January 10, 2013
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which concluded last week in Las Vegas, is where the (supposed) future of consumer technology gets displayed. But before this annual show debuted in 1967, where could you go to find the most futuristic gadgets and appliances? The answer was the American electrical shows of 100 years ago.
The first three decades of the 20th century was an incredible period of technological growth for the United States. With the rapid adoption of electricity in the American home, people could power an increasingly large number of strange and glorious gadgets which were being billed as the technological solution for making everyone’s lives easier and more enjoyable. Telephones, vacuum cleaners, electric stoves, motion pictures, radios, x-rays, washing machines, automobiles, airplanes and thousands of other technologies came of age during this time. And there was no better place to see what was coming down the pike than at one of the many electrical shows around the country.
The two consistently largest electrical shows in the U.S. were in Chicago and New York. Chicago’s annual show opened on January 15, 1906, when less than 8 percent of U.S. households had electricity. By 1929, about 85 percent of American homes (if you exclude farm dwellings) had electricity and the early adopters of the 1920s — emboldened by the rise of consumer credit — couldn’t get their hands on enough appliances.
The first Chicago Electrical Show began with a “wireless message” from President Teddy Roosevelt in the White House and another from Thomas Edison in New Jersey. Over 100,000 people roamed its 30,000 square feet of exhibit space during its two weeks at the Chicago Coliseum.
Just as it is today at CES, demonstration was the bread and butter of the early 20th century electrical shows. At the 1907 Chicago Electrical Show the American Vibrator Company gave out complimentary massages to attendees with its electrically driven massagers while the Diehl Manufacturing Company showed off the latest in sewing machine motors for both the home and the factory.
Decorative light was consistently important at all the early electrical shows, as you can see by the many electric lights dangling in the 1908 postcard at the top of this post. The 1909 New York Electrical Show at Madison Square Garden was advertised as being illuminated by 75,000 incandescent lamps and each year the number of light bulbs would grow greater for what the October 5, 1919, Sandusky Register described as “America’s most glittering industry” — electricity.
The highlights of the 1909 New York show included “air ships” controlled by wireless, food cooked by electricity, the wireless telephone (technology that today we call radio), washing and ironing by electricity and even hatching chicken eggs by electricity. They also included a demonstration of 2,000,000 volts of electricity sent harmlessly through a man’s body.
The hot new gadget of the 1910 Chicago show was the “time-a-phone.” This invention looked like a small telephone receiver and allowed a person to tell time in the dark by the number of chimes and gongs they heard. Musical chimes denoted the hour while a set of double gongs gave the quarter hours and a high pitched bell signified the minutes. The January 5, 1910, Iowa City Daily Pressexplained that such an invention could be used in hotels, “where each room will be provided with one of the instruments connected to a master clock in the basement. The time-a-phone is placed under the pillow and any guest wishing to know the hour has to press a button.”
Though the Chicago and New York shows attracted exhibitors from all over the country, they drew largely regional attendees in the 1900s and 1910s. New York’s show of course had visitors from cities in the northeast but it also drew visitors from as far away as Japan who were interested in importing the latest American electrical appliances. Chicago’s show drew from neighboring states like Iowa and Indiana and the show took out ads in the major newspapers in Des Moines and Indianapolis. An ad in the January 10, 1910, Indianapolis Star billed that year’s show in Chicago as the most elaborate exposition ever held — “Chicago’s Billion Dollar Electrical Show.” The ad proclaimed that “everything that’s now in light, heat and power for the home, office, store, factory and farm” would be on display including “all manner of heavy and light machinery in full working operation.”
Chicago’s 1910 Electrical Show was advertised as a “Veritable Fairyland of Electrical Wonders” with $40,000 spent on decorations (about $950,000 adjusted for inflation). On display was the The Wright airplane exhibited by the U.S. Government, wireless telegraphy and telephony.
