February 20, 2013
Advertisers love to use futurism as a way to position their products as forward-thinking. Often, that connection to futurism comes with a healthy dose of humor — jokes that from the vantage point of the future look less ridiculous than they were probably intended.
In 1988, Samsung’s ad agency (Deutsch) produced a tongue-in-cheek magazine ad campaign to position their home electronics as the products you’ll be using long after Vanna White is replaced by a robot. Or long after shock jocks run for president.
The ad below ran in the October 1988 issue of Smithsonian magazine and featured Morton Downey, Jr. with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. (Downey died of lung cancer in 2001.) The “trash TV” pioneer appears in the ad as a presidential candidate in the year 2008 — a humorous idea in 1988, but perhaps less bizarre when you consider some recent presidential hopefuls. Below Downey’s photo, Samsung claims that they’ll be making the TV you watch his speeches on in that far off year.
Not unlike a joke in the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper, the ad below claims that by the year 2010 steak will be considered healthy. Of course, this is another joke that wasn’t too far of the mark, given the popularity of high-protein diets like the Atkins Diet and the Paleo Diet that are so fashionable today.
The ad insists that the microwave you’ll be be using to cook that 21st century steak will be made by Samsung. Now, I’ve never tried microwaving a steak, but I suspect that doing so wouldn’t sit well with Paleo Diet enthusiasts whose worldview leads them to romanticize the notion of eating like a caveman — or at least their modern conception of what a caveman ate.
In this last ad, we see allusions to the hit TV show “Wheel of Fortune” with a robot Vanna White. The ad claims that it will be the longest-running game show in the year 2012. Samsung insists that they’ll make the VCR you record it on.
Interestingly, this robot ad was the subject of some litigation after it ran in magazines. Vanna White sued Samsung for the ad, claiming that even though it depicts a robot, the company was capitalizing on her identity for promotional purposes without compensating her. White argued that there was a common law right to control how her likeness is used, even though Samsung doesn’t explicitly use her name or image. This “right to persona” argument was thrown out in a lower court, but in White v Samsung Electronics America it was ruled that White indeed had the right to control her persona under the Lanham Trademark Act and California common law.
January 29, 2013
Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite’s regular half-hour CBS documentary program “The 21st Century” was a glorious peek into the future. Every Sunday night viewers of the late 1960s were shown all the exciting technological advancements they could expect to see just 30 or 40 years down the road. The March 12, 1967, episode gave people a look at the home of the 21st century, complete with 3D television, molded on-demand serving dishes, videophones, inflatable furniture, satellite newspaper delivery and robot servants.
Cronkite spends the first five minutes of the program deriding the evils of urban sprawl and insisting that everyone dreams of a house in seclusion on a few acres of land. Cronkite and his interviewee Philip Johnson insist that moving back into ever denser cities is the wave of the future. It’s interesting then that Cronkite must pivot before showing us the standalone home of tomorrow. This would be a second home, Cronkite tells us — far removed from the high density reality that everyone of the 21st century must face:
Let’s push our imaginations ahead and visit the home of the 21st century. This could be someone’s second home, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. It consists of a cluster of pre-fabricated modules. This home is as self-sufficient as a space capsule. It recirculates its own water supply and draws all of its electricity from its own fuel cell.
Living Room of 2001
The living room of the future is a place of push-button luxury and a mid-century modern aesthetic. The sunken living room may feature inflatable furniture and disposable paper kids’ chairs, but Cronkite assures us that there’s no reason the family of the future couldn’t have a rocking chair — to remind us that “both the present and the future are merely extensions of the past.”
Once inside we might find ourselves in a glass enclosure where the lint and dirt we’ve accumulated during our trip is removed electrostatically. Now we step into the living room. What will the home of the 21st century look like inside? Well, I’m sitting in the living room of a mock-up of the home of the future, conceived by Philco-Ford and designed by Paul McCobb. This is where the family of the 21st century would entertain guests. This room has just about everything one would want: a big (some might say too big) full color 3D television screen, a stereo sound system that could fill the room with music, and comfortable furniture for relaxed conversation.
