February 25, 2013
This is the 20th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
“We may take it for granted that every well-equipped business office will be in direct communication, by means of large-calibred pneumatic tubes, with the nearest post-office. And however rapidly and however frequently the trains or airships of the period may travel, the process of making up van loads of mail matter for despatch to remote centres, and redistribution there, is far too clumsy for what commerce will demand a hundred years hence. No doubt the soil of every civilised country will be permeated by vast networks of pneumatic tubes: and all letters and parcels will be thus distributed at a speed hardly credible to-day.”
-T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence: The Expectations of an Optimist (1905)
In the 20th episode of “The Jetsons” viewers are treated to a diverse mix of the most Jetsonian of technological wonders. The episode, titled “Miss Solar System,” first aired on February 10, 1963 ,and featured a little bit of everything: videophones, 3D-TV, autonomous cleaning robots, moving sidewalks and pneumatic tubes. But unlike the vertical-lift pneumatic tubes we’ve seen in almost every episode of the series thus far, this episode shows a horizontal pneumatic tube system with multiple points of entry and exit.
In the late 19th century pneumatic tubes were starting to be widely used in department stores, banks and stock exchanges, where small packages and notes could be sent over relatively short distances at a rapid pace. This development was reflected in the futurist fiction of the time, like Edward Bellamy’s influential 1888 novel Looking Backward.
The technology even evolved to sometimes include home mail service and on a much larger scale, pneumatic train transportation. But needless to say, unlike the world of “The Jetsons,” the pneumatic tube doesn’t work so well in the real world as a transportation device for a human unprotected from the dangers of the tube itself.
In the Jetsons universe, the pneumatic tube is a high-speed substitute for the elevator, where stepping into the tube instantly transports someone to another floor. But on occasion the movement is lateral, like in the sequence below.
Like virtually every technology we see in The Jetsons, this futuristic idea had origins elsewhere. By the early 1960s, some organizations were touting this idea of sending people through pneumatic tubes. In 1960, the American Petroleum Institute gazed into its crystal ball and made some predictions on “Petroleum’s 2nd Century.” From the February 7, 1960 Hammond Times in Indiana: “The [American Petroleum Institute] cited, as a long-range possibility, the movement of such diverse items as turpentine, fruit juices and milk through pipelines the way petroleum travels today. Even people might be transported the way sales slips and payments are delivered by pneumatic tube in department stores.”
Of course, this human projectile pneumatic tube system has yet to become a reality here in the 21st century.
This episode may be the most Jetsonian of the entire series: while it’s ostensibly about the relationship between Jane and George — the give and take of marriage and how we treat family — each of the dozen or so technologies that viewers are promised are sprinkled about; the future tech masquerading as scenery while they’re in fact the star of the show.
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.
February 14, 2013
This is the 18th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
“The problem with these skyways is that by the time they’re built they’re obsolete. This traffic is the worst I’ve seen yet,” George Jetson proclaims as he zips around in his flying car.
The 18th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on January 27, 1963, and was titled “Jane’s Driving Lesson.” As one might expect with a title like that, the episode deals with the flying cars of the year 2063. Specifically, female drivers of the year 2063.
This episode wears its sexism rather proudly at every turn, playing it for laughs as men are constantly terrified of women behind the wheel — or the yoke as the case may be. George pulls up behind a young woman driver and becomes confused by her hand signals. “Women drivers, that’s the problem!” George shouts at the woman.
When we looked at the 15th episode of “The Jetsons,” titled “Millionaire Astro,” I wrote about the social and economic conservatism of the show. This episode is another example of the show’s conservatism, again not in the “red state versus blue state” political sense, but rather in its affirmation of the social status quo. But where did this myth that women are worse drivers than men come from?
Michael L. Berger writes in his 1986 paper “Women Drivers!: The Emergence of Folklore and Stereotypic Opinions Concerning Feminine Automotive Behavior” about the history of the stereotype that women are poor drivers. Much like in the way that the “women are bad drivers” jokes are presented in “The Jetsons,” there is a long history of using humor to perpetuate this sexist rhetoric:
For although often presented in a humorous context, folklore concerning women drivers, and the accompanying negative stereotype emerged for very serious social reasons. They were attempts to both keep women in their place and to protect them against corrupting influences in society, and within themselves.
