June 18, 2012
After Ellis Island was closed in November 1954, no one was quite sure what to do with it. The 27-acre government facility located in New York Harbor had stopped processing immigrants coming into the United States and no government entity was stepping up with a plan for the site. So in 1956 the U.S. government started soliciting bids for any private corporation or person that wanted to buy it.
As Vincent J. Cannato notes in his book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, there were a number of different proposals:
“…a clinic for alcoholics and drug addicts, a park, a “world trade center,” a modern and innovative “college of the future,” private apartments, homes for the elderly, and a shelter for juvenile delinquents. Other proposals were less realsitic. Bronx congressman Paul Fino suggested a national lottery center would be in keeping with the history of the island, since immigrants “gambled for a new life in this land of ours.”
But perhaps the most lavish idea came from the highest bidder, Sol G. Atlas. Mr. Atlas offered the government $201,000 and wanted to build a $55 million resort. According to the February 17, 1958 issue of the Monessen Valley Independent in Pennsylvania, “The plans call for a 600-room hotel, museum, language school, music center, swimming pool, convention hall, shops and a promenade. The island would also have a heliport, seaplane base and ferry slip.”
The government declined Mr. Atlas’ offer — they thought that the facility was worth at least $6 million — and Ellis Island sat dormant for years. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that made Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, dashing once and for all any plans for a swanky resort. A museum about the history of immigration was opened at the site in 1990 and today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the National Park Service—even without swimming pools.
June 12, 2012
While the robot waiters of mid-’80s Pasadena were serving up chow mein at the Two Panda Deli in sunny California, another robot waiter 5,400 miles west was slinging spaghetti at Grazie’s Italian Restaurant in Tokyo.
Released in 1985 by the Japanese company Daimichi Koki with software designed by the Seibu Saison Group, Ken-chan was a 4-foot-tall robot waiter that buzzed around Grazie’s, helping most often with the wine selection. Ken-chan was supposedly guided by a radar senor that was intended to detect other objects around it and maneuver within the tight confines of a restaurant. However, the robo-waiter was far from autonomous, needing to be led around the restaurant by humans who used a remote control with a 12-foot cord.
Ken-chan couldn’t take orders or even set food on a table, but it did attract a crowd. Off the shelf, the metal server could utter just 15 different phrases in Japanese including “My name is Ken” and “How about dessert?”–but you could add the “Happy Birthday” song to its repertoire for an additional $425.
One of the restaurant’s managers, Kenichi Echiuya, first spotted the robot waiter at the 1985 World’s Fair in Tsukuba, Japan (known as Expo ’85). Ken-chan cost $43,000 (about $86,000, adjusted for inflation) and the early news stories about it were pretty glowing. An article in the September 12, 1985 issue of the military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo explained the novelty:
Anybody who’s in the mood for Italian food served with a unique flare should try a new restaurant called Grazie in Tokyo’s Ropongi district.
When it comes time for wine or the fruit or dessert course, you might find yourself looking not at a pretty waitress or handsome waiter, but at a $43,000 robot named “Ken-chan.”
A 1986 Associated Press article quotes the restaurant’s manager as saying that even if the robot isn’t very practical as a server, it certainly is good for business:
“Some people come in and order just a cup of coffee or tea to see the robot,” said Kenichi Echiuya, manager of Grazie’s and three other restaurants at the same location.
“This is a family restaurant, and the children especially love to see him,” he says. “He brings in customers.”
But by 1987 Ken-chan had become a symbol of overblown robot hype. The robot bubble, it seems, had burst. At least when it came to the hope of replacing human waiters. From the March 11, 1987 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes:
Scientists are predicting that labor-saving robots will revolutionize the industry in the 21st century and free millions from the drudgery of menial service jobs.
Restaurant manager Mitsugu Watarai, however, is taking those forecasts with a grain of salt. He attempted to introduce a mechanical waiter at his Grazie Italian Restaurant in the Ropongi entertainment district and calls the idea “impractical.”
The Pacific Stars and Stripes piece ends with a particularly depressing visual — the robot waiter relegated to the corner of the restaurant, waiting for a future that may not be quite as spectacular as we were promised.
Ken-chan now gathers dust in one corner of the restaurant, waiting for technology to catch up with the complexities of waiting tables. His inactivity is seemingly mute evidence that the 21st century and the golden age of robots might be a lot more than 13 years away.