If that living room looks familiar it may be because it’s the same house from the Internet-famous short film “1999 A.D.” produced in 1967 (often mistakenly dated as 1969, which would make the moon landing stuff less impressive) and starring a young Wink Martindale.
Cronkite explains that a recent government report concludes that Americans of the year 2000 will have a 30-hour work week and month-long vacations “as the rule.” He goes on to tell viewers that this will mean much more leisure time for the average person:
A lot of this new free time will be spent at home. And this console controls a full array of equipment to inform, instruct and entertain the family of the future. The possibilities for the evening’s program are called up on this screen. We could watch a football game, or a movie shown in full color on our big 3D television screen. The sound would come from these globe-like speakers. Or with the push of a button we could momentarily escape from our 21st century lives and fill the room with stereophonic music from another age.
Home Office of 2001
Later, Cronkite takes us into the home office of the future. Here the newspaper is said to be delivered by satellite, and printed off on a gigantic broadsheet printer so that the reader of the future can have a deadtree copy.
This equipment here will allow [the businessman of the future] to carry on normal business activities without ever going to an office away from home.
This console provides a summary of news relayed by satellite from all over the world. Now to get a newspaper copy for permanent reference I just turn this button, and out it comes. When I’ve finished catching up on the news I might check the latest weather. This same screen can give me the latest report on the stocks I might own. The telephone is this instrument here — a mock-up of a possible future telephone, this would be the mouthpiece. Now if I want to see the people I’m talking with I just turn the button and there they are. Over here as I work on this screen I can keep in touch with other rooms of the house through a closed-circuit television system.
With equipment like this in the home of the future we may not have to go to work, the work would come to us. In the 21st century it may be that no home will be complete without a computerized communications console.
One of the more interesting gadgets in the office of the future that we can clearly see but Cronkite never addresses is the “electronic correspondence machine” of the future, otherwise known as the “home post office.” In the film “1999 A.D.” we see Wink Martindale’s character manipulating a pen on the machine, which allows for “instant written communication between individuals anywhere in the world.”
Kitchen of 2001
The kitchen of the future includes plastic plates which are molded on-demand, a technology that up until just a few years ago must have seemed rather absurd. With the slow yet steady rise of home 3D printers this idea isn’t completely ridiculous, though we still have quite a ways to go.
After dinner, the plates are melted down, along with any leftover food and re-formed for the next meal. It’s never explained why the molding and re-molding of plates would be any easier or more efficient than simply allowing the machine to just wash the dishes. But I suppose a simple dishwasher wouldn’t have seemed terribly futuristic to the people of 1967.
This might be the kitchen in the home of the future. Preparation of a meal in the 21st century could be almost fully automatic. Frozen or irradiated foods are stored in that area over there.
Meals in this kitchen of the future are programmed. The menu is given to the automatic chef via typewriter or punched computer cards. The proper prepackaged ingredients are conveyed from the storage area and moved into this microwave oven where they are cooked in seconds. When the meal is done the food comes out here. When the meal is ready, instead of reaching for a stack of plates I just punch a button and the right amount of cups and saucers are molded on the spot.
When I’ve finished eating, there will be no dishes to wash. The used plates will be melted down again, the leftovers destroyed in the process and the melted plastic will be ready to be molded into clean plates when I need them next.
Robot Servants of 2001
Later in the program Cronkite takes us to the research laboratory of London’s Queen Mary College where we see robots in development. Cronkite interviews Professor M. W. Thring about the future of household robotics.
Cronkite assures us that the robots are not coming to take over the world, but instead to simply make us breakfast:
Robots are coming. Not to rule the world, but to help around the house. In the home of 2001 machines like these may help cook your breakfast and serve it too. We may wake up each morning to the patter of little feet — robot feet.
During the interview, the professor addresses one of the most important questions of the futuristic household robot: will it look like a human?
CRONKITE: Professor Thring, what are these?
THRING: These are the first prototypes of small scale models of the domestic housemaid of the future.