As Berger points out in his paper, the idea that women were bad drivers was very much rooted in class and wealth. However, the stereotype didn’t really gain traction until the 1920s, when middle class American women started to have access to automobiles. Up until that point it was only a wealthy handful (whether male or female) who could afford such a luxury like a car:
As long as motoring was limited to wealthy urban women, there was little criticism of their ability as drivers. These were women of high social and economic station, who made a vocation of leisure-time pursuits. If they chose to spend their time motoring around the city rather than at home giving teas few would criticize. Such changes posed little or no threat to the established social order, and hence there was no need for a negative stereotype.
In the 1910s prices of cars were coming down and many men were going off to fight the first World War, leaving women with both the “need and opportunity” to learn how to drive for those who hadn’t already:
By the end of [WWI], there existed the real possibility that the automobile could be adopted by large numbers of middle-class women. It is from this period, and not that of the initial introduction of the motor car, that we can trace the origins of the women driver stereotype and the folklore of which it is a part.
Jane Jetson was very much the American middle-class everywoman of 2063 — the woman that women of 1963 were supposed to identify with on the show, and in turn the woman that girls of 1963 were supposed to see as their future.
Jane receives a driving lesson during the episode but when the instructor wants to stop off to check his safe deposit box (and his life insurance policy) a bank robber emerges and jumps in. Jane continues on driving, believing that he must be just another driving instructor. The bank robber is terrified of Jane’s driving and by the end of the episode he’s begging to be put in jail rather than endure more time in the flying car with Jane.
After George finds Jane at the police stations the status quo is restored (George is again behind the yoke) and Jane explains, “You know George, I don’t really care much about driving anyway.”
George responds, “Well, it’s probably better if you don’t Janey. Driving requires a man’s skill; a man’s judgement; a man’s technical know-how.”
“And what about a man’s eyesight, George?” Jane replies just before George realizes he went through a red light and crashes into a parked car. This, like so many of these “women are bad at stuff” tropes from midcentury sitcoms, is meant to be the kicker. The audience is given a sly wink — isn’t it ridiculous that a man could be just a terrible as a woman behind the wheel?
Thanks to an unsympathetic judge (the parked car George plowed into was owned by the judge) George has to start taking the flying bus. Interestingly, the only other time in the series that we see a bus stop (other than early in this episode) is in the first episode, when Rosey tries to sullenly run away.
Much like other episodes of “The Jetsons,” we’re left to wonder what kind of real-world impact a different depiction of the future may have had on the world we live in today. Obviously, the episode is little more than one long “women are terrible drivers” joke and it’s easy to dismiss it as such, but it was seen repeatedly throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s by kids all over the world. Time and again we see “The Jetsons” used as a way to talk about the future in which we’re currently living.
Today men like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, point to products like the iPhone and say “we’re living The Jetsons with this.” What if the Jetsons points of reference people use in the 21st century weren’t just technological? What if someone could point to other forms of progress and say, “This is the Jetsons. We’re truly living in the future with this.”
February 8, 2013
This is the 17th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The January 20, 1963, episode of The Jetsons was titled “Las Venus” and along with the second episode of the series, “A Date With Jet Screamer,” is a great futuristic example of what I’ve come to call “wholesome hedonism.”
What’s this wholesome hedonism that we see continually pop up in the Jetsons universe? Well, it’s sex, drugs and rock and roll. But unlike the more carefree version of these things that would become popularized in American culture during the late 1960s, this was sold as a more socially conservative alternative. The sex was always heterosexual and off-camera; the drugs were strictly all-American cigarettes and olive-filled martinis; and the rock and roll, well that was just mainstream, early ’60s white rock and roll. This version of relaxation — of regular vacations to get away from it all — was expected of middle class Americans of the 1950s and early ’60s, and every kid watching at home was assured that the future would be filled with just as much fun.