May 31, 2012
Today, new futuristic-looking technologies often attract investors hoping to make gobs of money. And airships of the past were no different. In the first few decades of the 20th century people scrambled to figure out how they might cash in on these exciting new inventions, which were slowly beginning to prove themselves technologically reliable.
But not everyone thought that commercial flight was a good investment. The January 2, 1909, issue of Literary Digest re-published portions of a December 10, 1908 editorial in Engineering News under the headline, “A Warning to Air-Ship Investors.” The article spells out the various ways people of the era thought there may be money in flight — transporting freight, passenger travel, warfare — but the author remains extremely skeptical that any of those applications would pay off financially anytime soon.
Literary Digest explains that “companies to build, sell, and operate new types of flying-machines will before long be seeking stock subscriptions in every city in the country. How shall we distinguish the false from the true? The advice of the [Engineering News] is to keep clear of the whole business.”
From the December 10, 1908 Engineering News:
So far as the possibilities of freight transportation are concerned, it may be passed with a word. Wherever ordinary methods of transportation on land are available, it will be absurd to carry goods of any sort through the air. The cost of such transport would be measured not in mills per ton mile, as in rail or water carriage, or cents per ton mile, as in wagon haulage, but in dollars or hundreds of dollars per ton.
It is true that for exploration in difficult country, as over the Arctic ice or in rough mountain regions, there are possibilities in the air-ship. But such use, of course, is rather scientific than commercial.
The article continues by laying out the impracticality of passenger air travel, seeing it as more of an amusement that might be useful at fairs, rather than as a practical means of transportation. Interestingly, the author also calls out the high-speed automobile as a toy of the rich which allows them to “vent their surplus energies.”
For the carriage of passengers, the necessary risks attendant upon flight through the air, either with the dirigible balloon or the aeroplane, are certain to limit passenger traffic to the field of sport and amusement. This is, of course, a much more considerable field than is often realized. The public is willing to pay very high prices for mere amusement, and it is altogether probable that a few years hence aeroplane flights will be a drawing card at county fairs and other public occasions, just as ordinary balloon ascensions have been for a century past. The experience of the high-speed automobile, too, has proved the existence of a very large leisure class of wealthy men who find vent for their surplus energies in undertaking all sorts of risky exploits. Flight through the air may very likely become as popular a fad a few years hence as automobile racing is to-day; but it will have just as little relation to the serious, practical, every-day business of carrying freight and passengers for the great workaday world as have the hundred-horsepower automobiles that break speed records in France or America.
Warfare of the future isn’t even seen as a possible use for airships. As Engineering News explains, flying machines are far too vulnerable to bullets from the ground.
It is said that the leading military nations are vying with each other at the present time in the development of military air-ships, but this does not prove that these structures can be made practically useful in the serious business of actual warfare… Of all the apparatus ever proposed for use on the battle-field, a flying-machine is beyond all question the most vulnerable. It offers an ideal mark to the bullets of the enemy. Its limitations of weight forbid its protection by any sort of armor. Had the flying-machine been developed forty or fifty years ago, when projectiles were limited to small velocities and short ranges, it might have performed some service in observing the enemy’s forces; but with modern infantry rifles discharging projectiles with an initial velocity of 2,700 feet per second, and with light artillery fitted to discharge a perfect hail-storm of bullets having equal velocity and range, the rise of an air-ship at any point within several miles of a hostile army would be merely the signal for its immediate destruction.
Engineering News was correct that military airships were being developed. These planes would advance considerably in the lead up to the First World War, where they were not only used for reconnaissance, but also mounted with machine guns and used for strategic bombing. In 1909, on July 27, the Wright Brothers tested a military airplane in Fort Meyer, Virginia. Film from the National Archives of the Wright Brothers testing that plane is embedded below.
May 15, 2012
The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog touted itself as “a book about your future.” This 1982 book promised kids a peek into a coming era of automatic language translators, cities floating on the ocean and robot teachers. It also told kids about the kinds of jobs they’d have 30 years into the future. Well, 30 years have passed and it seems like as good a time as any to look back at their predictions.
Some of the predictions about which jobs would become obsolete are remarkably prescient. One of the predictions involves travel agents and stockbrokers, who are predicted to become scarce thanks to the home computer which allows people to make their own airline reservations and check stock prices. There’s even a prediction about jobs at the post office disappearing, as more and more people send mail through the computer.
