April 23, 2012
In 1987, a small Dallas-based company launched a floppy disk magazine that was supposed to be a grand experiment in the future of the medium. At $19.95 an issue, The New Aladdin was a bi-monthly general-interest magazine that hoped to give readers an entirely new kind of interactive experience; complete with animated graphics, computer games, music, puzzles, and feature stories that allowed you to ask questions.
And though you couldn’t “wrap a dead fish in it,” the magazine hoped to make up for this short-coming with fancy 8-bit graphics. The New Aladdin editor John Henson is pictured above, recording a scene in miniature for the magazine.
From an Associated Press story in the June 27, 1987 Galveston Daily News (Galveston, TX):
The magazine is two disks in a case with a label on it that looks like a miniature magazine cover. The sophisticated artwork is in a style reminiscent of The New Yorker magazine. Insert a 3 1/2-inch disk in a disk drive and an image of Aladdin pops up on the screen seated next to a lamp billowing smoke where tiles of stories appear and then fade with the push of a button.
This was to be more than a passive magazine-reading experience. As the July-August, 1987 issue of The Futurist magazine explains:
How does it work? One sample magazine story might be about how to refinance your home. With most magazines, you would have to read hypothetical stories that may not apply to your own situation. But with The New Aladdin, you plug your own facts and figures into the story to find out precisely how much refinancing your home would cost and how much it may save you in the future. Another possibility is to conduct your own “press conference” with the president of the United States, asking the questions you want answered.
The AP story elaborates a bit on what a virtual presidential press conference looks like:
In a recent issue, The New Aladdin carried a cover story that was a spoof on a presidential news conference with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. “Meet the Pres” starts with the music “Hail to the Chief” and allows readers to ask an animated Reagan questions from a list and to create their own. They also can respond to questions from Reagan about the press. The Reagans talk to the reader, mouths moving with sentences rolling out of them, word by word. Some of the answers are taken from actual press conferences, others are creative satire.
It sounds like some of their experiments may have worked better than others. The article in The Futurist describes one story that sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure, minus the whole “choosing your own” thing. There were 65,000 different possible versions of the story:
For a fictional story in one issue, five writers contributed a different version of a story developed form a master outline. The computer randomly assembled the paragraphs, so the reader could enjoy a different story each time it appeared. More than 65,000 different versions of the story were possible, says Henson. The magazine also features animated graphics, computer games, and puzzles.
The AP story also explains that they’re targeting a mass market, attempting to make it as user friendly as possible.
No knowledge of computers is necessary to read the stories or respond to them — they work with the push of a button or the movement of a “mouse” hand controller on Commodore Amiga computers, Atari ST computers and Atari 8-bit computers. Magazines programmed for the Apple IIg will be available soon.
It was obviously difficult to define this new form of publishing, as editor John Henson told The Futurist:
“It’s a magazine; it’s software; it’s a video game; it’s literature,” says Henson. “Content-wise, we are a family entertainment and information journal. The New Aladdin has similarities to everything from a news magazine to a science-fiction digest to a children’s book. But because the user can interact with The New Aladdin, that makes it fundamentally different from any printed publication.”
April 17, 2012
The introduction of broadcast radio caused some in the newspaper industry to fear that newspapers would soon become a thing of the past. After all, who would read the news when you could just turn on the radio for real-time updates?
Newspapers had even more to fear in 1938 when radio thought it might compete with them in the deadtree business as well.
The May, 1938 issue of Hugo Gernsback‘s Short Wave and Television magazine included an article titled “Radio to Print News Right In Your Home.” The article described a method of delivering newspapers that was being tested and (provided it didn’t interfere with regular radio broadcasts) would soon be used as a futuristic news-delivery method.
The magazine proudly included a previous prediction from a different Gernsback publication four years earlier, before the FCC had granted trials:
Hugo Gernsback, in the April 1934 issue of Radio-Craft forecast the advent of the “radio newspaper.” Here’s the front cover illustration of that magazine. Compare it with the pictures on the opposite page!
The article opens by explaining that this futuristic device is already in use:
As you read this article, radio facsimile signals are probably circulating all around you. At least 23 broadcast stations, some of them high power ones, and a number of short-wave stations are now transmitting experimental facsimile signals under a special license granted by the Federal Communications Commission.
This invention of a wireless fax, as it were, was credited to W.G. H. Finch and used radio spectrum that was otherwise unused during the late-night hours when most Americans were sleeping. The FCC granted a special license for these transmissions to occur between midnight and 6am, though it would seem that a noisy printing device in your house cranking away in the middle of the night might have been the fatal flaw in their system. It wasn’t exactly a fast delivery either, as the article notes that it takes “a few hours” for the machine to produce your wireless fax newspaper.
