February 27, 2013
The February 1989 issue of Life magazine predicted that, by the year 2000, many staples of modern American life might find themselves on the scrapheap of history. Life predicted that by the year 2000 people would need to say goodbye to everything from film (pretty much) to all-male clergy in the Catholic church (not so much).
Bid ta-ta to LPs, fur coats and sugar. Toodle-oo to checkbooks, oil and swimming in the ocean. Happy trails to privacy, porno theaters and who knows, maybe even Democrats. It’s not just animals and vegetation that are departing the planet (currently one species every 15 minutes). With them goes, for better or worse, any number of the tangibles and intangibles now taken for granted. Gathered here are the contents of an as-yet-unburied time capsule dedicated to impending obsolescence. So should auld acquaintance be forgot…
The predictions are especially interesting in that they were made shortly before the birth of the modern web and the mid-1990s flood of non-tech types getting online. What then will bring about the decline of the mailman? The magazine insists that it’s not email, but the fax machine.
A few of the things that Life said you’d “Say goodbye to…”
The Red Cent
“The extinction of penny candy along with the high cost of copper have made the life expectancy of this coin not worth a plugged nickel.”
On February 4, Canada stopped putting their penny into circulation. They joined the likes of Australia, Norway and Sweden among others, but there’s no indication that Americans will be rid of Lincoln’s copper face anytime soon.
Water from faucets
“Play taps for this kind of H2O, which pollution will make unfit to drink.”
Bottled water is a $22 billion industry, with many people believing that it’s safer than tap water. But given the 1.5 million tons of plastic used to make those disposable bottles, it’s taking quite a toll on the environment.
“Using microchips, proud grandparents threaten to store thousands of images on portable show-and-tell miniscreens.”
Life‘s prediction about the death of film was pretty spot-on. The interesting detail that they missed: those “portable show-and-tell miniscreens” would also be know as phones.
“Fed up with C rations, Americans want fresh food. No word yet from the nation’s pampered pets.”
Here in the 21st century, farmer’s markets and fresh produce are more in vogue than meal pills and canned food. But what are we supposed to stock our zombie apocalypse bunkers with?
“A database owned by the phone company will feed every home with 5,000-plus movies — some worth watching — via optical fibers.”
Sure, your local video store may be shuttered, and you may even watch movies on your phone, but it’s not just the phone company that’s controlling the vast database of content you’re watching. Netflix, Redbox and iTunes have been absolutely devastating the business of Blockbusters everywhere.
“Invest your money in diaper services because the environment is crying for a change.”
The disposable diaper industry has shown no signs of slowing down in the 21st century, with about 3.6 million tons of diapers dumped into American landfills each year, making up about 2.1% of municipal waste.
“Not snow nor rain nor sleet stays these couriers, but the fax will.”
With the end of Saturday postal service coming this August, there’s no question that the USPS is struggling. But it certainly wasn’t the fax machine that made deadtree letters an endangered species. The people who knew what electronic mail was in 1989 were few and far between.
“Say ahh. Fluoridation and good oral hygiene will root out cavities.”
While oral hygiene has improved over the course of the last century, you’d be mistaken if you think it’s because fewer people are going to the dentist.
“The handwriting is on the wall. For security, we’ll no longer sign checks and documents. Instead fingerprints, read by an electronic eye, will serve as ID.”
We certainly seem to be moving in this direction, but you’re likely still scribbling your John Hancock on everything from credit card receipts to digital FedEx package scanners.
Plugs and Switches
“Voice-activated appliances and electronics with self-contained energy sources will be set to play from the word go.”
Nothing says late 20th century futurism quite like voice-activated control of everything. But until Siri and her robot friends work out the bugs (and maybe we feel less stupid shouting at our machines), it has quite a ways to go before it becomes a ubiquitous technology.
“Competition from cable and entertainment systems catering to highly individual tastes may deliver a TKO to television’s Big Three.”