During World War I the nation and most of it’s high-tech (including all radio equipment, which was confiscated from all private citizens by the U.S. government) went to war. Before the war the New York Electrical Show had moved from Madison Square Garden to the Grand Central Palace but during WWI the Palace served as a hospital. New York’s Electrical Show went on hiatus, but in 1919 it returned with much excitement about the promise of things to come.
The October 5, 1919, Sandusky Registerin Sandusky, Ohio described the featured exhibits everyone was buzzing about in New York, such as: “a model apartment, an electrical dairy, electrical bakery, therapeutic display, motion picture theater, the dental college tube X ray unit, the magnifying radioscope, a domestic ice making refrigerating unit, a carpet washer which not only cleans but restores colors and kills germs.”
Model homes and apartments were both popular staples of the early 20th century electrical shows. Naturally, the Chicago show regularly featured a house of the future, while the New York show typically called their model home an apartment. Either way, both were extravagantly futuristic places where nearly everything seemed to be aided by electricity.
The model apartment at the 1919 New York Electrical Show included a small electric grand piano with decorative electric candles. A tea table with an electric hot water kettle, a lunch table with chafing dishes and and electric percolator. The apartment of tomorrow even came with a fully equipped kitchen with an electric range and an electric refrigerator. Daily demonstrations showed off how electricity could help in the baking of cakes and pastry, preparing dinner, as well as in canning and preserving. The hottest gadgets of the 1919 NY show included the latest improvements in radio, dishwashing machines and a ridiculous number of vacuum cleaners. The December 1919 issue of Electrical Experimenter magazine described the editors as “flabbergasted” trying to count the total number of vacuum cleaners being demonstrated.
After WWI the electrical shows really kicked into high gear, and not just in New York and Chicago. Cleveland advertised its electrical show in 1920 as the biggest ever staged in America. Held in the Bolivar-Ninth building the show was decidedly more farm-centric, with the latest in electrical cleaners for cows getting top billing in Ohio newspapers. The Cleveland show included everything from cream separators that operate while the farmer is out doing other chores to milking machines to industrial sized refrigerators for keeping perishable farm products fresh.
The 1921 New York Electrical Show featured over ninety booths with over 450 different appliances on display. Americans of the early 1920s were promised that in the future the human body would be cared for by electricity from head to toe. The electric toothbrush was one of the most talked about displays. The American of the future would be bathing in electrically-heated water, and afterward put on clothes that had been electrically sewn, electrically cleaned and electrically pressed. The electrical shows of the early 20th century promised that the American of the future would only be eating meals that were prepared electrically. What was described by some as the most interesting exhibit of the 1921 New York Electrical Show, the light that stays on for a full minute after you turn it off. This, it was explained, gave you time to reach your bed or wherever you’re heading without “hitting your toes against the rocking chair” and waking up the rest of your family.
The Great Depression would stall that era’s American electrical shows. In 1930 the New York Electrical Show didn’t happen and Earl Whitehorne, president of the Electrical Association of New York, made the announcement. The Radio Manufacturers Association really took up the mantle, holding events in Chicago, New York and Atlantic City where previous exhibitors at the Electrical Shows were encouraged to demonstrate their wares. But it wasn’t quite the same. The sale of mechanical refrigerators, radios and even automobiles would continue in the 1930s, but the easy credit and sky’s-the-limit dreaming of the electrically minded would be relegated to certain corners of larger American fairs (like the World’s Fairs of 1933 in Chicago and 1939 in New York) where techno-utopian dreams were largely the domain of gigantic corporations like RCA and Westinghouse.
October 4, 2012
Hugo “Awards” Gernsback was many different things to different people. To his fans, he was a visionary who started some of the most influential (not to mention the first) science fiction magazines of the early 20th century. Ray Bradbury was quoted as saying, “Gernsback made us fall in love with the future.” To his detractors, he was “Hugo the Rat,” known to men like H. P. Lovecraft for being a crooked publisher who sometimes stiffed his writers when payment was due. But above all else, he was a tireless self-promoter.
