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.
December 20, 2012
Some people are up in arms over a recent update to Santa Claus that excised his smoking habit. However you feel about Santa losing his pipe, let me assure you that this won’t be the last time that Santa gets a makeover. It’s easy for some people to forget that every generation has “updated” Santa to fit with the times — or in some cases to fit with the future.
As the 1800s gave way to the 1900s, many Americans felt like perhaps Santa Claus needed a new way of getting from house to house. Since the early 19th century, old Saint Nick had been using a sleigh and reindeer to deliver his presents. But by the 1890s some Americans thought an automobile would be a more modern form of transportation for the jolly old man. However, some illustrators didn’t think that the automobile was quite modern enough and wanted to blast Santa into the future with his very own flying machine.
The postcard above (sent in 1908) shows Santa smoking his pipe in his flying machine and dropping a doll down some lucky kid’s chimney.
The December 1922 issue of Science and Invention magazine included a list of the best radio parts to buy your little “radio bug.” The list included an illustration of a young boy dreaming about Santa Claus soaring through the sky in his flying machine. That large aerial sitting behind Santa lets us know that he’s definitely hip to the latest technology of the Roaring Twenties.
The December 22, 1900 issue of the Duluth Evening Herald in Duluth, Minnesota ran a page claiming that Santa’s reindeer would be put out of work soon as he skims over the tops of houses in his flying machine.
The December 21, 1900, edition of the Carbondale Press in Carbondale, Illinois included the illustration above — “The Twentieth Century Santa Claus.” Just as there were debates at the turn of the 21st century over whether to celebrate the year 2000 or 2001 as the beginning of the century, so too were they fighting over the start of the 20th. Unlike the 21st century however — where 2000 pretty much won out for those impatient yet Y2K-compliant souls — it was generally accepted that the year 1901 would be the proper time to celebrate the beginning of the 20th century.
This illustration of Santa “up to date” comes from the December 24, 1901 Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette in Cedar Rapids Iowa. This may be the most modern of them all because if you look carefully you’ll see that Santa Claus patented his flying invention. I guess he didn’t want the Easter Bunny biting his style.
The December 19, 1897, issue of the Galveston Daily News in Galveston, Texas ran a poem by Earle Hooker Eaton titled “The Song of Santa Claus.” The poem speaks of Kris Kringle’s new flying machine and how neglected the poor reindeer are. Here’s hoping their “pitiful fate” was simply being put out to pasture rather than meeting some grisly demise at the hands (or hooves) of modernity.
With a whirr of my wings I’m away on the wind,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! Like a bird in the sky,
And my home at the Pole soon is left far behind,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! But it’s cold up so high!
I’ve a packet of trinkets and candy and toys,
To slip in the stockings of misses and boys,
Till heart after heart is a storehouse of joys,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! How delightful to fly!
Every whir of my wings speeds me swift on my way
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! What a wonderful gait!
For the horse and the reindeer have both had their day,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! What a pitiful fate!
Poor Dasher and Dancer no longer are seen,
And Donder and Blitzen with envy are green,
Kris Kringle now travels by flying machine,
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! But I’m right up to date!
Do you have a favorite vision of futuristic Santa Claus? How do you suppose Santa will get around in the year 2100?
December 6, 2012
“No person will walk where automobiles move,” is how British architect Geoffrey Alan Jellicoe described his town of the future, “and no car can encroach on the area sacred to the pedestrian.”
Jellicoe was talking to the Associated Press in 1960 about his vision for a radically new kind of British town—a town where the bubble-top cars of tomorrow moved freely on elevated streets, and the pedestrian zipped around safely on moving sidewalks. For a town whose main selling point was the freedom to not worry about getting hit by cars, it would have a rather strange name: Motopia.
Planned for construction about 17 miles west of London with an estimated cost of about $170 million, Motopia was a bold—if somewhat impractical plan—for a city built from the ground up. The town was envisioned as being able to have a population of 30,000, all living in a grid-pattern of buildings with an expanse of rooftop motorways in the sky. There would be schools, shops, restaurants, churches and theaters all resting on a total footprint of about 1,000 acres.
Motopia was to be a town with no heavy industry; a “dormitory community” where people largely found work elsewhere. The community was imagined as modern but tranquil; a town where accepting the bold new postwar future didn’t mean giving up the more peaceful aspects of daily living. But what about all the noise from the roads above? The planners were quick to point out that a special kind of insulation would be used to block out any of the noise from all the cars roaring along on your roof.
“In this town we are separating the biological elements from the mechanical,” Jellicoe told the Associated Press at the time. “The secret is as simple as that.”
Britain passed the New Towns Act of 1946 after World War II, which gave the government the power to quickly designate land for new development. Even before fighting had ceased the British began planning how they might rebuild London, while funneling population to less dense towns just outside the city. London had been battered during the war and the rapid development of towns was necessary to accomodate the overspill of population. Fourteen new towns were established between 1946 and 1950 after the passage of the New Towns Act, but according to Guy Ortolano at New York University, these modestly designed communities didn’t impress the more avant-garde planners of the day.
As Ortolano explains in his 2011 paper, “Planning the Urban Future in 1960s Britain,” just one new town was established by Conservative British governments in the 1950s. But the baby boom sparked new interest in town development as the ’60s arrived.
The September 25, 1960 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” was devoted to Jellicoe’s Motopia and gave readers in North America a splashy and colorful peek at the city of tomorrow. Radebaugh’s cars were less bubble-top and more mid-century Detroit-tailfin than his British designer counterparts, which was only natural given that Radebaugh was based in Detroit. He also made the moving sidewalk a much more prominent part of his illustrations than the designs coming from Jellicoe and his team.