The Big Three television networks have seen a decreasing market share since 1989, but they’re certainly alive and kicking here in the 21st century as they still have some of the largest budget shows and still host many of the live events (Academy Awards, Super Bowl) that are impervious to time shifting.
“As capitalist tools shore up the state, the U.S.S.R. will retire Lenin.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall wouldn’t happen until November of that year, though it’d be hard to call Communism in the 21st century completely dead. But even China’s Communist Party—though still 80 million members strong—has embraced its own version of quasi-capitalism.
“The lagoon city may be going, going, gondola as water and air pollution erode its functions.”
Venice is still a city, but with scary weather like the flooding this past November there’s no telling how much longer that may be the case.
“Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of this vanishing species.”
Life may not have seen the internet revolution that was just over the horizon, but at least they understood that typewriters were on their way out.
“Plastic cards that open electronic locks (although they work only erratically in today’s hotels) will also show up at the front doors of homes and offices.”
With all the attention being paid recently to the vulnerability of hotel keycards, it’s unlikely many of us will be trusting our front doors to those magnetic strips anytime soon.
“For heaven’s sake, anything can happen, even at the Vatican.”
Pope Benedict XVI delivered his final public address as Pope today, but despite a change of leadership, it’s unlikely the Catholic church will be ordaining women as priests in the near future.
Life had a few hits, and more than a few misses. But in a cruelly ironic twist Life didn’t predict yet another event of the year 2000… its own demise as a monthly magazine.
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.
January 17, 2012
I recently came across a short, silent film from 1922 called Eve’s Wireless. Distributed by the British Pathe company, the film supposedly shows two women using a wireless phone. Apparently this video has been making the rounds for the past few years. Could it be an early demonstration of some futuristic technology? I hate to be the Internet’s wet blanket, but no. It’s not a mobile phone.
Rather than an early mobile phone, think of the box they’re holding as an early Walkman; because the two women on the street don’t have a telephone, but rather a crystal radio. The confusion comes from the fact that the term “wireless telephone” was widely used in 1922 for what we simply call “radio” today.
The film opens with two women walking down the street with an umbrella and a radio in a box. An inter-title slate (the words that would appear in a silent movie to help aid in narrative development and were sometimes known as “letter cards”) explains that “It’s Eve’s portable wireless ‘phone — and won’t hubby have a time when he has to carry one!”
In the next shot the women approach a fire hydrant and attach a ground wire from the radio to the hydrant. Crystal radios don’t need a power source (like a battery) because they derive their power from a long antenna, which Eve has strung up through an umbrella.
After they get the umbrella up, one of the women puts a small speaker up to her ear. The film then cuts to a shot of a woman speaking into a microphone.
She then holds that microphone up to a phonograph, which is presumably playing music.
Since the woman on the street only has a speaker to her ear and no microphone, it’s reasonable to assume that our Jazz Age disc jockey can’t hear her talking to her friend. What’s not entirely clear from the film is whether the woman playing the phonograph is playing it for many people or just the two women on the snowy street. The use of the word “telephone” in 1922 didn’t necessarily mean two devices that could both receive and transmit messages. Sometimes (as possibly was the case with Eve’s Wireless) the telephone was used for a one-way message.
You can watch the entire film for yourself.
The use of an umbrella as an antenna for a crystal radio dates back at least to 1910, as we can see from the image below, which ran in the February 20, 1910 Washington Post. The image is pretty amazing to 21st century eyes, but it’s not until we read the last few lines of the accompanying article that we realize the wireless communication is only traveling in one direction and is little more than a crystal radio, which needs a ground connection.
Wives can call husbands at their offices or on the way to Harlem or the suburbs in the car and say, “Do stop at the butcher’s on the corner and get some liver and bacon!” It’s the girl’s day out. And you know how she is! She never orders a thing ahead….
Advice to Married Men – Don’t you care when your wife says angrily, “Don’t tell me, I know you heard me. I called you all day and your wireless telephone was in perfect condition when you fastened it to your hat this morning when you left the house.”
Affect a look of surprise and reply, “Don’t be angry dear. I forgot to take off my rubbers and wore them all day.”