In 1904, Gernsback emigrated from Luxembourg to the U.S. at the age of 20. Not long thereafter he began selling radio kits to hobbyists, sometimes importing parts from Europe. His radio business and the catalogues he used to promote his wares evolved into a technology-focused magazine empire. Gernsback published over 50 different magazine titles in the course of his life, most of which were hobbyist magazines related to science, technology and the genre he helped popularize for so many in the 1920s: science fiction.
Gernsback’s name was always prominently displayed on the cover and inside each of his magazines. And each issue featured an editorial by Gernsback himself in the first few pages. Gernsback would often use this platform to give an update on a field of research relevant to the publication — be it TV, radio or even sex. But sometimes he would make wild predictions for the future.
The September 1927 issue of Science and Invention included Gernsback’s predictions for “Twenty Years Hence” — the year 1947. Gernsback couldn’t foresee the calamities of the Great Depression that were just around the corner, nor the tremendous hardships of the Second World War, but his predictions from this time give us a look at the most radical of technological utopianism from the 1920s. Everything from wireless power to a cure for cancer is predicted, though there are many areas — like increased life expectancy, conquering childhood diseases and air conditioning — where Gernsback’s predictions are quite on the nose.
Nikola Tesla and his “wireless light” were featured on the cover of the February 1919 issue of Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter magazine. Tesla’s ideas about wireless power no doubt inspired Gernsback’s view of the future in this area.
I believe that within twenty years it will be possible to actually send power wirelessly; that is, without the need of intervening pipes or wires. It will only be possible, at first, to send sufficient power to a land or air vehicle to light and heat it, the power being supplied entirely or in part from the ground.
Gernsback was a pioneer in the field of radio and made a number of predictions in his magazines about the future of its cousin: television. In 1927 television wasn’t yet a practical reality in American homes, and was still not imagined as a broadcast medium by many. As such, he envisioned TV as more of a point-to-point communications tool, though as early as 1922 he thought it might be used for broadcasting baseball games like in the illustration above.
In twenty years universal television will be an everyday affair. It will be possible to talk over the telephone to your friend a thousand miles away and see him at the selfsame [sic] time. The same thing will be true in radio, where you will see what is being broadcast at all times. Television still holds some great surprises for us, and the applications in television may well revolutionize our entire mode of living, just as the telephone has revolutionized it.
It is quite probable that within twenty years, two of man’s greatest scourges, tuberculosis and cancer, will have been done away with entirely, or else they will be controlled in such a manner as to no longer be called dangerous. These two diseases will be conquered just exactly as diabetes has already been conquered during the past few years.
Gernsback believed, like some others of the time, that applying electricity to the soil would allow crops to produce higher yields.
Electrification of crops will be an established fact twenty years hence. There is no reason why the ground can not yield twice as much produce, as has long been shown experimentally. The equipment to double and triple crops by using constant electric currents in the ground where the crops are planted, is not at all expensive, and is easy to tend and harness. As the population increases we must have more vegetable food-stuffs. Electrified crops is the answer to the problem. Incidentally, it will make farming highly profitable, for the reason that a small area will yield a triple or even a quadruple crop.
The average length of man’s life has been increased from about 40 to 60 years since the middle ages. Man can expect to live much longer as times goes on, due to better personal hygiene, better sanitation, and better understanding of the human machine. I confidently predict that the present average of 60 years will be raised at least five, and perhaps as much as ten years, by the end of the next twenty years.
On the other hand, infant mortality, which has been greatly reduced during the last fifty years, will be reduced still further. There is no reason at all for most infantile diseases. We are slowly conquering them, one by one, and I believe that most of them such as measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, rickets and others will probably have been done away with twenty years hence.
Last year we looked at weather control and its possible use as a Cold War weapon, but decades before this superpower struggle, Gernsback imagined that “universal weather control” would be as simple as the flip of a switch.
Twenty years hence, weather control will no longer be a theory. While it may take longer than this to actually have universal weather control, within twenty years it will be possible to at least cause rain, when required over cities and farm lands, by electrical means. But we shall not solve the problem of warding off or creating cold and heat in the open for many centuries.