This episode of “The Jetsons” follows the family as they drop off the children on their way to Las Venus, a futuristic stand-in for Las Vegas in the year 2063. George and Jane check into their futuristic hotel room and find robot slot machines, as one might expect in the Vegas hotel of tomorrow. Things are looking like smooth sailing for George and Jane’s second honeymoon until George’s boss calls on the videophone and explains that an executive from General Rotors is in town and that George will have to meet with her. George doesn’t realize it’s a her and, after he does, this apparently poses a problem for a man trying to juggle two commitments.
Today, Las Vegas is known as America’s playground — where there’s a constant push and pull between family-friendly entertainment and anything-goes debauchery. Back when this episode first aired in 1963, Las Vegas was fighting a public relations battle to put a little more “wholesome” in its wholesome hedonistic image.
In 1930 the population of Las Vegas was just 5,165, but the local economy was supported by the massive spending of the federal government. Construction of the Hoover Dam began in 1931 and that year the city entertained about 125,000 tourists. By 1960 the population had grown to about 65,000 people and about 10 million tourists visited Las Vegas that year and spent about $400 million dollars.
Until 1960, Las Vegas was essentially as discriminatory as the Jim Crow south. Legendary black performers like Sammy Davis Jr. weren’t even allowed to stay in the hotels in which they were performing. After a sold-out show, Sammy had to exit through the kitchen—he was told that white visitors from places like Texas didn’t want to share the gambling floor with non-whites. Even after a sit-down meeting by NAACP members with Las Vegas business owners in 1960 there was still widespread discrimination within the city, though the casinos and hotels were no longer explicitly segregated. (Ed. — For more on Vegas race relations, read our story on the ill-fated Moulin Rouge casino, the first integrated hot spot in town.)
Las Vegas of the early 1960s was defined by a culture of hedonism, excess and organized crime. These saucy ingredients combined with the boom of the postwar era to make Las Vegas the hot new spot for filming TV and movies. But there was quite a push-back by Vegas boosters who worried about the image of the city. Viewers of this Jetsons episode understood Las Vegas largely through the lens of popular culture and the people who were raking in millions from the city’s resorts and casinos understood this all too well.
Ocean’s Eleven (co-starring Sammy Davis, Jr. interestingly enough) was filmed in Vegas and was released in 1960. But two TV shows were set to be produced in Las Vegas in 1961 that never made it past the pilot stage thanks to sabotage by city and police officials. “Las Vegas File” was supposed to be produced by Warner Brothers for ABC and “Las Vegas Beat” starring Peter Graves was supposed to be a detective show that was torpedoed by a write-in campaign to NBC by businessmen who felt that the depictions of crime in the show would reflect poorly on the city. Initially, both shows were assured production cooperation by local police. But after local casino and hotel owners became more acquainted with the content NBC received 11 telegrams complaining about “Las Vegas Beat” and pulled the plug itself even before the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce could file the lawsuit they had been threatening.
Today, the city of Las Vegas continues to struggle with its public image — unsure if it wants to be the place where what happens here stays here or a more wholesome destination of Disney-fied pirates and amusement park rides. But I suppose we have another 50 years of Las Vegas re-inventing itself to discover if a more wholesome hedonism or a traditionally hedonistic version of Las Vegas will arrive in 2063.
January 28, 2013
This is the 16th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The Jetsons episode “The Little Man” originally aired on ABC on Sunday January 13, 1963. The story revolves around the accidental shrinking of George to no more than a foot high by Mr. Spacely’s new MiniVac machine. Miniaturizing humans was a somewhat popular theme of b-movies that preceded The Jetsons, like Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). The episode is one of the weakest of the series, but it does have one of the more interesting versions of the ubiquitous videophone:
In the world of the Jetsons the videophone takes many forms. But unlike its most common household use today — as a mere application within a computer or phone — the Jetsonian videophone is its own piece of dedicated hardware.