Indeed, by 1922, the term “wireless telephone” as used in Eve’s Wireless was actually quite old fashioned. The article below from the January 31, 1909 Nevada State Journal also shows an early use of the term for point-to-point radio communication with ships on the Great Lakes.
An article in the May, 1922 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine even mentions the shift in terminology in an article called “The Romance of the Radio Telephone.”:
The story of the radio telephone is a study of extremes. It is the most popular fad at this moment, yet only a short while ago it was the most unpopular invention ever introduced to the public. To-day it is in many good hands for full and sound exploitation; a dozen years ago the wireless telephone, as it was then called, was the prey of unscrupulous stock promoters who used it as a means of prying money away from the gullible public.
Flip through the pages of an early radio magazine like Radio Broadcast published before June of 1922 and you’ll come across countless uses of the term “wireless telephone.” But by the July, 1922 issue almost every article and advertisement in Radio Broadcast had stopped using the term. This was no accident.
The U.S. Commerce Department held a meeting in 1922 to standardize the technical language of radio. At that meeting the Committee on Nomenclature of the Radio Telephone Conference defined terms like “interference” and “antenna.” The Committee also recommended the adoption of the word “radio” rather than “wireless.”
The June, 1922 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine devoted a page to explaining the committee’s recommendations with the headline, “What to Call Them.” The first recommendation on the list was about the use of the word “radio”:
In place of the word “Wireless” and names derived from it, use the prefix “Radio”; Radio Telegraphy, Radio Telephony
In 1922, the language of radio was in transition because of radical technological improvements made by men like Lee de Forest and Edwin Howard Armstrong over the previous twenty years. The concept of broadcasting (transmitting from one transmitter to many receivers) was technically impractical until the mid-1910s, when Armstrong improved vacuum tube technology, making it possible to amplify a radio signal thousands of times more than was capable before. During World War I, the U.S. government commandeered all wireless transmitters, which kept Armstrong’s technology from being used by anyone but the military. But after the war, the practical uses of radio as a form of mass media started to be realized.
The article below appeared in the June 15, 1919 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and describes the advances that were just over the horizon; a futuristic time when the president might address the entire nation simultaneously over the radio. The president “at the ‘phone” as it were:
The terms “wireless telegraphy” and “wireless telephone” were kind of like calling the automobile a “horseless carriage.” Telephones and electric telegraphs in the early 1900s depended on physical lines that would transmit voices and electrical impulses from one person to another. An article by Prof. J. H. Morecroft in the July, 1922 issue of Radio Broadcast magazine explains why the transition was made from using the term “wireless” to the term “radio.”
The new idea of using radiated energy, as contrasted to the previous schemes, gives us the reason for the change of name from wireless telegraphy, up to now a proper name for the art, to that of radio communication, indicating that the power used in carrying the message was not due to conduction through the earth’s surface, or to magnetic induction, but to energy which was actually shaken free from the transmitting station antenna, and left to travel freely in all directions.
In 1922 telephones were hard-wired and your voice was carried over lines that would have to go to an operator. The operator would then patch you in with another physical wire to the desired recipient of your call.
British Pathe even referred to the supposed mobile phone in Eve’s Wireless as the first “flip phone” because the top of the radio receiver opened.
But as you can see from the photos and advertisement below, this was a popular design for crystal radios in the early 1920s.
Below are photographs from the Library of Congress which date from between 1910 and 1915. The handwritten description on the bottom reads, “Wireless Telephone, Los Angeles.”
You’ll notice that in the picture below it says “McCarthy Wireless ‘phone,” not “iPhone,” as my 21st century brain initially read it:
History often plays linguistic tricks on us. We all look back at earlier eras through the prism of our own biases. The evolution of language — especially when it comes to rapidly changing technologies — can make us think we’re watching or reading about something much more incredible than it is. However, there was a lot of exciting futuristic communications technologies that people were devising at the beginning of the radio age, and we’ll look at a few of those in the weeks to come.