In the December 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal writer John Elfreth Watkins Jr. predicted that the 20th century would see cold air “turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house.” Almost three decades later Gernsback made a similar prediction and, after World War II, those in hotter climates thankfully saw this vision for the future come true.
Within twenty years our private dwellings and office buildings will be artificially cooled, the same as they are heated in the winter time. There is no good engineering reason why we should have to swelter and cut down our production in the summer time, any more than we should freeze in the winter. The present hot water and steam piping systems will probably be used for the artificial cold circulation.
Within twenty years there will be far more airplanes in the air than we have cars on the ground now. There will be a great exodus from the city to the country, not a movement back to the farm, but, most likely, a movement back to the home. Inaccessible and practically valueless plots in the most out of the way places will bring high prices for house building sites, because hills and mountain tops will be more accessible than the valleys.
I do not see the airplane, as it is today, neither do I see the helicopter as the final solution for aircraft. As long as an airplane requires a landing field, or at least, a space for a runway of 100 yards, or more, to either alight or take off, airplanes will not come into universal use. The helicopter idea, to my mind, is not sound. The chances are that we shall have an airplane that will be able to land on rooftops, or even in streets, if necessary. I believe that airplanes will be articulated in such a way that the entire plane can be spun around practically within its own length, and kept on circling in this small space as long as necessary. This would be the equivalent of “standing still,” for an automobile. If a landing were to be made, the airplane could then spiral down by gradually losing altitude. It could rise the same way, always spiralling in a small circle, which need not exceed 50 feet in diameter, and perhaps even a great deal less for smaller machines.
I firmly believe that within twenty years air-liners of a special construction will make the trip from New York to Paris within ten to twelve hours at a maximum, flying through the upper strata of our atmosphere. The flying would be done at tremendously high altitudes, for the simple reason that here there is less air resistance, with a consequent increase in speed and safety. The entire hull for passengers and crew would be practically airtight, as the space would have to be supplied with air at proper pressure, and, due to the tremendous cold at high altitudes, the inside would have to be heated artifically as well, either from the exhaust of the engines, or electrically.
June 6, 2012
From the vantage point of 2012 we often associate flying cars with the slick, Jetsonian ideas of the 1950s and ’60s. But predictions of futuristic flying cars buzzing over major American cities are actually about as old as the automobile itself.
The May 1923 issue of Science and Invention featured a two-wheeled flying car that was supposed to be the answer to New York City’s congested streets. Called the “Helicar,” it was stabilized by gyroscopes and operated by a push-button control panel rather than an old-fashioned steering wheel. The Helicar is built of the “lightest materials” available and enclosed in an “unbreakable, unburnable, glasslike substance.” (Its streamlined design actually reminds me a bit of this futuristic auto from 1918.)
The Helicar was dreamt up by none other than the father of modern science fiction, Hugo Gernsback. In February 1904, at the tender age of 19, Gernsback moved to New York from Luxembourg and became intimately familiar with New York City’s busy streets. As cars got larger in the 1920s, Gernsback argued that there was no choice but to give tomorrow’s automobiles the option to soar above the city.
The automobile, as it is built now, tends to become larger and larger. The car of today is fully three times as large as the car of 25 years ago. In our large cities overcrowding, due to the tremendous number of automobiles, has now reached the saturation point. New York City is about to enact a law to eliminate a certain number of taxicabs, which now crowd the streets to such an extent that it is impossible to make any time at all in certain sections of the city. If you really wish to move rapidly, you have to take the subway or the elevated railway. This condition exists in most large cities. It has been proposed to build viaducts over the house tops, but due to the high cost it is doubtful if such a plan will ever become a fact, even in a time remote from now.
The article included a photograph of a Rolls-Royce from 1923, giving retro-futurists of the 2010s a handy perspective on what the top-of-the-line car looked like 90 years ago.
Gernsback believed that the only “practical solution” to New York’s traffic problem was the Helicar, which he predicted to to be in use by 1973. What’s somewhat astounding is that by 1923 the helicopter hadn’t even proven itself as a practical reality yet!
