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)
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.
September 24, 2012
This is the first in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
Episode 01: “Rosey the Robot,” originally aired: September 23, 1962
If you flipped through the Cedar Rapids Gazette on September 23, 1962 the news looked fairly typical for the early 1960s.
There was a short item about a Gandhi memorial being planned in London. There was an article about overcrowded schools and the need for new junior high schools, since the baby boom had inundated the schools and enrollment in the Cedar Rapids public school system was increasing by about 1,000 students each year.
The Gazette also had an editorial about “lame-brain bigots” in Georgia who were burning down black churches, and a column about the fact that one out of every 38 children born in Linn County in 1961 was born out of wedlock. The paper had recipes for poached eggs and peas with lemon butter sauce, as well as ads for the Smulekoff’s furniture store imploring you to buy a brand new color TV—with prices starting as low as $495 (about $3,500 adjusted for inflation).
But tucked away within the TV listings for that week was the mention of a show that would radically shape the way Americans would talk about the future for decades to come. The newspaper had an article about the arrival of color on ABC’s Cedar Rapids affiliate, KCRG channel 9. NBC had been “carrying the color ball almost singlehandedly” for years in Cedar Rapids but starting that evening, ABC would join the color fray with a new show called “The Jetsons.” At 6:30 pm that night “The Jetsons” would debut against “Dennis the Menace” on channel 2, “Car 54 Where Are You?” on channel 6, and the season premiere of NBC’s immensely popular “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on channels 7 and 13.
Of course, it wasn’t just the people of Cedar Rapids who were tuning in on Sunday to watch a middle class family stumble through modern life in the year 2062. People all over the United States got their first taste of the Jetsons’ vision for tomorrow on that autumn evening.
There’s perhaps nothing more Jetsonian than the push-button. Jane Jetson pushes buttons to make dinner, to clean the home, and even to wake up her husband George. The running gag throughout the entire series is that the only thing George does all day at work (all three hours of it) is push a button.
From the very first scene of the first episode we learn precisely how difficult the people of the future have it. Jane Jetson is standing in front of a flat panel “3D” TV and conducting a strenuous workout — of her fingers. Of course, we’re meant to laugh at the fact that people of the year 2062 are living in the lap of luxury needing only push a button to accomplish what used to take hours, but it was also a subtle jab to those viewers at home who may complain about how difficult life is when all the modern conveniences of 1962 were at their disposal.
It’s important to recall that some scholars have argued that modern appliances didn’t actually save nearly as much time as originally envisioned. That’s because these gadgets impose higher standards of household efficiency and cleanliness—we take it for granted that our closets will always be filled with clean clothes; that our yards should boast perfectly maintained lawns and gardens; that our shiny kitchen appliances will make it possible to enjoy diverse and tasty meals. Many people today question this same line of thinking about technological progress, arguing that computers and smartphones have made us more productive, but that the standards for how much one person needs to accomplish have simply risen with it. Not to mention the “always available” culture that our devices have cultivated.
While we often associate leisurely push-button living with the Jetsons, longtime readers of Paleofuture will know that this futuristic cartoon family didn’t invent the concept. In December 1950 an Associated Press article ran in newspapers across the country that gave readers a peek at the year 2000. Experts across all kinds of fields were consulted and the article took it as a given that the American home of the future would be much more automated than it was mid-century:
People will live in houses so automatic that push-buttons will be replaced by fingertip and even voice controls. Some people today can push a button to close a window – another to start coffee in the kitchen. Tomorrow such chores will be done by the warmth of your fingertip, as elevators are summoned now in some of the newest office buildings – or by a mere whisper in the intercom phone.
But, as is often the case in the Jetsons’ world, the gadgets of tomorrow in the premiere episode don’t always work as they were intended. Gadget malfunction is rampant and a source of financial stress in the Jetson home, recalling an article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine just a few years earlier.
Writing in the September 13, 1959 Chicago Tribune, Evelyn Zemke projects herself into the futuristic world of the year 2000. The “pizza for breakfast?” bit is nearly identical to what we see play out in the Jetson household during the premiere episode.
“Call a service man,” my husband always says when one of our appliances refuses to function.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, it is. At the very worst, probably only the washer, dryer, dishwasher, and TV would give up one day. But what about the housewife of the future – say of the year 2000, when the electronic era will be at its peak?
