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.
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?”
November 23, 2011
Many Americans celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow will have a meal centered around Ben Franklin’s favorite bird — the turkey. But if this cartoon from the September 19, 1926 Ogden Standard-Examiner had proven prescient, the Thanksgiving meal of the 21st century would’ve been entirely pill-based.
The turn of the 20th century brought a whole host of predictions about the future of meat consumption and food chemistry in the United States. Whether borne of a Malthusian fear that the earth simply could not support a growing population, or a repulsion at the conditions of both slaughterhouses and the average American kitchen, the future of food was envisioned by many prognosticators as entirely meatless and often synthetic.
In an 1894 McClure’s magazine piece called “Foods in the Year 2000″ Professor Marcelin Berthelot predicted that chemistry would completely replace agriculture in providing humans the sustenance they need:
Wheat fields and corn fields are to disappear from the face of the earth, because flour and meal will no longer be grown, but made. Herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and droves of swine will cease to be bred, because beef and mutton and pork will be manufactured direct from their elements. Fruit and flowers will doubtless continue to be grown as cheap decorative luxuries, but no longer as necessities of food or ornament. There will be in the great air trains of the future no grain or cattle or coal cars, because the fundamental food elements will exist everywhere and require no transportation. Coal will no longer be dug, except perhaps with the object of transforming it into bread or meat. The engines of the great food factories will be driven, not by artificial combustion, but by the underlying heat of the globe.
Likewise, the March 29, 1895 newspaper Homestead (Des Moines, IA) wrote that, “a so purely practical man as Edison has indulged in prophesies of a time to come when agriculture shall be no more, and when the beefsteak of the future shall be the product of the chemist instead of that of the feeder and live-stock grower.”
Synthetic food was also seen as a possible liberator of women from the kitchen. In 1893 feminist Mary E. Lease, a vegetarian, advocated that food be synthesized in laboratories for both the benefit of woman and animal. She predicted that by 1993 the slaughterhouses would be converted into “conservatories and beds of bloom.”
A January 11, 1914 article in the Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) was titled “How Things Will Be in the Twenty-First Century” and assumed that the era would be entirely meat-free.
Cooking, perhaps, will not be done at any large scale at home… and cooking will be a much less disgusting process than it is now. We shall not do most of our cooking by such a wasteful and unwholesome method as boiling, whereby the important soluble salts of nearly all food are thrown away. As animal food will have been wholly abandoned before the end of this century, the debris of the kitchen will be much more manageable than at present.
Interestingly, that last line appears to have been plagiarized from Baron Russell. The March 17, 1907 Washington Post published an article from the Chicago Tribune titled “How Our Progeny Will Live One Hundred Years Hence.” The piece takes predictions from Russell, who wrote a book in 1905 titled A Hundred Years Hence. Russell imagines a world of air purifiers, automatic dishwashers, zero crime, and vegetarians.
While envisioning the kitchens of the future, Russell also notes that city buildings will be so high that there won’t be sufficient sunlight for people and vegetation below. The solution? Artificial electric light which is capable of sustaining life.
Cooking perhaps will not be done at all on any large scale at home. At any rate it will be a much less disgusting process than it is to-day. In no case will the domestic servant of a hundred years hence be called upon to stand by a roaring fire laid by herself and to be cleaned up by herself when done with in order to cook the family dinner. Every measure of heat will be furnished in electrically fitted receptacles with or without water jackets or steam jackets, and unquestionably all cooking will be done in hermetically closed vessels.
Animal food will have been wholly abandoned before the end of the century, the debris of the kitchen will be much more manageable than at present, and the kitchen sink will cease to be a place of unapproachable loathsomeness. Dishes and utensils will be dropped into an automatic receptacle for cleaning, swirled by clean water delivered with force and charged with nascent oxygen, dried by electric heat, and polished by electric force. And all that has come off the plates will drop through the scullery floor into the destructor beneath to be oxygenated and made away with.
All apartments in city houses will contain an oxygenator, which will furnish purer air than the air of the fresh countryside. And in bedrooms at least there will be a chemical apparatus which will absorb carbon dioxide and at the same time slowly give off a certain amount of oxygen — just enough to raise the oxygenation of the air to the standard of the best country places. Similar appliances will be at work in the streets, so that town air will be just as wholesome, just as tonic and invigorating as country air.
Since the high buildings of the future wil keep out the sunlight, electric light, carrying an all the ray activity of the sunlight and just as capable of fostering life and vegetation, will serve the street. Thus so far as hygiene goes, town life will be on a par with country life.
The absolutely fascinating 2006 book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food by Warren Belasco elaborates further on the hopes and fears of the era:
Similarly, in 1893 the first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Jeremiah Rusk, predicted that improvements in conventional farming could increase production sixfold — perhaps enough to feed even a billion Americans by 1990.
Rusk’s assessment was part of a series of nationally syndicated newspaper columns designed to transmit the largely cornucopian spirit of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Most of the series’ seventy-four experts confidently assumed that modern technologies — ranging from conventional seed selection to that science fiction favorite, the meal-in-a-pill — could easily feed the 150 million Americans expected in 1993 (actual: 256 million).