CRONKITE: The domestic housemaid of the future?
THRING: Yes, the maid of all work. To do all the routine work of the house, all the uninteresting jobs that the housewife would prefer not to do. You also give it instructions about decisions — it mustn’t run over the baby and things like that. And then it remembers those instructions and whenever you tell it to do that particular program it does that program.
CRONKITE: What is the completed machine going to look like? Is it going to look like a human being?
THRING: No. There’s no reason at all why it should look like a human being. The only thing is it’s got to live in a human house and live in a human house. It’s got to go through doors and climb up stairs and so on. But there’s no other reason why it should look like a human being. For example, it can have three or four hands if it wants to, it can have eyes in its feet, it can be entirely different.
Thring explains that the robot would put itself away in the cupboard where it would also recharge itself whenever it needed to do so — not unlike a Roomba today, or the automatic push-button vacuum cleaners of “The Jetsons,” which first aired just five years earlier.
I first saw this program many years ago while visiting the Paley Center for Media in New York. I asked Skip over at AV Geeks if he had a copy and it just so happens he did. He digitized it and released it as a DVD that’s now available for purchase, called Future Is Not As Good As It Used To Be. Many thanks to Skip for digging out this retro-futuristic gem. And if anyone from CBS is reading this, please release “The 21st Century” online or with a DVD box set. Cronkite’s show is one of the greatest forward-looking artifacts of the 20th century.
November 13, 2012
This is the eighth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The personal humanoid robotic assistant (or robot maid; robot butler; whatever you’d like to call it) easily makes the short list of retro-futuristic dreams still unfulfilled — up there with the flying car, the jetpack and the meal-in-a-pill. Sure, some people have the Roomba — that Cheetos-hungry robo-pet that crawls around your living room floor — but the dream of the humanoid robot, the robot that can interact with the family naturally, the robot that can speak and understand commands; this is the robot we know and love from media like The Jetsons. And it’s the robot we’re still so desperately longing for.
The eighth episode of The Jetsons originally aired on American television on November 11, 1962 and was titled “Rosey’s Boyfriend.” This episode devotes a fair amount of time to Rosey, an iconic character from the series who actually doesn’t enjoy much screen time in the original 1962-63 season. We first met Rosey in the premiere episode when Jane hopes to get a state-of-the-art robot maid and is stuck with an older model without the latest bells and whistles. Rosey is a devoted household servant who, despite being an older unwanted model, has many redeeming qualities. By the end of the first episode Rosey, of course, becomes a valued member of the family.
In this episode, Rosey falls in love with Mack, a helper robot built by the apartment building superintendent Henry. Mack appears to be made out of a filing cabinet and the kind of rolling stand you might find on the bottom of an office chair. This romance parallels Judy Jetson’s own love story, wherein she’s “boy crazy” and her latest crush is all consuming. Though Rosey supposedly isn’t programmed for love, that doesn’t stop her from being an incredibly sensitive robot and falling for Mack; and for Mack to fall in love with Rosey. Sadly for Rosey, Mack gets deactivated when he begins to malfunction. Elroy re-activates Mack and lets Rosey talk to him via the visaphone in Henry’s workshop. Rosey’s robo-depression is cured — provided she gets five minutes of visaphone time with Mack each day.
We often turn to the Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” (1958-63) by Arthur Radebaugh to understand the futuristic thinking of the early space age. Many of the techno-utopian ideas of that strip made their way into The Jetsons. The September 13, 1959 edition of the strip showed a robot floating on a cushion of air. It also had cameras mounted on its head — in 360-degree vision. The strip explained that industrial designers at Sundberg, Ferar Inc. were developing this “mechanical maid” of the future, a kind of self-propelled serving cart which would “move linen, glasses, china and silver to the table.” After dinner, as the strip showed, the dirty dishes would be whisked away by the robot to be cleaned and stored.
