February 19, 2013
This is the 19th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
“Yesterday, I worked two full hours!” George Jetson complains.
“Well, what does Spacely think he’s running? A sweatshop!?!?” Jane replies.
The 19th episode of “The Jetsons” first aired on February 3, 1963, and was titled “G.I. Jetson.” The episode begins with George having a nightmare about his tyrannical boss, Mr. Spacely. Apparently Mr. Spacely thinks he can get away with forcing people to work what’s considered inhumane hours in the year 2063 — two whole hours a day!
As we’ve seen time and again, this idea of a push-button future of leisure that would ultimately result in considerably fewer working hours was not only a Jetsonian staple — it was a mainstream assumption made by even the most conservative of prognosticators. The idea that the push-button would dramatically reduce the average American’s workload was a given, it was only a question of how quickly it would happen and how we’d occupy all of this new free time. By the year 2000, advances in automation were supposed to give us an average workweek of 30 or maybe even 20 hours. Maybe we wouldn’t even have to work at all.
This world of little to no work would have its effect on the home and transportation of the future, but it would also impact jobs often considered the most back-breaking — like those in the armed services.
During “G.I. Jetson” George learns via tele-tape (delivered by Western Universe) that he must report for two weeks of training in the United States Space Guard. For a moment, George thinks that this will at least give him some respite from seeing his loathsome boss every day. But, of course, it’s never that simple. Mr. Spacely is also called up for the U.S. Space Guard and pretty soon they’re off to Camp Nebula together.
Once George, Henry, Spacely and the rest of the crew arrive at Camp Nebula poor George and Henry discover that they’ll be working hard. At least by 21st century standards.
“I don’t know about you Henry but all this manual labor has me worn out,” George whines to Henry.
“I don’t know if I can take two weeks of this… oh boy!” Henry concurs.
With an army of robots at our disposal, the exhausting work of the past might very well be replaced by the tedium of the future. That is, unless our definition of hard work changes.
But lest you think this vision of push-button electrical servants has its origins in the 20th century, take a look at some visions of the year 2000 from 19th-century France. There are conflicting reports of where and why these illustrations were created. But I’m inclined to believe Isaac Asimov, who wrote an entire book about them in 1986 titled Futuredays: Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000. According to Asimov these illustrations were created by Jean Marc Cote in 1899 who was commissioned to produced them for a series of cigarette cards. The company that was intending to release them supposedly went out of business, leaving just one set of cards.
I can’t speak to the veracity of these claims, but lining them up next to stills from “The Jetsons,” we can yet again see that this midcentury cartoon didn’t invent the promise of push-button leisure.
Uniblab makes a return appearance in this episode and this deceitful robot is up to all his old tricks. By the end of the episode, George and Henry are yet again sabotaging Uniblab, causing Mr. Spacely a considerable amount of stress and damage to his reputation. And much like the lesson of the 10th episode, viewers are left to decide if the automatons of tomorrow are more foe than friend. Especially when they still make you slave away for two whole hours a day.
January 29, 2013
Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite’s regular half-hour CBS documentary program “The 21st Century” was a glorious peek into the future. Every Sunday night viewers of the late 1960s were shown all the exciting technological advancements they could expect to see just 30 or 40 years down the road. The March 12, 1967, episode gave people a look at the home of the 21st century, complete with 3D television, molded on-demand serving dishes, videophones, inflatable furniture, satellite newspaper delivery and robot servants.
Cronkite spends the first five minutes of the program deriding the evils of urban sprawl and insisting that everyone dreams of a house in seclusion on a few acres of land. Cronkite and his interviewee Philip Johnson insist that moving back into ever denser cities is the wave of the future. It’s interesting then that Cronkite must pivot before showing us the standalone home of tomorrow. This would be a second home, Cronkite tells us — far removed from the high density reality that everyone of the 21st century must face:
Let’s push our imaginations ahead and visit the home of the 21st century. This could be someone’s second home, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. It consists of a cluster of pre-fabricated modules. This home is as self-sufficient as a space capsule. It recirculates its own water supply and draws all of its electricity from its own fuel cell.
Living Room of 2001
The living room of the future is a place of push-button luxury and a mid-century modern aesthetic. The sunken living room may feature inflatable furniture and disposable paper kids’ chairs, but Cronkite assures us that there’s no reason the family of the future couldn’t have a rocking chair — to remind us that “both the present and the future are merely extensions of the past.”