I can just picture myself in her place - ready to start another care-free day sitting around reading a science fiction thriller while the gadgets do all the work. Already the electronic brain in my kitchen is busy preparing and serving breakfast.
My husband, arriving at the table exclaims, “Pizza? For breakfast?”
“I pushed the button labeled BACON AND EGGS, but-”
“There’s a wire crossed somewhere. Call a service man.”
After doing so, I dispose of the garbage in the electronic disposal unit and pile the dishes in the ultra-sonic dishwasher. Then, after pushing the button which starts the electronic vacuum cleaner, I go out to the garage to set the timer for our radar controled lawnmower.
“Ki-yi-yi!” Sounds like Fifi, our pet poodle.
My daughter, standing in the doorway, calls, “Mom! The cleaner is vacuuming Fifi!”
The premiere episode also shows viewers an interaction with Jane and her daughter Judy that hints at what would later be called the generation gap. Many of the same fears parents have here in the 21st century about their kids “growing up too fast” were splashed across popular media of the 1960s. The August 10, 1962 issue of Life magazine ran the story “Boys and Girls Too Old Too Soon: America’s Subteens Rushing Toward Trouble.” The story included a provocative photo essay showing 12 and 13-year-olds going on dates and engaging in “heavy necking.”
In the 1950s and ’60s the teenager and “subteens” (what we today might call a tween) became a force to be reckoned with. There was suddenly a group of kids larger than any American generation that had come before it, and this had a dramatic ripple effect throughout our society. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa — like hundreds of other communities across the U.S. — that meant building more schools. And for the burgeoning medium of television, that meant delivering storylines which sometimes reflected the growing pains of what was held up as the model American family.
Slidewalks of Tomorrow
As we looked at this past January, the idea of abundant moving sidewalks in the city of tomorrow predates The Jetsons by over half a century. But some of the more interesting mid-century examples, which likely influenced The Jetsons, came from TV and Sunday comic strips. The Disneyland TV episode “Magic Highway, U.S.A.,” which aired on May 14, 1958 looks like it may have inspired the Jetsons’ slidewalks of the future. The show also likely drew inspiration from print media, like the Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think,” which you can see below.
The June 7, 1959 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think”:
The large malls planned for tomorrow’s metropolitan centers will not be tied up with vehicular traffic. Shoppers and sight-seers will be transported by mobile sidewalks that closely resemble giant conveyer belts. Parcels to be delivered will be carried by overhead rail to trucks on the area’s perimeter.
An interesting detail that’s established in the first episode, but isn’t necessarily carried throughout the series, is that the robot maid of the year 2062 is considered a luxury item. One of the reasons that Jane buys Rosey instead of the more “distinguished” robots (shown as distinguished by simply having British and French accents) is that the Jetsons simply can’t afford anything more expensive.
Rosey the robot maid is perhaps the most iconic futuristic character to ever grace the small screen. Rosey is high-tech, but she’s also fallible. The mere fact that I use “she” rather than “it” speaks to what she represented — the humanoid robot helpers of our future, imperfect as they may be. And strangely, she doesn’t play a very prominent role in the first season of “The Jetsons.” The premiere episode establishes that Rosey is a valued member of the Jetson family, but as you’ll see over the course of this blog series, she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Perhaps because she was so beloved by kids who saw her on reruns during the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s she receives a much more prominent role in the 1985 reboot.
If you own the first season DVDs or watch it online you may notice that the first season has title cards which include Orbitty, a character that wasn’t introduced until the 1980s reboot. Knowing that the episode title slates on my DVD copy of “The Jetsons” were from the 1980s, I went down to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills a few months back to see if I could find any clues about the true spelling of “Rosey.” As I mentioned last week, there has been some confusion about the proper way to spell the name. The Paley Center has an enormous collection of old TV and radio programs and sure enough, they have a copy of the first episode of “The Jetsons.” I was a little surprised to learn that the first season wasn’t aired with individual title slates, but I found some vindication in my spelling of “Rosey” in a 1962 board game that was on display.
