December 13, 2011
The Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots toy is both a vivid and lukewarm memory of my childhood. I remember playing the plastic fighting game with my friend Matt (apparently Matt was quite a popular name for boys born in the early 1980s in the suburbs of St. Paul) and being terribly underwhelmed. There’s just about nothing cooler than fighting robots (unless it involves Hugh Jackman), but banging on chintzy plastic buttons that give you all of two options (left punch and right punch) and one outcome (the robot’s head pops up) left much to be desired. Originally introduced in 1964, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em remains a popular toy today, but I can’t help but think they could’ve taken some advice from those who were dreaming up fighting robots in the 1930s. Who would’ve thought that the 1930s was the Golden Age of boxing robots?
In the April, 1934, issue of Modern Mechanix and Inventions the “mechanical robot” goes toe-to-toe with boxing legend Jack Dempsey. In the article Dempsey relays a conversation he had with a friend about what it would be like to fight a robot. According to Dempsey — who says he could tear one to pieces “bolt by bold and scatter its brain wheels and cogs all over the canvas” — the main deficiency of a boxing robot would be its lack of brains:
“The reason is simple: Engineers can build a robot that will possess everything except brains. And without brains no man can ever attain championship class in the boxing game. It is true enough that we have had some rare intellectual specimens in the higher frames of boxing glory, but I can truthfully say that no man ever attained genuine boxing recognition without real headwork. The best punch in the world is not worth a whoop if the boxer doesn’t know what to do with it.”
The January, 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics magazine (a publication that changed names many times in the 1930s) ran a short story about two brothers in California who had created a robotic boxing match. The illustration that was included in the piece is quite evocative that of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em toy:
Two pugilistic robots, built by the Veronda brothers, of California, recently staged a furious six round boxing match in which they slugged each other’s metal bodies with all the realism of a human fight. The actions of the mechanical fighters were controlled by short wave radio. At the height of the fray, however, the wires got crossed somewhere. With smoke rising from their innards the fighters lost their heads and began lashing out wildly, dealing terrific clouts with both fists. Finally one robot went down and the other collapsed on top of him.
In June of 1933 Walt Disney released a short animated film titled Mickey’s Mechanical Man, starring his still relatively new hero, Mickey Mouse. In the film Mickey builds his own robot to fight a gorilla named The Kongo Killer — a reference to the movie King Kong, which had been released earlier that year. In this “Battle of the Century” which pits man against beast, the usual animated hijinks ensue, but it’s interesting that neither the gorilla nor the robot are in very good shape by the fight’s end. You can watch Mickey’s Mechanical Man on YouTube.
Al Capp’s syndicated comic strip, Li’l Abner had a strip that ran in newspapers on July 18, 1937 which featured a fighting robot. What drives this robot to fight? According to the professor who invented him, “My robot is perfect — except for one flaw — he becomes a savage murderous machine of destruction in the presence of smoke – simple tobacco smoke.”
It’s interesting to notice the shift in attitudes toward smoking in the 1930s, when U.S. tobacco companies had started to spend a great deal more money on advertising in the wake of alcohol Prohibition and the temperance movement. The robot in this comic most likely represented those who opposed smoking. As K Michael Cummings notes in his 2002 paper “Programs and policies to discourage the use of tobacco products”:
At the turn of the century the anti-smoking movement in the United States was motivated mainly by moral and religious beliefs, although medical objections against cigarettes were beginning to be raised. Both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford voiced concerns about the detrimental health effects of cigarette smoking. In the first quarter of the twentieth century groups such as the Non-smokers Protective League, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and religious leaders joined forces to prohibit the sale of tobacco and alcohol. However, the negative backlash against the federal prohibition on alcohol coupled with the more pragmatic approach of allowing governments to tax tobacco as a way of controlling its use resulted in the rescinding of most state and local prohibitions against tobacco.
By the 1930s efforts to limit smoking were fading away, allowing tobacco manufacturers to compete vigorously against one another by spending tens of millions annually in advertising to promote their brands. Cigarette advertisers were successful in associating smoking with images of health, athletic performance, wealth, and social standing which helped fuel a nearly three decade long increase in the prevalence of smoking.