Once inside we might find ourselves in a glass enclosure where the lint and dirt we’ve accumulated during our trip is removed electrostatically. Now we step into the living room. What will the home of the 21st century look like inside? Well, I’m sitting in the living room of a mock-up of the home of the future, conceived by Philco-Ford and designed by Paul McCobb. This is where the family of the 21st century would entertain guests. This room has just about everything one would want: a big (some might say too big) full color 3D television screen, a stereo sound system that could fill the room with music, and comfortable furniture for relaxed conversation.
If that living room looks familiar it may be because it’s the same house from the Internet-famous short film “1999 A.D.” produced in 1967 (often mistakenly dated as 1969, which would make the moon landing stuff less impressive) and starring a young Wink Martindale.
Cronkite explains that a recent government report concludes that Americans of the year 2000 will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations “as the rule.” He goes on to tell viewers that this will mean much more leisure time for the average person:
A lot of this new free time will be spent at home. And this console controls a full array of equipment to inform, instruct and entertain the family of the future. The possibilities for the evening’s program are called up on this screen. We could watch a football game, or a movie shown in full color on our big 3D television screen. The sound would come from these globe-like speakers. Or with the push of a button we could momentarily escape from our 21st century lives and fill the room with stereophonic music from another age.
Home Office of 2001
Later, Cronkite takes us into the home office of the future. Here the newspaper is said to be delivered by satellite, and printed off on a gigantic broadsheet printer so that the reader of the future can have a deadtree copy.
This equipment here will allow [the businessman of the future] to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.
This console provides a summary of news relayed by satellite from all over the world. Now to get a newspaper copy for permanent reference I just turn this button, and out it comes. When I’ve finished catching up on the news I might check the latest weather. This same screen can give me the latest report on the stocks I might own. The telephone is this instrument here — a mock-up of a possible future telephone, this would be the mouthpiece. Now if I want to see the people I’m talking with I just turn the button and there they are. Over here as I work on this screen I can keep in touch with other rooms of the house through a closed-circuit television system.
With equipment like this in the home of the future we may not have to go to work, the work would come to us. In the 21st century it may be that no home will be complete without a computerized communications console.
One of the more interesting gadgets in the office of the future that we can clearly see but Cronkite never addresses is the “electronic correspondence machine” of the future, otherwise known as the “home post office.” In the film “1999 A.D.” we see Wink Martindale’s character manipulating a pen on the machine, which allows for “instant written communication between individuals anywhere in the world.”
Kitchen of 2001
The kitchen of the future includes plastic plates which are molded on-demand, a technology that up until just a few years ago must have seemed rather absurd. With the slow yet steady rise of home 3D printers this idea isn’t completely ridiculous, though we still have quite a ways to go.
After dinner, the plates are melted down, along with any leftover food and re-formed for the next meal. It’s never explained why the molding and re-molding of plates would be any easier or more efficient than simply allowing the machine to just wash the dishes. But I suppose a simple dishwasher wouldn’t have seemed terribly futuristic to the people of 1967.
This might be the kitchen in the home of the future. Preparation of a meal in the 21st century could be almost fully automatic. Frozen or irradiated foods are stored in that area over there.
Meals in this kitchen of the future are programmed. The menu is given to the automatic chef via typewriter or punched computer cards. The proper prepackaged ingredients are conveyed from the storage area and moved into this microwave oven where they are cooked in seconds. When the meal is done the food comes out here. When the meal is ready, instead of reaching for a stack of plates I just punch a button and the right amount of cups and saucers are molded on the spot.
When I’ve finished eating, there will be no dishes to wash. The used plates will be melted down again, the leftovers destroyed in the process and the melted plastic will be ready to be molded into clean plates when I need them next.
Robot Servants of 2001
Later in the program Cronkite takes us to the research laboratory of London’s Queen Mary College where we see robots in development. Cronkite interviews Professor M. W. Thring about the future of household robotics.
Cronkite assures us that the robots are not coming to take over the world, but instead to simply make us breakfast:
Robots are coming. Not to rule the world, but to help around the house. In the home of 2001 machines like these may help cook your breakfast and serve it too. We may wake up each morning to the patter of little feet — robot feet.
During the interview, the professor addresses one of the most important questions of the futuristic household robot: will it look like a human?
CRONKITE: Professor Thring, what are these?
THRING: These are the first prototypes of small scale models of the domestic housemaid of the future.