What kind of job will you be working at 30 years from now? Do you expect to be programming computers or delivering mail? Can you imagine yourself as a stockbroker or a travel agent? Don’t be surprised if you end up in a totally different kind of career than the one you’re thinking of right now. In 30 years, some of today’s jobs may no longer exist. The computer will eliminate many of them. As more and more people send mail by computer, jobs at the post office will disappear. Stockbrokers’ and travel agents’ jobs may also become scarce. Instead of calling these experts, people will use their own home computers to check stock prices and make airline reservations. Today, computer programmers are in great demand, but in 30 years, they might not be. By then, many computers will be able to program themselves.
But don’t worry about find a future career. Although some kinds of work will no longer be available, new job opportunities will open up— in space industries, genetic engineering, undersea mining—maybe even robot psychology! Thirty years from now, you may be working at a job we can’t even imagine today.
Of all the job listings, one in particular stuck out to me. The “history research position” pretty accurately sums up my current occupation:
HISTORY RESEARCH POSITION AVAILABLE. Are you interested in what written communication was like back in the 20th century? Extensive computer work involved. Weekly reassignment, flexhours, and personally tailored workload. Zip your resume to WHATWAS CORP., 4V19*D458S
Another possible occupation of the future was a “genetic engineer” who would work on breeding animals that could survive in space. I’m not sure what a “girax” is. Any guesses?
GENETIC ENGINEER WANTED to develop space-sturdy strains of cows, goats, and giraxes. High zero-g tolerance, degree in animal genetics required; training in trans-species communication desirable. Top salary. Reply to SPECIAL SPECIES CONGLOMERATE, R20*H520##
The space theme continued with more listings for jobs in space, even with a new version of the cruise ship comedian: the space colony actor.
ACTORS/ACTRESSES. Be a star among the stars! Sing and dance on stages throughout the galaxy! The UP AND AWAY THEATER has bookings at Moon Base II and all the major space colonies. Zip your video tape to Minerva White, Director. 46X8N06*
IS EARTH GETTING TOO CROWDED FOR YOU? New Frontiers, Inc. is currently listing thousands of job opportunities in space. Registration information from TY**039##4
SHUTTLE PILOTS. Universal Airlines need experienced shuttle pilots for its regularly scheduled weekend flights between Earth and the moon. All positions involve job-sharing. If you have logged a minimum of 1,000 hours in space and are looking for a steady, secure position, zip your resume to *47WXH7824
CHEFS needed for space hotel. To specialize in insect cookery. Top salary plus time-in-space bonus pay. Free transportation to and from Earth. Zip your resume to Earth Headquarters, SPACE-OUT INNS, J207*1P26V
It was fairly common for Americans of the 20th century to expect that life expectancy would continue to climb indefinitely —and with good reason! Life expectancy in the year 1900 was just 49.2 years of age (47.9 for males, 50.7 for females), but by 1980 that number had climbed to 73.9 (70.1 for males, 77.6 for females). In 2012 that number is about 78.
CENTURIAN EMPLOYMENT COUNSELOR. Would you like to specialize in the employment needs of persons over 100? High-level job search skills necessary. Top pay, liberal time off benefits. Contact Lyn, CENTURY EMPLOYMENT, *193B8*G26
APPRENTICE HERBOLOGIST. Work with an experienced herbologist. Learn to prescribe herbal remedies for common diseases. Biology or botany degree desirable. Inquire UW480*2XN6
NASAL TECHNOLOGIST needed to develop and test mood-creating products for home and industrial use. Biochemistry degree with smell specialty required. Send resume to the NEW OL-FACTORY, INC. 41*WD570B60
Some of the jobs even included “your own personal robot”:
ROBOT RELATIONS. Interviewer needed to design or match personal robots to the needs and desires of human customers. Four years experience with robots, psychology degree, and high-level communication skills necessary. Your own personal robot included. Inquire MECHAN PALS INC., 5K2*1B8*NV2
PEACE ANALYSTS. We need two members for the Earth Food Distribution Committee. Varied cultural and dietary background required, plus creativity and communication skills.
FOAM HOME PHONE SALES. Do you transmit with style? Job involves computer chats with people all over the globe. We will train. Send video tape and resume to XANA-DOME, INC., K904022**5
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.]