that religious leaders will become more comfortable with the idea of birth control.
There will be no danger of world overpopulation. The size of families and nations will be regulated at will. The world population will controlled through improved birth control methods, with cheap, harmless and temporarily effective anti-fertility compounds added as one saw fit to the diet. This will remove one of the greatest dangers to world peace since the dawn of civilization.
The attitude of religious leaders regarding birth control, say these scientists, will slowly change “without any diminution of religious feeling.”
There was general agreement among the scientist gazing into their crystal balls that space travel will be an established means of transportation well before the year 2000.
Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was the chief developer of the V-2 rocket for Hitler and who is now working on guided missiles for the United States, said that most of the problems of space navigation will have been solved during the 1950s.
The first step toward true space navigation were earth moons — man-made satellites high in the earth’s atmosphere. Persons stationed on these earth moons continuously circulating around the world, will be able to observe and report any unusual activity that threatens peace on earth.
Supported against the earth’s gravitational pull by the centrifugal force of its rapid motion, only moderate power will be needed to launch space ships from these satellites which possess no atmosphere.
While the world will be changed beyond recognition in the year 2000, say these scientists, man will remain much the strange and unpredictable creature he is today. There will still be many bemoaning the passing of the “good old days.”
(The 1955 illustration above by Frank R. Paul was found in the wonderful book Driving Through Futures Past by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, CA.)
February 23, 2012
American futurism of the 1970s is a fascinating mix of sleek Jetsonian utopianism and dreary mushroom cloud hellscapes. Nowhere is this dichotomy of tomorrowism more evident than in children’s drawings of the future.
I’ve always found that some of the most interesting predictions come from children, who tend to express ideas that reflect both the best and worst of any decade’s futurism. The 1970s was a rather contentious time in the United States. The country saw a tremendous loss of manufacturing jobs and a sharp spike in crime, but the moon landing of 1969 was still fresh in the public’s mind — even if the last person to set foot on the moon was in 1973. Kids were watching re-runs of The Jetsons (which only lasted one season in 1962-63) but the Vietnam War was still being hotly debated until the withdrawal of American forces in 1975. There was little faith in government, with President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and the state of the environment was of growing concern.
The year 1976 marked America’s Bicentennial. As festivities were planned across the country, it became a time of reflection for rattled Americans who wanted to be hopeful about the future of the country.
The American oil company ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) celebrated the Bicentennial in a curious way, by soliciting and publishing the ideas of average Americans about what the United States would look like in the year 2076 — it’s Tricentennial. I found The Tricentennial Report, which was published in 1977, tucked away in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s library. The book explains in its introduction:
The people had been asked by Atlantic Richfield Company in newspapers, magazines and television advertisements, to discuss their country’s future. Some 60,000 Americans responded and this report is a distillation of their ideas and feelings.
The drawings by children are, of course, a highlight of the book.
The Tricentennial Program received hundreds of letters and drawings from schoolchildren throughout the United States. Here are a few examples, taken mainly from Dr. Harriet Eisenberg’s classes at John F. Kennedy High School in New York.
This drawing, by high schooler Eduardo del Villas, features soaring rockets and a jetpack pilot shouting the taunt, “I’m going to get you now you dumb bird!”
This drawing by Joanne Connaire seems to show children of the world joining hands in 2076, with their faces obscured, quite possibly wearing masks to protect themselves from whatever brown mass (air pollution?) is behind them.
High schooler Robert Berman took a stab at politics in the year 2076, with a robot campaigning to be president of the United States.
Tina Kambitsis created two drawings: one of the entire world being destroyed in a red mushroom cloud, the other a brand new Garden of Eden in the year 2076, with a bird remarking, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”
This vision of the far future, drawn by an unnamed fourth grader in Mary Ellen Caesar’s class at Sacred Heart School in Massachusetts, may be the most telling of the illustrations. The child imagines a return to the land in a way that seems to be more harmonious, a romanticization of the people in 1776 who were depicted as trading with the Indians and living a simpler life. The food crisis was on everyone’s mind in the 1970s, so the child imagined that this would encourage people of the future to have their own farms and gardens.
1776 — These people were colonists. They traded with the Indians. They lived in wooden houses.
2076 — In 2076 because of the food shortages many people have small farms and gardens.
And John F. Kennedy High School student Michael Urena drew what appears to be a commercial spaceliner, called The Friendly Bug, traveling to the moon.