Reviews of The Jetsons were generally positive on the day following its premiere, with Rick Du Brow from the UPI calling the show a “genial time killer.” But as we looked at last week, the show suffered from a tough time slot (in most markets it was up against the established powerhouse that was “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”) and a relative blandness when viewed in black and white, as most Americans did in 1962.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette‘s article about the new influx of color TV programming in Cedar Rapids proclaimed that “this year should be a coming-up-roses year for those who believe that television minus color is like the sky without blue.” Writer Nadine Subtonik acknowledged that it was still expensive but that if kids hound their parents enough “making Mom and Dad’s life miserable” then widespread color TV adoption was a certainty in the near future. But how many color sets were in the Cedar Rapids area at the time? “A quick survey the other morning convinced me of only one thing: Nobody has the faintest idea!”
There are a number of different technologies and subtleties within the Jetsons world that I didn’t touch on in this post, but just know that this was by design. While writing this post I came to realize that if I try to reference every gadget or social anachronism I’ll wind up with 24 novel-length posts and nobody wants to read that. We have 23 more of these to go, so please be patient if I missed your favorite doodad or whatsit. We’ll likely get to it in a future post. And thanks for reading!
September 19, 2012
It was 50 years ago this coming Sunday that the Jetson family first jetpacked their way into American homes. The show lasted just one season (24 episodes) after its debut on Sunday September 23, 1962, but today “The Jetsons” stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism. More episodes were later produced in the mid-1980s, but it’s that 24-episode first season that helped define the future for so many Americans today.
It’s easy for some people to dismiss “The Jetsons” as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that. But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future. And it’s for this reason that, starting this Friday, I’ll begin to explore the world of “The Jetsons” one episode at a time. Each week I’ll look at a new episode from the original 1962-63 series, beginning with the premiere episode, “Rosey the Robot.”
Five decades after its debut, not a day goes by that someone isn’t using “The Jetsons” as a way to talk about the fantastic technological advancements we’re seeing today. Or conversely, evidence of so many futuristic promises that remain unfulfilled. Just look at a handful of news stories from the past few days:
- In fashion. (“Who better than the Jetsons to be inspired by for an out of space theme?”)
- Johnny Depp talks about the West Memphis Three emerging from prison after nearly two decades. ( ”By the time you came out, it’s ‘The Jetsons.’ It’s a whole ‘nother world.”)
- James Cameron talks about the future of interactive movies. (“There might be a certain amount of interactivity, so when you look around, it creates that image wherever you look,” Cameron says. He concedes it is far off: “You’re talking ‘Jetsons’ here.”)
- The future of cars, as depicted at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (“Considering that 2025 is only 13 years away, you would think that nobody’s going to go ‘Jetsons’ with their presentation, but the LAASDC doesn’t roll like that.”)
- The sound of kitschy futurism in modern music. (“Silencio allows Sadier’s various musical influences to breathe and linger, without being upstaged by the motorik propulsion, and ‘Jetsons’ kitsch, of the Stereolab formula.”)
Thanks to my Google Alerts for words and phrases like Jetsons, Minority Report, utopia, dystopia, Blade Runner, Star Trek, apocalypse and a host of others, I’ve been monitoring the way that we talk about the future for years. And no point of reference has been more popular and varied as a symbol of tomorrowism than “The Jetsons.”
Golden Age of Futurism
“The Jetsons” was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to “The Jetsons” as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks. But the creators of “The Jetsons” weren’t the first to dream up these futuristic inventions. Virtually nothing presented in the show was a new idea in 1962, but what “The Jetsons” did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume.
And though it was “just a cartoon” with all the sight gags and parody you’d expect, it was based on very real expectations for the future. As author Danny Graydon notes in The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide, the artists drew inspiration from futurist books of the time, including the 1962 book 1975: And the Changes to Come, by Arnold B. Barach (who envisioned such breakthroughs as ultrasonic dishwashers and instant language translators). The designers also drew heavily from the Googie aesthetic of southern California (where the Hanna-Barbera studios were located)—a style that perhaps best represented postwar consumer culture promises of freedom and modernity.
The years leading up to “The Jetsons” premiere in September 1962 were a mix of techo-utopianism and Cold War fears. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 created great anxiety in an American public that already had been whipped up into a frenzy about the Communist threat. In February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, but less than a year earlier the Bay of Pigs fiasco raised tensions between the superpowers to a dangerous level. Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.
I spoke over the phone with Danny Graydon, the London-based author of the official guide to “The Jetsons.” Graydon explained why he believed the show resonated with so many Americans in 1962: “It coincided with this period of American history when there was a renewed hope — the beginning of the ’60s, sort of pre-Vietnam [protests], when Kennedy was in power. So there was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future. I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time.”