November 4, 2011
Whenever people discuss retro-futurism the first things that often come to mind are flying cars, jetpacks, meal pills and robot butlers. These were the dreams of a leisurely utopian world that would be built on the most advanced technologies history had ever seen. The promise of these products and the sincere belief in their inevitability flourished in the 1950s. After World War II, Americans were told that we would harness technology to make our lives easier, our products cheaper and our workers more productive. It was a belief in a sort of Technological Manifest Destiny — promoted through advertisements, theme parks and Saturday morning cartoons.
When it comes to the shiny, happy, techno-utopian futures of the 1950s and 60s most people remember Hanna-Barbera’s “The Jetsons” or Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland. But one of the great forgotten techno-utopian artists of the mid-20th century, Arthur Radebaugh, deserves recognition as well for his contributions to the world of futurism. As the illustrator of a late 1950s-early 60s newspaper comic called Closer Than We Think and countless other advertisements and magazine covers, Radebaugh helped shape mid-century American expectations for what the future held.
Arthur Radebaugh (1906-1974) was born in Coldwater, Michigan and would eventually establish his homebase in Detroit—though he spent much of his time in the late 1950s and 60s wandering the country in his Ford Thames, which had been converted to house a mobile art studio. Radebaugh briefly attended the Chicago Art Institute in 1925 but dropped out and spent the late 1920s working as a bus driver, hotel clerk and a theater usher. He moved back to Michigan in the 1930s and worked as a sign painter. He married his wife Nancy in 1934 and began to get illustration work for magazines like Esquire. During World War II Radebaugh designed armored cars and artillery for the Army. After the war, Radebaugh went to Detroit where he was Chief of the Army’s Industrial Design Branch and later went on to work as a designer for companies like Chrysler, Bohn and Coca-Cola.
Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think was syndicated in the United States and Canada and ran for five years. The strip debuted January 12, 1958 with “Satellite Space Station” and ended on January 13, 1963 with a panel about the “Family Computer.” The strip reached about 19 million newspaper readers at its peak and gave people a look at some of the most wonderfully techno-utopian visions that America had to offer. In the May 5, 1958 edition of the strip, Radebaugh looked at the “push-button school” of tomorrow, with computer consoles as every child’s desk. The February 1, 1959 strip imagined the electronic home library of the future, with microfilm projections on the wall. The April 9, 1961 edition of the strip showed the factory farm of tomorrow. And the October 4, 1958 strip predicted jetpack mailmen hopping from house to house in Suburbatopia.
Radebaugh loved experimenting with different mediums, including airbrush and fluorescent paints. The May 2, 1947 Portsmouth Times (Portsmouth, Ohio) ran a piece that looked at the work he was doing in the late 1940s when he was Chief of the Army’s Industrial Design Branch.
Radebaugh, whose studios are in Detroit, Mich., helped design armored cars, bazookas and artillery for the Army. Now, as an outstanding designer of futuristic life, he conceives jet-propelled space ships; heli-cruisers for Sunday drivers; streamlined overhead tramways carrying cars made from surplus Army aircraft fuselages. He paints most of these imaginative themes conventionally, then switches out the regular lights in his studio, turns on a ultra-violet beam, and adds his fluorescent paint. Illuminated by the invisible rays of the ultra-violet light, windows blaze light, stacks belch smoke.
Arthur Radebaugh died in a Veteran’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan on January 17, 1974. At the time of his death, his body of work in magazines and newspapers had been largely forgotten. But through the help of some very dedicated people online, including Tom Z., who has kindly provided many of the Closer Than We Think comic strips I’ve featured on Paleofuture over the years, Radebaugh has hopefully found a new audience to inspire.
November 2, 2011
The city of Burbank, California was incorporated in 1911 with a population of just 500. Today the population is just over 100,000 and the city is best known as the home of big name movie studios (and the closest Ikea to my apartment). Leading up to the incorporation of Burbank there was a lot of discussion about transportation services. The newly formed city wanted to build an extension of the Los Angeles streetcar line. Local artist and inventor Joseph W. Fawkes had become the first person in the U.S. to patent a monorail in 1907 and set out to convince Burbank that rather than an extension of the streetcar line, what the city really needed was a monorail. Fawkes imagined that an aerial monorail would provide service from Burbank to downtown Los Angeles, beginning at his own ranch off Olive Avenue.