The videophone (my preferred term for a technology that has gone by many names during the 20th and 21st centuries) is a strange and beautiful technology. It was a perennial technology of the future; continually popping up in different waves as being just around the corner throughout the 20th century. From the earliest experiments with practical television in the 1920s people were promised that picturephone technology was on its way. Television wasn’t immediately envisioned as a broadcast medium, but rather was imagined as point-to-point two-way talkers like those in the classic 1927 film Metropolis. The videophone was hyped at both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fair and as recently as the early 2000s communications companies were still making concept videos for landline videophone machines that today look laughably anachronistic.
But then out of nowhere the videophone was suddenly just here. Without much warning videophone was a reality. Just not in a form that companies like AT&T were promising us for nearly a century. Rather than acting as its own independent appliance in the home, we have videophone capabilities embedded within our devices — our computers and phones now often have little cameras seamlessly hidden inside. And the technology is almost a secondary consideration within the applications we use for video: we have Skype, Gchat Video among a host of other less well known apps.
In the world of “The Jetsons” the videophone is largely depicted as it was in the 1950s — as its own appliance. The videophone is a solid piece of hardware not unlike a TV of the 1950s or even radio of the the 1930s, but there’s very little consistency when it comes to what the Jetsonian videophone looks like. Below I’ve pulled just a few examples from the myriad videophones of the Jetsons universe.
Mr. Spacely has a standard desk model videophone that we see pop up again and again in business settings.
In the 1993 AT&T concept video “Connections” a young woman exits a plane and her parents meet her in the terminal (how retro is that!). Rather than whip out her cellphone the moment she touches down as we’re so apt to do here in the future, she proceeds to tell her parents that before making their way to baggage claim, they need to stop at the payphones — the video payphones.
This vision of the hardwired public videophone is not unlike the Visaphone that we see used in the first episode of The Jetsons:
The Jetsonian videophone often has buttons that are never explained, but sometimes (like in the screenshot below) we see characters use buttons to do something as wild as pick up their children with a gigantic robot arm.
Of course, the biggest concern about the videophone was the idea that people could see what you looked like in your own home. We have a certain feeling of security in our homes; a feeling that people aren’t able to catch us with our pants down — both figuratively and literally. In the second episode of The Jetsons we see that Jane is obviously quite stressed by an early morning videophone call she gets from a friend before she has put on her face — again, literally. Jane pops on a mask that’s made to look exactly like her own face and by the end of the sequence we learn that her friend has done the same.
The 1955 short film The Future is Now addressed this problem, though they weren’t so much worried with putting on an entire face mask in order to answer the videophone:
What do you wear to answer the phone? What difference does it make? None, today! But tomorrow, if videophone comes, as well it might, then the world has found itself another problem.
When George gets pulled over for speeding the videophone is used to call in to the judge. Interestingly, some officials in the city of Inglewood, California tried out a more low-tech version of this instant roadside justice in 1926. From the book The Great Car Craze by Ashleigh Brilliant:
In a system which the [Los Angeles] Times dubbed “court-a-la-carte,” the judge and bailiff together with table, chair, and lawbooks, were installed in the back of a light truck which “parked unostentatiously near the motorcycle officers’ beat” and waited for the telltale sound of the siren, signifying that an arrest was about to be made. The truck then rushed to the site of the arrest and confronted the presumably dumfounded driver with the full majesty of the law. The only disadvantage of the system from the judge’s point of view was that the “business” was not always as brisk as it might have been.
The video-recording device on most videophones is often hidden in The Jetsons, but sometimes we get to see hints of what might be cameras, like in the home model below:
It’s not just humans of the future who enjoy the use of videophones. In episode eight of the series, “Rosey’s Boyfriend,” two robot lovers get to spend time together despite their distance from each other.
The Googie-tastic design of the various videophones in the Jetsons’ world strangely makes me long for the videophone as an independent piece of hardware. But much like other services that seem to be quickly melding into our phones, tablets and phablets, I think these dedicated videophone devices will remain relegated to the retrofuture.