Where’s My Jetpack?
As Graydon points out, “The Jetsons” was a projection of the model American family into the future. The world of ”The Jetsons” showed people with very few concerns about disrupting the status quo politically or socially, but instead showed a technologically advanced culture where the largest concern of the middle class was getting “push-button finger.”
It’s important to remember that today’s political, social and business leaders were pretty much watching ”The Jetsons” on repeat during their most impressionable years. People are often shocked to learn that “The Jetsons” lasted just one season during its original run in 1962-63 and wasn’t revived until 1985. Essentially every kid in America (and many internationally) saw the series on constant repeat during Saturday morning cartoons throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Everyone (including my own mom) seems to ask me, “How could it have been around for only 24 episodes? Did I really just watch those same episodes over and over again?” Yes, yes you did.
But it’s just a cartoon, right? So what if today’s political and social elite saw ”The Jetsons” a lot? Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!? “The Jetsons” and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.
This nostalgia for the futurism of yesteryear has very real consequences for the way that we talk about ourselves as a nation. So many people today talk about how divided we are as a country and that we no longer dream “like we used to.” But when we look at things like public approval of the Apollo space program in the 1960s, those myths of national unity begin to dissolve. Public approval of funding for the Apollo program peaked at 53 percent (around the first moon landing) but pretty much hovered between 35-45 percent for most of the 1960s. Why is there a misconception today about Americans being more supportive of the space program? Because an enormous generation called Baby Boomers were kids in the 1960s; kids playing astronaut and watching shows like “The Jetsons”; kids who were bombarded with images of a bright, shiny future and for whom the world was much simpler because they saw everything through the eyes of a child.
Why Only One Season?
If ”The Jetsons” is so important and resonated with so many viewers, then why was the show canceled after just one season (though it was revived in the 1980s)? I’ve spoken to a number of different people about this, but I haven’t heard anyone mention what I believe to be the most likely reason that “The Jetsons” wasn’t renewed for a second season: color. Or, more accurately, a lack of color. ”The Jetsons” was produced and broadcast in color, but in 1962 less than 3 percent of American households had a color television set. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 that 50 percent of American households had a color TV.
The Jetsons’ future is bright; it’s shiny; and it’s in color. But most people watching on Sunday nights obviously didn’t see it like that. The immersive world of “The Jetsons” looks far more flat and unengaging in black and white. And unlike the other network shows it was up against on Sunday nights (which was in most markets “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC and “Car 54 Where Are You?” on CBS) “The Jetsons” suffered disproportionately more from being viewed in black and white.
NBC also had an incumbent advantage. If you’d made “Walt Disney’s Wonderful of Color” appointment viewing for the past year (Disney jumped ship from ABC to NBC in 1961 where they not only began broadcasting in color, but added “color” to the name) it’s unlikely you’d switch your family over to an unknown cartoon entity. “The Jetsons” was the first show ever broadcast in color on ABC, but it was still up to individual affiliates as to whether the show would be broadcast in color. According to the September 23, 1962 New York Times only people with access to ABC’s owned-and-operated stations in New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles were guaranteed to see the show broadcast in color—provided you owned a color set.
I’ve takens some screenshots from the DVD release of the first season to show just how dramatic a difference color can make with a show like this.
There’s also this promo from 1962, which gives us a taste of what “The Jetsons” looked like devoid of color. It’s bizarre for those of us who grew up on “The Jetsons” to see their fantastical world reduced to black and white:
There are a lot of “what-ifs” in “The Jetsons” universe that may have had substantial bearing on politicians, policymakers and the average American today. If we accept that media has an influence on the way that we view culture, and our own place in the future—as “The Jetsons” seems to ask us to do—we have to ask ourselves how our expectations might have changed with subtle tweaks to the Jetson story. What if George took a flying bus or monorail instead of a flying car? What if Jane Jetson worked outside of the home? What if the show had a single African-American character? These questions are impossible to answer, of course, but they’re important to recall as we examine this show that so dramatically shaped our understanding of tomorrow.