Ortolano explains in his paper that between 1961 and 1970 new town development in Britain became much more ambitious and experimental, incorporating the private automobile, monorail and even hovercraft as more central characters in its designs. But Motopia was not to be, despite the rosey predictions of Jellicoe.
“Motopia is not only possible, but it is practical because it is economical,” Jellicose told the Associate Press. “The dwellings would be no more expensive than housing for a similar population in tall buildings, such as those used by the London City Council in some of its developments.”
Jellicoe described the futuristic city of Motopia as like “living in a park,” which again, begs the question of the name. But this wasn’t Jellicoe’s only vision for the city of the future. As the January 30, 1960 issue of Stars and Stripes explained, Jellicoe had many ideas for the British landscape of tomorrow: ”‘Soho in 2000,’ a plan for ripping out the famed old section of London and rebuilding it for 20th Century life; a High Market shopping center for the small industrial cities of the Midlands that don’t have adequate shopping facilities at present; and St. John’s Circus, a modern development south of London that would utilize a huge traffic circle and heliports.”
Alas, none of these futuristic visions were realized, but you can watch a short newsreel of Jellicoe’s plans for Motopia at British Pathe.
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 9, 2012
This is the third in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
Each and every year at least one company goes knocking on the doors of the major news outlets and announces to the world that the futuristic vision of a flying car will be a practical reality within a few short years. Some of these companies appear to be making these promises in earnest, fully recognizing that their flying cars — should they ever hit the market — will be wildly expensive and essentially just road-legal airplanes. Other flying car companies are far more sketchy and have gotten into hot water with the FEC over their questionable fundraising practices.
But any way you look at it, a flying car in every garage is still a long way from becoming a part of the average American’s reality.
The Jetsons didn’t invent the flying car, but it sure did a lot to cement the idea of the airborne automobile into the American imagination. The third episode of “The Jetsons” is the show’s first in-depth look at the cars of the future. Titled “The Space Car,” the episode originally aired on Sunday October 7, 1962.
The episode opens with a seemingly sentient computer doing its best to wake George from his slumber. The family all meets for breakfast in the dining room and George does his best to cook a meal by push-button. In true early-TV sitcom fashion George fails miserably at this task. Jane talks to her friend by videophone and then we’re introduced to two shady-looking characters who will serve to create confusion with their cops and robbers hijinks. George and Jane set out to buy a new car and arrive at Molecular Motors where they and the viewers at home are treated to a car salesman’s pitch from the year 2062.
Longtime readers of Paleofuture will, of course, be familiar with dozens of flying cars that predate the 1962 arrival of The Jetsons on the small screen. From the fully functional (if impractical) Aerocar of the early 1950s to Hugo Gernsback’s 1923 vision of a two-wheeled flying car, we’ve seen hundreds of predictions for the flying car of the future throughout the 20th century. Plenty of flying cars would follow the Jetsons as well, like when two men in California died in 1973 after they tried strapping airplane wings on a Pinto.
The car shopping montage in this episode appears to have been inspired by the tone and style of Tex Avery‘s late-1940 and early-’50s “Of Tomorrow” cartoons. Avery’s cartoons looked at the TV, house, farm and car of tomorrow with an irreverent flare. Many of the sight gags from “The Space Car” pay homage to this style of dissecting the various goofy caricatures of futuristic thinking, adhering to the comedic (and often sexist) stylings of the time.
In fact, the “mother-in-law” joke we see in The Jetsons is identical to that of Tex Avery’s “Car of Tomorrow” cartoon short, right down to the color of the car.
The car companies themselves, as much as anyone, were promoting the idea of a radical shift in automobiles in the coming decades. The April 25, 1959 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune relayed the beliefs of Ford VPs, who touted the flying car as one of the many innovations still to come:
Can you imagine an autoist driving up to a “gas” station 50 years from now and receiving replacement energy capsules for his car instead of getting a tank full of liquid fuel?
Also, can you imagine flying automobiles directed by automatic guidance systems?
These were possibilities discussed last week by Dr. Andrew A. Kucher, Ford Motor company vice president in charge of engineering and research, in an address at Northwestern University.
Arthur Radebaugh‘s syndicated Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” was also a likely inspiration for The Jetsons’ vision of flying cars. The April 6, 1958 edition of the strip imagined cars that would ride on a cushion of air, according to Kucher, who was eager to tout this idea in the press during that time.
Look, pa, no wheels! Use of a thin layer of compressed air may allow autos to hover and move just above ground level.
A pipe dream? Not at all. The concept (already proved) comes from scientist Andrew Kucher, vice-president of engineering at one of our major motor companies. His people are studying how to maintain stability. Special highway engineering is one way. Another is skillful design, evidenced already in experimental ideas from the staff of motor stylist George W. Walker.
Today’s earthbound cars won’t turn into low flying carpets right away. But it may happen sooner than we think!
The episode essentially boils down to the “men can’t cook, women can’t drive, mother-in-laws are terrible” sitcom trope, but the episode serves to further the vision of a technologically advanced society. Unfortunately for The Jetsons, it was on October 7, 1962 that they started to get their bad press. As I mentioned in my first post about the historical significance of The Jetsons, the show struggled as it was up against the tremendously popular “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” Filling in for Jay Fredericks of the Gazette Mail in Charleston, West Virgina, writer L.T. Anderson wrote of his love for what Disney had been doing the past few Sundays on NBC, and his distaste for The Jetsons on ABC in that same time slot: “The Jetsons, a cartoon series about a family of the future, was so bad that my eight-year-old son turned off and said a dirty word.”