CRONKITE: The domestic housemaid of the future?
THRING: Yes, the maid of all work. To do all the routine work of the house, all the uninteresting jobs that the housewife would prefer not to do. You also give it instructions about decisions — it mustn’t run over the baby and things like that. And then it remembers those instructions and whenever you tell it to do that particular program it does that program.
CRONKITE: What is the completed machine going to look like? Is it going to look like a human being?
THRING: No. There’s no reason at all why it should look like a human being. The only thing is it’s got to live in a human house and live in a human house. It’s got to go through doors and climb up stairs and so on. But there’s no other reason why it should look like a human being. For example, it can have three or four hands if it wants to, it can have eyes in its feet, it can be entirely different.
Thring explains that the robot would put itself away in the cupboard where it would also recharge itself whenever it needed to do so — not unlike a Roomba today, or the automatic push-button vacuum cleaners of “The Jetsons,” which first aired just five years earlier.
I first saw this program many years ago while visiting the Paley Center for Media in New York. I asked Skip over at AV Geeks if he had a copy and it just so happens he did. He digitized it and released it as a DVD that’s now available for purchase, called Future Is Not As Good As It Used To Be. Many thanks to Skip for digging out this retro-futuristic gem. And if anyone from CBS is reading this, please release “The 21st Century” online or with a DVD box set. Cronkite’s show is one of the greatest forward-looking artifacts of the 20th century.
January 10, 2013
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which concluded last week in Las Vegas, is where the (supposed) future of consumer technology gets displayed. But before this annual show debuted in 1967, where could you go to find the most futuristic gadgets and appliances? The answer was the American electrical shows of 100 years ago.
The first three decades of the 20th century was an incredible period of technological growth for the United States. With the rapid adoption of electricity in the American home, people could power an increasingly large number of strange and glorious gadgets which were being billed as the technological solution for making everyone’s lives easier and more enjoyable. Telephones, vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, motion pictures, radios, x-rays, washing machines, automobiles, airplanes and thousands of other technologies came of age during this time. And there was no better place to see what was coming down the pike than at one of the many electrical shows around the country.
The two consistently largest electrical shows in the U.S. were in Chicago and New York. Chicago’s annual show opened on January 15, 1906, when less than 8 percent of U.S. households had electricity. By 1929, about 85 percent of American homes (if you exclude farm dwellings) had electricity and the early adopters of the 1920s — emboldened by the rise of consumer credit — couldn’t get their hands on enough appliances.
The first Chicago Electrical Show began with a “wireless message” from President Teddy Roosevelt in the White House and another from Thomas Edison in New Jersey. Over 100,000 people roamed its 30,000 square feet of exhibit space during its two weeks at the Chicago Coliseum.
Just as it is today at CES, demonstration was the bread and butter of the early 20th century electrical shows. At the 1907 Chicago Electrical Show the American Vibrator Company gave out complimentary massages to attendees with its electrically driven massagers while the Diehl Manufacturing Company showed off the latest in sewing machine motors for both the home and the factory.
Decorative light was consistently important at all the early electrical shows, as you can see by the many electric lights dangling in the 1908 postcard at the top of this post. The 1909 New York Electrical Show at Madison Square Garden was advertised as being illuminated by 75,000 incandescent lamps and each year the number of light bulbs would grow greater for what the October 5, 1919, Sandusky Register described as “America’s most glittering industry” — electricity.
The highlights of the 1909 New York show included “air ships” controlled by wireless, food cooked by electricity, the wireless telephone (technology that today we call radio), washing and ironing by electricity and even hatching chicken eggs by electricity. They also included a demonstration of 2,000,000 volts of electricity sent harmlessly through a man’s body.
The hot new gadget of the 1910 Chicago show was the “time-a-phone.” This invention looked like a small telephone receiver and allowed a person to tell time in the dark by the number of chimes and gongs they heard. Musical chimes denoted the hour while a set of double gongs gave the quarter hours and a high pitched bell signified the minutes. The January 5, 1910, Iowa City Daily Pressexplained that such an invention could be used in hotels, “where each room will be provided with one of the instruments connected to a master clock in the basement. The time-a-phone is placed under the pillow and any guest wishing to know the hour has to press a button.”