Fawkes built a prototype, which was photographed for the Los Angeles Times. The photograph above comes from the beautiful book, Imagining Los Angeles: Photographs of a 20th Century City. The image can also be found in the USC Digital Libraries collection. The caption from the Los Angeles Times book explains the hurdles for Fawkes:
The idea never found backers—but if it had, the public might be enjoying futuristic monorail travel through the air between Burbank and downtown. In 1910 inventor J.W. Fawkes built a propellor-driven aerial trolley that he claimed would haul passengers at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. To demonstrate, he hung a quarter-mile-long overhead track in his Burbank apricot orchard and invited passengers aboard. Dubbed the Aerial Swallow, the trolley was about 40 feet long and powered by a Frankline air-cooled engine, which turned the propeller. But the prototype topped out at three miles per hour, and investors kept their hands in their pockets.
Fawkes unveiled his prototype to the public on Independence Day, July 4, 1911 and though the monorail was christened as the Aerial Swallow, his prototype would eventually become known as Fawkes’ Folley. Fawkes was the first to patent the monorail in the United States, but his wasn’t the first to appear in the country. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 included a steam-powered monorail. A monorail also operated in Brooklyn in the summer of 1878 and in 1888 the city of South St. Paul, Minnesota built an overhead monorail. Perhaps inspired by the bicycle craze of the 1890s, Long Island’s “bicycle railroad” monorail began trial runs in 1894.
The early 1910s saw others across the country who were attempting to introduce monorails to U.S. cities. William H. Boyes built his monorail in Seattle around 1911. City Island, New York built a monorail in 1910 that was closed just a year after its first trip — which happened to involve it derailing. And in 1912 the U.S. Senate built an underground monorail to shuttle senators between the old Senate office building and the Capitol building, which was replaced in the 1960s by a trolley system that in turn was replaced by a subway system.
Early 20th century monorails in the United States were inspired by what was happening in Europe at the time. An article in the August 15, 1912 Fort Wayne Sentinel heralded the gyroscopic monorail of the future, with an illustration of one that was currently operating in Prussia. Decades later, Walt Disney would be inspired to bring a monorail to Disneyland in 1959 after he saw the ALWEG monorail on his trip to Germany.
You could also find other monorails that pre-date modern popular science fiction and yet were still fanciful illustrations of the future to come. The August, 1918 issue of science fiction legend Hugo Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter magazine featured a monorail powered by two propellers.
September 27, 2011
I first encountered the future during a family trip to Disney World’s EPCOT Center in the early 1990s. Walt Disney had envisioned EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) as a utopian, enclosed city that would be erected in central Florida. That vision never came to pass. Instead, in 1982, EPCOT opened as a theme park—a sort of permanent World’s Fair—showcasing the technological promises of tomorrow. Yet, in the span of a decade, EPCOT had already begun showing its age. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the silver jumpsuit future that EPCOT was selling didn’t feel like the 1990s; it was the future as imagined in the 1980s.
People are drawn to futurism for the wondrous spectacle of it all. Yet, those captivating images of personal jetpacks and flying cars also offer a window into history that is unlike any other. Past visions of the future reflect American hopes and fears in a fantastical way, and thus do so with unique honesty.
During World War II, for instance, the American public clung to the promise that the sweet material rewards of their sacrifice were just around the corner. A 1944 poem from Dorothy Roe, the women’s editor of the Associated Press, distilled the sentiment quite succinctly:
After the war . . .
We’ll just a press a button for food or for drink,
For washing the dishes or cleaning the sink.
We’ll ride in a rocket instead of a car.
And life will be streamlined . . .
After the war.
I’ve spent the last five years researching and blogging about what is popularly known as “retro-futurism.” In doing so, I’ve assembled an enormous private collection of material culled from used bookstores, eBay, Amazon and generous individuals who have donated their own relics. My archive begins in the late 19th century—with books like Edward Bellamy’s classic utopian novel Looking Backward—and covers every decade of the 20th century.
If there’s one vision of the future I’ve never encountered, it’s the status quo. Futurism, for most people, is about the best and the worst that will befall us. Sure, some individuals may romanticize history and cry out that society must return to some idealized version of the past that may never actually have existed, but very few people imagine tomorrow as being exactly like today.
I’m tremendously excited about Paleofuture’s new home at Smithsonian magazine, and I look forward to you joining me in my continuing exploration of the futures that never were.