1985 and Beyond
Obviously the 1985-87 reboot of “The Jetsons” TV show played an important role in carrying the futuristic toon torch, but it’s in many ways an entirely different animal. The animation simply has a different feel and the storylines are arguably weaker, though I certainly remember watching them along with the original reruns when I was a kid in the 1980s. There were also movies produced—1990′s The Jetsons was released theatrically and the made-for-TV movie crossover The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones first aired in 1987. But for our purposes, we’ll just be exploring the first season and its immediate influence during the American Space Age. With talk of a live-action Jetsons movie in the works, it will be interesting to see how a revamped Jetsons might play today.
A few style notes that I’ll get out of the way:
- I spell Rosey the way it appeared in merchandise of the 1960s. Yes, you’ll sometimes see it spelled “Rosie” in video games and comics of the 1980s, but since our focus is the first season I’m sticking with Rosey.
- The show never mentions “within world” what year the Jetson family is living, but for our purposes we’ll assume it to be 2062. Press materials and newspapers of 1962 mention this year, even though the characters only ever say “21st century” during the first season of the show.
- Orbitty is from the 1980s reboot of The Jetsons. Orbitty, a pet alien, is essentially the Jar-Jar Binks of the Jetsons’ world and you probably won’t see me mention him again.
Meet George Jetson
The Jetsons, of course, represents a nostalgia for the future; but perhaps more oddly, it still represents the future to so many people who grew up with it. I’m excited to get started on this project and welcome your comments throughout this process, especially if you have vivid memories of the show from when you were a kid. I know I certainly do — I turned it into my career!
Update: The first paragraph of this post was revised to clarify that more episodes of “The Jetsons” were produced in the 1980s.
July 2, 2012
The March 1931 issue of The Country Gentleman magazine included this advertisement for Timken bearings. With the bold headline “100 YEARS AHEAD” the ad promises that the farmer of the future may be unrecognizable — thanks to Timken bearings, of course. Our farmer of tomorrow wears a suit to work and sits at a desk that looks oddly familiar to those of us here in the year 2012. We’ve looked at many different visions of early television, but this flat panel widescreen display really stands out as exceptionally visionary. Rather than toil in the field himself, the farmer of the future uses television (something more akin to CCTV than broadcast TV) and remote controls to direct his farm equipment.
Television technology wasn’t yet a practical reality in 1931, even though inventors had been making a go of it since 1880. But this high-tech vision of the future is even more astounding when you consider that when this advertisement ran the vast majority of farms didn’t even have electricity. In 1930, just 10.4 percent of the 6 million farms in the U.S. had electricity.
The ad tries not to position America’s agricultural advancements as merely things to come. This being Great Depression era advertising — where messages of reassurance are common — the ad copy makes sure to explain that American farmers are more technologically advanced than those of any other country in the world. But, of course, Timken bearings are the economical way to catapult you into a bold new agricultural future.
From the 1931 advertisement:
With science making such astonishing progress in all of its advanced branches, the above pictorial prediction may not be so far afield of the manner in which farming operations will actually be conducted 100 years hence… Operation of farm implements by means of television and remote electrical controls may then be more than merely an imaginary illustration… But even today, measured in terms of human progress, the American farmer is at least 100 years ahead of the rest of the world… In no other country under the sun will you find anywhere near 5,000,000 automobiles helping the farmer to a bigger and better life as you do in America… Over $2,500,000,000.00 worth of farm machinery — and radio valued at millions of dollars, are but a few of other factors that make American farm life profitable and pleasurable…Timken has both a direct and indirect bearing on practically everything you use or enjoy. For in the making of almost every important article, Timken Bearings play their part in keeping down costs… Your automobile, your telephone, your radios, your farm machinery are in countless cases fabricated with Timken Bearing equipped machinery… And after being economically manufactured with the aid of Timken, much of your power equipment, and an overwhelming majority of your automobiles and trucks have Timken Bearings. This is done so that your equipment will last longer — give more satisfactory service… Among the most important mechanical contributions of the last century are Timken Tapered Roller Bearings… With this advanced product all types of machinery enjoy friction freedom, which to you, the user, means longer life, lessened upkeep and reduced costs. If you would favor your pocketbook see that every piece of farm machinery that you purchase is Timken Bearing Equipped… The Timken Roller Bearing Company, Canton, Ohio.
If I hadn’t found it myself, I’d be extremely skeptical that this illustration was actually from 1931. That flat panel display is just too spot-on. For the sake of comparison, this was the American farmer of 1930: