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.”
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
March 7, 2012
There’s no denying that devices like the iPad, Kindle and Nook have dramatically changed the way that many people consume media. Last year, online retailer Amazon announced that electronic book sales had surpassed print book sales for the first time in history.
The future of the book has quite a few failed predictions in its wake. From Thomas Edison’s belief that books of the future would be printed on leaves of nickel, to a 1959 prediction that the text of a book would be projected on the ceiling of your home, no one knew for sure what was in store for the printed word.
The April, 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics included this nifty invention which was to be the next logical step in the world of publishing. Basically a microfilm reader mounted on a large pole, the media device was supposed to let you sit back in your favorite chair while reading your latest tome of choice.
It has proved possible to photograph books, and throw them on a screen for examination, as illustrated long ago in this magazine. At the left is a device for applying this for home use and instruction; it is practically automatic.
Additional text accompanying the illustration reads, “You can read a ‘book’ (which is a roll of miniature film), music, etc., at your ease.”
Though René Dagron was granted the first patent for microfilm in the year 1859, it was New York banker George Lewis McCarthy who developed the first practical use for microfilm in 1925, allowing him to make miniaturized copies of bank documents.
Eastman Kodak bought McCarthy’s invention in 1928 and the technology behind the miniaturization of text was adopted rapidly throughout the 1930s. In 1935 the New York Times began copying all of its editions onto microfilm.
Microfilm was a practical instrument for archiving printed material for a number of institutions in the 1930s, including Oglethorpe University, which was preparing the Crypt of Civilization. The Crypt was sealed in 1938 and is intended to be opened in the year 8113. The December, 1938 issue of Popular Science included an article on the preparations necessary for that enormous time capsule, including the use of miniaturized text not unlike the concept above.
February 21, 2012
It’s quite easy for people to talk cynically of the various ways in which technology is supposedly undermining culture and society. (And those complaints are obviously nothing new.) In particular, people have — rightly or wrongly — been afraid of “information overload” for ages.
But I’m an Internet apologist. The ability of average people to obtain information instantaneously is just phenomenal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I was a kid, growing up in the late 1980s and early 90s, I had no idea what the Internet was. But the futurism books I’d check out at the library would hint at the massive information infrastructure that was to come. One such book, World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play by Neil Ardley had a two-page spread about the electronic library of the future. This 1981 book explained everything from what homework might be done in the future to how computer criminals might make off with all your data.
The picture above shows medical experts inputting data into a large centralized electronic library. The idea that an electronic library would be so organized in one physical space might be the most jarring aspect to these types of futures, which were imagined before our modern web. The 1993 AT&T concept video “Connections” talked about electronic education in a similar way, with students linking to an “education center” in Washington, D.C.
Text from the World of Tomorrow book appears below. It may seem so quaint to modern readers, but it’s fantastic to read about how “this service at your fingertips is like having a huge brand-new encyclopedia in your home at all times.”
Imagine you are living in the future, and are doing a project on Halley’s comet. It’s quite some time since it last appeared in 1986, and you want to find out when it will again be seen from Earth. You also want to know the results of a space mission to the comet, and find out what the comet is made of.
In the days when the comet last appeared, you would have to look up Halley’s comet in an encyclopedia or a book on astronomy. If you didn’t possess these books, you would have gone to the library to get the information. And to find out about the space mission, you might have had to get in touch with NASA. Now, finding out anything is much easier — thanks to the computer.
People still collect books as valuable antiques or for a hobby, but you get virtually all the information you need from the viewscreen of your home computer system. The computer is linked to a library — not a library of books but an electronic library where information on every subject is stored in computer memory banks. You might simply ask the computer to display you the range of information on Halley’s comet. It contacts the library, and up comes a list of articles to read and video programs. You select those you want at a level you understand — and sit back.
Having this service at your fingertips is like having a huge brand-new encyclopedia in your homes at all times. The computer can tell you anything you want to know, and the information is always the very latest available. There need be only one central library to which computers in homes, offices, schools and colleges are connected. At the library experts are constantly busy, feeding in the very latest information as they receive it. In theory one huge electronic library could serve the whole world!
January 27, 2012
When Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus met President Kennedy in 1962, JFK told him, “The only science I ever learned was from your comic strip in the Boston Globe.”
The comic strip that Kennedy was referring to was called “Our New Age” and ran in about 110 Sunday newspapers all around the world from 1958 until 1975. Much like Arthur Radebaugh‘s mid-century futurism comic “Closer Than We Think,” which ran from 1958 until 1963, “Our New Age” was a shining example of techno-utopian idealism. Not all of the strips were futuristic, but they all had that particular brand of optimism that so characterized postwar American thinking about science and technology.
Each week the strip had a different theme, illustrating a scientific principle or advancement in an easily digestible way. Some of the strips tackled straightforward scientific topics like meteors and volcanoes, while others explained the latest scientific developments in synthetic fibers, space travel and lasers. The strip seemed to say that the building blocks of the future were laid out before us, we just had to build it.
Athelstan Spilhaus wrote “Our New Age” from its inception until 1973, but it went through three different illustrators: first Earl Cros, then E.C. Felton, then Gene Fawcette. I have a strip from 1975 (when Fawcette is still credited as the illustrator) but after Spilhaus stopped doing the strip in 1973 the identity of the writer was unclear.
As Spilhaus tells it, he was inspired to start the comic strip in October of 1957 after the Soviets launched Sputnik — the first human-made satellite — into space. He was concerned that American kids weren’t showing enough interest in science and technology. “Rather than fight my own kids reading the funnies, which is a stupid thing to do, I decided to put something good into the comics, something that was more fun and that might give a little subliminal education,” he said.
“Our New Age” had an enormous audience almost immediately. A 1959 article in Time magazine noted that the strip appeared in 102 U.S. and 19 foreign newspapers.
Athelstan Spilhaus was a flamboyant and remarkable futurist who led quite an extraordinary life. He was the first Unesco ambassador to the UN, started the National Sea Grant Program, was the inventor of the bathythermograph, was involved with the infamous “Roswell incident” when his Project Mogul weather balloons crashed, and even tried to get an experimental city built in Minnesota with Buckminster Fuller. The Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) never got off the ground for a number of reasons, not least of which because Spilhaus and Fuller had some major disagreements about the project.
During the majority of the time that he was writing “Our New Age,” Dr. Spilhaus was the dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology. While in Minnesota, Spilhaus became good friends with another under-appreciated futurist thinker, journalist Victor Cohn. People were constantly asking Spilhaus, a jet-set man who had his hand in everything, how he could be involved in so many seemingly disparate projects. He told his friend Victor, “…I don’t do ‘so many things.’ I do one. I think about the future.”
Sharon Moen at the University of Minnesota is currently writing a book about Spilhaus, due out this fall. I spoke with her on the phone.
Having been born and raised in Minnesota, I was personally interested to hear that Spilhaus was involved in the creation of the skyway system in Minneapolis and St. Paul. (The skyway system is a sort of a 2nd floor human habitrail that links many of the buildings downtown and allows pedestrians to stay indoors during the winters, rather than brave the cold at street level.) Skyways had been tried in other cities, though not on such a large scale as Spilhaus had envisioned. “Athelstan had a lot of big ideas. And one of the things that he was amazing at was taking ideas and re-applying them,” Moen told me.
Kennedy named Spilhaus the U.S. commissioner to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Moen told me that an early idea for the fair’s theme (before Spilhaus was brought on board) involved a “wild west” motif. But just as Sputnik had inspired Spilhaus to start writing “Our New Age,” it seems the space race had pushed the Seattle Fair into a showcase for American futurism.
Moen explained to me how important the Seattle World’s Fair (not to mention the later fairs he consulted on) were to Spilhaus: “A lot of his thinking was solidified at the World’s Fair. It’s what got him into what cities could be and recycling and farming oceans. He was really excited about the future.”
The December, 1971 issue of Smithsonian magazine published a profile on Dr. Spilhaus and mentioned that some weren’t so pleased that a distinguished academic was writing Sunday comic strips. The articles notes that his writing “Our New Age” was, “thought by some an undignified avocation.”
Dignified or not, there’s no question that influencing an American president, and reaching a worldwide audience with a message promoting science was no small feat. Spilhaus himself responded to the academics who questioned his supposedly undignified side project: “Which of you has a class of five million every Sunday morning?”