Coincidentally, this strip ran on the same day that the Chicago Tribune ran a column by Evelyn Zemke about the domestic work of the housewife of the year 2000. You may recall from our look at the first episode that the technologically advanced world of the future is not without its faults: the electronic brain serves the wrong breakfast and the robot vacuum cleaner goes a bit haywire. Rosey’s love interest Mack, seems to suffer from a similar case of crossed wires. These technological mishaps no doubt exist to allow the people of 1962 to identify with malfunctioning consumer appliances of the postwar era.
Rosey would inspire countless robots in later decades. Some “robots” like Miss Honeywell (a magician’s human assistant used to sell appliances and computers) would in the late 1960s bare a striking resemblance to Rosey, right down to her color scheme. The 1970s and ’80s would see an explosion in expectations around the household robot, including many a fraudulent company. Every new technology seems to invite hucksters–and robots of the 20th century were no different. Among the most noteworthy scam artists was New Jersey’s Quasar Industries, which made many promises in the 1970s that the household domestic robot had arrived. Klatu, the household android (sometimes known as just Quasar) wasn’t capable of even half the tasks that Quasar advertised — vacuuming, cleaning the dishes, mowing lawns and even walking the dog! But that didn’t stop the company from insisting that the future was now. In the 1978 illustrated book Exploring the World of Robots, kids learned about Quasar and Miss Honeywell (more generically known as “The Maid Without Tears):
There may be walking robots to do the dusting, and to lay and clear the table. The robots in the picture are real. One is called Quasar. Quasar can vacuum carpets, mow lawns, carry trays of food, and even take the dog for a walk! At the door is another robot, called the Maid Without Tears.
One day people may not go out to work at all. They will work from home, using television and robots. The robot brain will suggest meals for the day. It will order our shopping, finding out from other robots in the local shops where the best buys are. The goods will be packed and delivered to our home by robots.
We’re still waiting for the arrival of the Rosey and other robot butlers, but for today we may have to be content with simply feeding our Roombas.
October 25, 2012
The 2012 inductees to the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon have been announced. And sadly, Rosey the robot didn’t make the cut. She was beat out in the entertainment category by WALL-E — a worthwhile choice, but kind of like putting Justin Bieber in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I mean, Bieber hasn’t even gone through his inevitable Chris Gaines period yet.*
Naturally I was hoping for a Rosey victory, as we’re five episodes deep into looking back at every episode of “The Jetsons.” But there’s always next year. A sincere congratulations to all the robo-winners and the hardworking teams of humans that worked on them.
The winners were chosen in four categories: Education & Consumer; Entertainment; Industrial & Service; and Research. This year’s four winners are Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO, Disney’s WALL-E, iRobot’s PackBot bomb disposal robot, and Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. You can watch video of each winner below.
Education & Consumer: Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO
Industrial & Service: iRobot’s PackBot
Research: Boston Dynamics’ BigDog
*Before you get too huffy about it in the comments, I know that Bieber won’t be eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for many more years. I was just making a chucklegoof.
October 12, 2012
The February 26, 1977 edition of the Herald-Star in Steubenville, Ohio published dozens of predictions for the year 2000 made by the people of Steubenville, a working class town in eastern Ohio (and the birthplace of Dean Martin). Some of these letters came from local middle school kids 10-12 years old and they provide a fascinating snapshot of the era; unique in their ability to reflect the pessimism stirred by a down economy and shaken faith in government in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era, while also laying bare the irrational optimism of youth.
Many of the predictions are clearly influenced by the energy crisis, with many kids predicting there will be tough times ahead without access to cheap energy. However, there’s also optimism about space exploration and more than one reference to women as astronauts. Even though Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, the first American woman (Sally Ride, who died this past summer) wouldn’t become an astronaut until 1983 — a full six years after these kids were making their predictions.
Interestingly, for being middle schoolers these kids sure seem concerned about high taxes. All of these kids are now between 45 and 48 years old and if you happen to be one of them, I’d love to hear from you. How do you feel reading your predictions from the vantage point of “the future”? How do you feel about the years to come?