The article explained exactly how the process worked:
The photo or other piece of copy, such as news bulletins, is placed in the scanner at the transmitter. At the rate of 100 lines per inch picture to be transmitted is scanned, and the transmitter sends out periodic impulses which vary in strength with the degree of light or shade on the picture. When these signals are received, by wire or radio, they are passed into a recording stylus. This stylus moves back and forth over a piece of chemically dry processed paper (the Finch system) in a line, wide or narrow as the case may be, is traced on the paper. A facsimile such as that shown in one of the accompanying pictures is obtained, and it thus becomes an easy matter to reproduce printed matter, drawings and photos, etc.
The article mentions two parties that are experimenting with the technology (Mr. Finch and RCA) but goes on to explain that nothing about the system had been standardized yet.
Many different systems of transmitting and recording devices by facsimile have been tried. The one used by the Finch system employs a special chemically treated paper. When a current passes through the moving stylus needle, the reaction causes a black spot to appear on the paper, the size of the spot at a given point depending upon the strength of the received impulse. At the transmitter the light beam is focused on the picture to be sent and the reflected light falls on a photo-electric cell.
Whether Finch and RCA knew it or not, battles between formats would continue right on into the 21st century as the fight over newspaper paywalls, cord-cutters, and ebooks continues to dramatically shift our media landscape.
April 5, 2012
1929 is a rather infamous year in American history.
It was the year that the first science fiction comic strip was introduced; Babe Ruth became the first major league baseball player to hit 500 home runs; and the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in Hollywood. But you’ll be forgiven if you only remember 1929 as the year that kicked off the Great Depression.
The “Roaring Twenties,” was a decade of tremendous technological, cultural and economic growth. Incredible advancements were made in radio, movies and cars — all of which would make the country feel that much smaller and more connected. The 19th Amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote. And the stock market was heading up — way up.
The market was performing unbelievably throughout the decade: up 20 percent in 1927, and almost 50 percent in 1928. Most people thought that (minor blips aside) the stock market would just keep climbing. But everything ground to a halt on October 24,1929.
The bubble burst on that day and though things would level off a bit on Friday, the market again went into free fall when it opened on Monday, October 28. The next day would become known as Black Tuesday when the market lost 11 percent of its value immediately upon opening. The rest is Great Depression history.
It’s curious then to note an article in the December 30, 1928 issue of the Ogden Standard-Examiner from Ogden, Utah which foresaw a different vision for 1929.
With the headline “Prosperity Paramount in 1929 Astrologers Forecast” the newspaper printed the predictions of astrologers from the year 1928 who insist that, though 1929 might start out a bit rocky — continuing the normal run of disasters, fears and everyday awfulness which have plagued humanity since the dawn of time, I suppose — it will be remembered as a year of prosperity for all.
The article is filled with generalizations and platitudes; but when plain, direct language is used about the course that 1929 will surely take, the predictions could not be more wrong. In fact, the predictions for October through December, 1929 are darkly amusing for just how tragically optimistic they were. Wages and expenditures were predicted to rise to new record heights, and no less than world peace was anticipated by the end of 1929. The astrologers also predict that, “High progress and prosperity may be recorded by all, professional, intellectual, educational and scientific activities.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the final prediction for December of 1929 may be the most macabre: “The year draws to a close with an abundance of capital for all needs and public developments, and unlimited credit for the worker.”
Prognostication is a tricky mix of art, science and luck. But it appears that the stars just didn’t align for these fallacious soothsayers.
January 3, 2012
In the December 26, 1900 issue of the New York World, Alfred Harmsworth, the editor of the London Daily Mail, made some predictions for the newspaper of the 20th century. Harmsworth was pretty spot-on in many of his predictions, most presciently the idea of a national newspaper:
We are entering the century of combination and centralization. I feel certain that the newspaper of the twentieth century will be drawn into the vortex of combination and centralization. In fact, given the man, the capital, the organization and the occasion, there seems to be no reason why one or two newspapers may not presently dominate great sections of the United States, or almost the whole of Great Britain. In other words, where there are now a multitude of papers — good, bad and indifferent — there will be then one or two great journals.
Harmsworth’s predictions were based upon his own success. The Daily Mail was the world’s first national newspaper. Using railway distribution, his paper reached readers across Britain, and had a circulation of approximately one million. His newspaper reflected a populist sensibility of giving the readers what they wanted. Yet, across the Atlantic, there was skepticism that there could ever be a national newspaper for the United States. Harmsworth believed otherwise:
My idea of the newspaper of the twentieth century may be thus expressed in brief. Let us suppose one of the great American newspapers, under the control of a man of the journalistic ability of [John] Delane, the greatest of the former editor of the London Times, backed by an organization as perfect as that of the Standard Oil Company, and issued simultaneously each morning, in (say) New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburg [sic], St. Louis, Philadelphia, and other points in America; or at London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Belfast and Newscastle, in Great Britain. Is it not obvious that the power of such a paper might become such as we have not yet seen in the history of the Press?