The only practical solution is to combine the automobile with an airplane and this no doubt will happen during the next few decades. The Helicopter Automobile or, for short, the helicar, will not take up very much more room than the present large 7-passenger automobile, nor will it weigh much more than our present-day car, but instead of rolling down the avenue, you will go straight up in the air, and follow the air traffic lines, then descend at any place you wish. This descent can be made in the middle of the street, if necessary. The car may roll through the street, and may rise in an open place, or square, of which there will be many in the future.
While it will be possible for a car to alight on the ground in a narrow street, traffic regulations may prohibit this, and the aerial ascent and descent will be made from these public squares or parks. The Helicar will be particularly useful for suburbanites to fly to and from work, and for pleasure. Even today our roads, whether they be suburban or country, are so clogged with traffic that it is impossible to get anywhere on time.
Later, Gernsback makes note of the helicopter’s questionable success in the early 1920s:
The important part is the propelling mechanism to drive the car in the air. There have been many helicopters designed so far, but up to date nothing really trustworthy has been evolved. It may be quite possible that the helicopter of the future will look entirely different from what we have pictured in our illustration. It is quite possible that no blades will be used, but rather a form of an open drum, similar to the turbine. We have been satisfied to show in our illustration the usual propellor, which is collapsible, so that when the car runs as an automobile, it will not obstruct traffic, nor will it catch the air.
The other peculiar element to the car—having two wheels, instead of four—is explained by Gernsback as making sense for a number of different reasons. Perhaps, the least compelling of which is that bicycles have just two wheels!
It will be noted that only two wheels are used. Two wheels are more economical than four. There is less trouble with gears and shafts, and this construction decreases the weight of the car as well. A gyroscope keeps the car in an upright position at all times, and makes riding on two wheels perfectly safe.
Two-wheel vehicles are not new, as witness the bicycle. The famous Englishman, Brennan, has already tried them out, and there will be no reason for using four wheels in the future.
In 1909, Gernsback opened the world’s first store specializing in radio at 69 West Broadway and pretty much all of his futuristic inventions from the 1910s and ’20s included some role for radio. Number 8 on the diagram below is described as a radio for transmitting and receiving messages. You may recall that in the early 1920s radio was still in its infancy as a broadcast medium, so it’s unlikely those passengers are listening to something like the 1923 hit song, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
Perhaps the most depressing element of this article for those of us in the year 2012 (who are still largely driving cars that run on fossil fuels), is that Gernsback believed that we’d probably be off gasoline by the year 1973.
In our illustration we have shown a gasoline engine as the driving agent for the Helicar. There is no reason why a gasoline engine should be employed. Perhaps by that time we will be extracting electricity from the air, and merely use an electric motor to run the car, or we may even approach the point where the wireless transmission of energy will be a proven fact.
The article included an illustration of the flying Helicar in action (above). I’ve added my own yellow numbers, because the original letters are a bit hard to read at this size.
(1) — Push button power control board before driver, which also switches power to helicopter drive shaft (3), and blades (9), when it is desired to fly.
(2) — Steering wheel.
(3) — Helicopter drive shaft.
(4) — Gyroscope for stabilizing car on two wheels.
(5) — Twelve cylinder gasoline engine driving large dynamo (6), which supplies electric current to motor within rear wheel, (13).
(6) — Dynamo (electrical generator).
(7) — Storage battery for engine and radio receiving and transmitting set, (8).
(8) — Radio set.
(9) — Collapsible helicopter blades. (Note: Engine driven.)
(10) — Powerful electric lamps and reflectors for flying purposes.
(11) — Elevating wings controlled by driver, used in ascending or descending, as well as tail, (12).
(12) — Helicopter tail.
(13) — Electric motor wheel, which drives the car along the road when not in the air.
(14) — Motor driven spur wheels which can be lowered to assist in propelling the car out of icy spots.
(15) — Collapsible steps.
(16) — Fender.
(17) — Electric headlight used when running on road.
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.”