Some of the letters from the February 26, 1977 Herald-Star appear below:
New Great Depression
I think that by the year 2000 we will be in a great depression. People are saying that we are running out of fuel. People will be using machines to do everything. And machines run on fuel. If we run out of fuel we won’t be able to run the machines and people will be out of jobs. So we can save fuel. Everybody should try to save by turning their heat to 68 degrees.
Debbie Six, 12 (Harding School)
We’ll Find More Oil
My view of the future is that we will find more gas and oil. No one will be poor and we all will live in peace! Also in the future, I think they will find some mechanical device that could make kitchens, dining rooms and etc. You’d just push a button and WHAM!! An instant living room or WHAM!! an instant milkshake. And that’s my view of the future!
Emma Conforti, Age 11 (Harding School)
Robot Maids, Robot Teachers
In the year 2000, we will have all round buildings. We will have a robot teacher, a robot maid, and all workers will be robots, too. We will have a pocket computer that has everything you can name. We will even be able to push a button to get anything you want!
Marty Bohen, Age 10 (Harding School)
Electric Cars and Ladies on the Moon
The year 2000 might have everybody walking instead of riding in their cars because there might be a gas shortage by then, and the cars give out a lot of pollution. Or there might even be electric cars instead of gas cars. The year 2000 may send ladies to the moon to explore and look and see if there are people living on the moon. And when you work you will push buttons and robots will come out and do the work for you. And there will be lower prices and taxes, I hope.
Tim Villies, 10 (Harding School)
Cures For Every Sickness
In 2000 I will marry a doctor and maybe have kids. I would like my husband to be a doctor because he would be helping people and would still want to be close to my family. As for a job for me I would help the crippled boys and girls. I would still like to have my same friends. And the most important thing for there to be is no wars and killings. I hope they could find cures for every sickness. And everybody will care for each other.
Monica Katsaros, Age 10 (Harding School)
The Last Five Years Haven’t Been So Good
I think 2000 will be a good year. I hope so because the last five years haven’t been so good with people dying and getting shot and murdered. I will be a grown man by then and will be married. I’ll probably have kids. I hope it will be a good America.
Michael Beal, Age 10 (Harding School)
In the year 2000, I think there won’t be any crimes of any kind. Shorter school days and lower taxes. I hope there will be lower taxes and no crimes because I’ll be 33 years old and I am sick of crimes and high taxes. I hope woman can be astronauts. I also hope there won’t be any pollution. And I also hope there will be town in space, where people live in space capsules.
Lora Ziarko, Age 10 (Harding School)
Cars That Float On Air
I think the future will be better than it is now. The pollution problem will be solved and there will be cars that float on air. I will be 34 in the year 2000. I will have a good job designing modern houses with push-button controls for everything to make it easier on everyone.
You could push a button and a bed would unfold from the wall. Everything would run on solar energy so you wouldn’t have to worry about the fuel shortage. You wouldn’t have to go to school. It would be on TV and living would be much easier for everyone.
John Vecchione, Age 11 (Harding School)
Young People Unemployed
I think by the year 2000 we will be riding bikes or driving solar-energized cars. By then more younger people will be unemployed. The price of gas will go up and so will the price of coal, silver, gold and oil.
Pietro Sincropi, 10 (Harding School)
Living on Mars
I think it is going to be an all-new world. People are going to be able to live on the moon and on Mars. Man is going to have computers to do the work for him. It is going to be a computer run world.
Tracy McCoy, Age 12 (Harding School)
Most of the World Will Be The United States of America
In the year 2000 I will be 34 years old. And actually I don’t think kids will have to go to school, because I believe that families will have computers to educate students. That’s all for education. I also believe that most of the world will all be the United States of America. I also believe that business and industry will be up 75 per cent. And as for culture, the Model T will be an old artifact. And, if you have children or grandchildren, they’ll all be more interested in culture than ever.
Mike Metzger, Age 10 3/4 (Harding School)
I Hope By Then Things Will Get Better
I think that everything by the year 2000 will be different. I hope the violence will all be stopped. I hope that the computers don’t take over people’s jobs. I hope by then things will get better.
Mary Gallo, Age 12 (Harding School)