The thing is not so improbable as it sounds.
An ambitious newspaper man, Harmsworth had a history of buying up and turning around struggling newspapers. The next part of the article almost reads as his fantasy, wherein he and other newspaper owners form a gigantic, powerful newspaper with unlimited funds:
But how could such a multiple newspaper come into existence? Obviously, it would have to be initiated by some man, or group of men, holding practically unlimited capital and possessing intimate knowledge of everything appertaining to the journalism of their country. Such a group might easily be formed of the directors of three or four leading papers of New York or London, forced to escape competition. By combining their forces, they would be in a position to command the situation.
Without a doubt, he sees this kind of consolidation of the media as a great thing. He even sees it as contributing to causes and charitable organizations and to a more obvious extent, propaganda efforts in wartime. Harmsworth would later be acknowledged for doing just that when he was honored at the end of World War I for his service as the head of the British war mission in the United States:
Such a national newspaper would have unrivaled powers of organization in all directions. It is no uncommon thing already for a great journal to equip a scientific expedition to raise a war fund or to carry through some great charitable enterprise. The admirable work done in this way by many of the leading American newspapers is too familiar to need further description here. Similar work has been done from time to time in Great Britain.
Harmsworth imagines that it would be wonderful if the newspapers in the United States “spoke with the same voice”:
The simultaneous newspapers would possess powers of this kind which, we can hardly estimate, and, under the direction of men whose inclinations turned that way, would very possibly become the centre of a vast network of societies, organizations and institutions.
Mr. Pulitzer’s wonderful stroke of journalistic genius in connection with the bond issue, Mr. Hearst’s successful appeal to the people on the war issue between the United States and Spain, and the work of British newspapers in connection with the South African campaign, go to show what can be done in the direction of influencing public opinion even under existing circumstances. Imagine then, the influence which would be exerted if an overwhelming majority of the newspapers in the United States spoke with the same voice, supported the same principles and enunciated the same policy.
Harmsworth looked forward to the 20th century, no doubt because he believed that he would continue to wield great power as his newspaper empire expanded.
I am convinced that the press has its best days to come. Already it is in touch with the people to an extent never attained before. Already its influence has spread into the secret council chamber, as well as into the laborer’s cottage. Already it is casting off the domination of party and the serfdom of tradition, and has set its face steadfastly toward the light. And to this advance — a happy forecast of even better things to come — the enterprising and enlightened press of America has contributed in no mean measure.
After reading Harmsworth’s article, Joseph Pulitzer challenged him to edit one issue of his New York Daily News. Harmsworth accepted the challenge, producing a “tabloid” version of Pulitzer’s newspaper. Published on January 1, 1901, Harmsworth’s opening editorial promised “All the news in sixty seconds”: ”The World enters today upon the Twentieth or Time-Saving Century. I claim that by my system of condensed or tabloid journalism, hundreds of working hours can be saved each year.”
October 12, 2011
The incredible rate of production for the war effort during the 1940s meant that Americans had to make certain sacrifices. The government instituted a rationing program for products like gasoline, meat, butter and rubber, and citizens were encouraged to plant “victory gardens” to grow their own food. It was common for advertisers of the early 1940s to use language that invoked a sense of shared struggle and promised that if we could just be patient, great things — usually in the form of exotic consumer goods – were waiting for Americans after the war.
This advertisement from the November 1944 issue of Pencil Points magazine is a bit unique in that its audience isn’t consumers, but architects who would be building stores after the war. (Pencil Points would later change its name to Progressive Architecture.) This particular ad was touting Westinghouse air conditioning units, which were “hermetically-sealed for dependability.” The ad begins by saying, “Every method to attract and retain more customers will be employed in the postwar stores which owners are commissioning their architects to plan today.”
Ironically, the downtown department store—even with the bubble cars and hermetically-sealed climate control portrayed in this ad—would increasingly become an anachronism in the aftermath of the war. Consumer habits changed due to migration to the suburbs and increasing traffic congestion (and less parking) in the cities. By 1949, the January issue of the Journal of Marketing was reporting on a new trend, the suburban “shopping center”:
“Even though [this] trend might be transitory in nature, the justification of the controlled-integrated shopping center is such that the probability of its future acceptance by the consumer, the retailer, and the manufacturer seems assured.”