Though the Chicago and New York shows attracted exhibitors from all over the country, they drew largely regional attendees in the 1900s and 1910s. New York’s show of course had visitors from cities in the northeast but it also drew visitors from as far away as Japan who were interested in importing the latest American electrical appliances. Chicago’s show drew from neighboring states like Iowa and Indiana and the show took out ads in the major newspapers in Des Moines and Indianapolis. An ad in the January 10, 1910, Indianapolis Star billed that year’s show in Chicago as the most elaborate exposition ever held — “Chicago’s Billion Dollar Electrical Show.” The ad proclaimed that “everything that’s now in light, heat and power for the home, office, store, factory and farm” would be on display including “all manner of heavy and light machinery in full working operation.”
Chicago’s 1910 Electrical Show was advertised as a “Veritable Fairyland of Electrical Wonders” with $40,000 spent on decorations (about $950,000 adjusted for inflation). On display was the The Wright airplane exhibited by the U.S. Government, wireless telegraphy and telephony.
During World War I the nation and most of it’s high-tech (including all radio equipment, which was confiscated from all private citizens by the U.S. government) went to war. Before the war the New York Electrical Show had moved from Madison Square Garden to the Grand Central Palace but during WWI the Palace served as a hospital. New York’s Electrical Show went on hiatus, but in 1919 it returned with much excitement about the promise of things to come.
The October 5, 1919, Sandusky Registerin Sandusky, Ohio described the featured exhibits everyone was buzzing about in New York, such as: “a model apartment, an electrical dairy, electrical bakery, therapeutic display, motion picture theater, the dental college tube X ray unit, the magnifying radioscope, a domestic ice making refrigerating unit, a carpet washer which not only cleans but restores colors and kills germs.”
Model homes and apartments were both popular staples of the early 20th century electrical shows. Naturally, the Chicago show regularly featured a house of the future, while the New York show typically called their model home an apartment. Either way, both were extravagantly futuristic places where nearly everything seemed to be aided by electricity.
The model apartment at the 1919 New York Electrical Show included a small electric grand piano with decorative electric candles. A tea table with an electric hot water kettle, a lunch table with chafing dishes and and electric percolator. The apartment of tomorrow even came with a fully equipped kitchen with an electric range and an electric refrigerator. Daily demonstrations showed off how electricity could help in the baking of cakes and pastry, preparing dinner, as well as in canning and preserving. The hottest gadgets of the 1919 NY show included the latest improvements in radio, dishwashing machines and a ridiculous number of vacuum cleaners. The December 1919 issue of Electrical Experimenter magazine described the editors as “flabbergasted” trying to count the total number of vacuum cleaners being demonstrated.
After WWI the electrical shows really kicked into high gear, and not just in New York and Chicago. Cleveland advertised its electrical show in 1920 as the biggest ever staged in America. Held in the Bolivar-Ninth building the show was decidedly more farm-centric, with the latest in electrical cleaners for cows getting top billing in Ohio newspapers. The Cleveland show included everything from cream separators that operate while the farmer is out doing other chores to milking machines to industrial sized refrigerators for keeping perishable farm products fresh.
The 1921 New York Electrical Show featured over ninety booths with over 450 different appliances on display. Americans of the early 1920s were promised that in the future the human body would be cared for by electricity from head to toe. The electric toothbrush was one of the most talked about displays. The American of the future would be bathing in electrically-heated water, and afterward put on clothes that had been electrically sewn, electrically cleaned and electrically pressed. The electrical shows of the early 20th century promised that the American of the future would only be eating meals that were prepared electrically. What was described by some as the most interesting exhibit of the 1921 New York Electrical Show, the light that stays on for a full minute after you turn it off. This, it was explained, gave you time to reach your bed or wherever you’re heading without “hitting your toes against the rocking chair” and waking up the rest of your family.
The Great Depression would stall that era’s American electrical shows. In 1930 the New York Electrical Show didn’t happen and Earl Whitehorne, president of the Electrical Association of New York, made the announcement. The Radio Manufacturers Association really took up the mantle, holding events in Chicago, New York and Atlantic City where previous exhibitors at the Electrical Shows were encouraged to demonstrate their wares. But it wasn’t quite the same. The sale of mechanical refrigerators, radios and even automobiles would continue in the 1930s, but the easy credit and sky’s-the-limit dreaming of the electrically minded would be relegated to certain corners of larger American fairs (like the World’s Fairs of 1933 in Chicago and 1939 in New York) where techno-utopian dreams were largely the domain of gigantic corporations like RCA and Westinghouse.
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…