June 12, 2012
While the robot waiters of mid-’80s Pasadena were serving up chow mein at the Two Panda Deli in sunny California, another robot waiter 5,400 miles west was slinging spaghetti at Grazie’s Italian Restaurant in Tokyo.
Released in 1985 by the Japanese company Daimichi Koki with software designed by the Seibu Saison Group, Ken-chan was a 4-foot-tall robot waiter that buzzed around Grazie’s, helping most often with the wine selection. Ken-chan was supposedly guided by a radar senor that was intended to detect other objects around it and maneuver within the tight confines of a restaurant. However, the robo-waiter was far from autonomous, needing to be led around the restaurant by humans who used a remote control with a 12-foot cord.
Ken-chan couldn’t take orders or even set food on a table, but it did attract a crowd. Off the shelf, the metal server could utter just 15 different phrases in Japanese including “My name is Ken” and “How about dessert?”–but you could add the “Happy Birthday” song to its repertoire for an additional $425.
One of the restaurant’s managers, Kenichi Echiuya, first spotted the robot waiter at the 1985 World’s Fair in Tsukuba, Japan (known as Expo ’85). Ken-chan cost $43,000 (about $86,000, adjusted for inflation) and the early news stories about it were pretty glowing. An article in the September 12, 1985 issue of the military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo explained the novelty:
Anybody who’s in the mood for Italian food served with a unique flare should try a new restaurant called Grazie in Tokyo’s Ropongi district.
When it comes time for wine or the fruit or dessert course, you might find yourself looking not at a pretty waitress or handsome waiter, but at a $43,000 robot named “Ken-chan.”
A 1986 Associated Press article quotes the restaurant’s manager as saying that even if the robot isn’t very practical as a server, it certainly is good for business:
“Some people come in and order just a cup of coffee or tea to see the robot,” said Kenichi Echiuya, manager of Grazie’s and three other restaurants at the same location.
“This is a family restaurant, and the children especially love to see him,” he says. “He brings in customers.”
But by 1987 Ken-chan had become a symbol of overblown robot hype. The robot bubble, it seems, had burst. At least when it came to the hope of replacing human waiters. From the March 11, 1987 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes:
Scientists are predicting that labor-saving robots will revolutionize the industry in the 21st century and free millions from the drudgery of menial service jobs.
Restaurant manager Mitsugu Watarai, however, is taking those forecasts with a grain of salt. He attempted to introduce a mechanical waiter at his Grazie Italian Restaurant in the Ropongi entertainment district and calls the idea “impractical.”
The Pacific Stars and Stripes piece ends with a particularly depressing visual — the robot waiter relegated to the corner of the restaurant, waiting for a future that may not be quite as spectacular as we were promised.
Ken-chan now gathers dust in one corner of the restaurant, waiting for technology to catch up with the complexities of waiting tables. His inactivity is seemingly mute evidence that the 21st century and the golden age of robots might be a lot more than 13 years away.
April 25, 2012
At first glance, the cover of the April 1938 issue of Popular Science magazine looks like a particularly odd vision of the future. Is that a 1930′s rocketship, blasting off into space? What about the door on the right with a clearly marked “EXIT” sign above it?
Our Depression-era rocketship is indeed indoors and claims to be the design for a new planetarium exhibit that would show visitors the cosmos from the perspective of a soaring, futuristic spaceship.
Rocketing through space at lightning speeds, encircling the moon, streaking past planets, racing with a comet — these are some of the startling sensations promised visitors to an ingenious planetarium planned for an international exposition. Outside the domed structure, visitors enter a steel rocket ship fitted with circular windows.
The short article goes on to explain how the rocket would give the illusion of blasting off into space:
Wheeled through an arched doorway, the space ship glides into a steel turntable where it is tipped upward, pointing into the heavens pictured on the inside of the planetarium dome. As chemical vapor illuminated by colored lights roars out of exhaust vents at the rear of the ship, specially prepared motion pictures are projected onto the circular ceiling to give the effect of speeding through space on a whirlwind tour of the universe.
Though the “international exhibit” isn’t named, we can deduce that it was most likely for the 1939 New York World’s Fair the following year. Designed by Raymond Loewy, the exhibit wasn’t built precisely as Popular Science had described it. The final design still had a rocketship, but visitors were no longer seated inside of the vehicle. And rather than the stars, your new destination was London. Loewy’s design, depicting the spaceport mid-blast, is pictured below.
Found inside the Chrysler Motors Building, this “Focal Exhibit,” gave visitors a presentation of the past, present and future of transportation. Though the Focal Exhibit is not as well remembered as GM’s Futurama exhibit, it certainly presented visitors with a wondrous vision of the future, emphasizing that “the world has steadily grown smaller, its people drawn ever closer together by improved methods of transportation on land and sea and in the air.”
From the Official Guidebook to the 1939 New York World’s Fair:
What of transportation in the “World of Tomorrow?” As the airplane finishes its flight across the screen, lines shoot out and harness the earth with other planets. Twinkling signal lights, the hum of gigantic motors and the warning sound of sirens indicate that the Rocketship is loading passenger for London. You see futuristic liners unloading at nearby docks; sleek trains glide to a stop, automobiles whisk voyagers to the spot, high-speed elevators rise and descend as the Rocketship is serviced for the coming journey. The moment of departure arrives. A great steel crane moves, a magnet picks up the Rocketship and deposits it into the breach of the rocketgun. A moment of awesome silence. A flash, a muffled explosion, and the ship vanishes into the night.
November 23, 2011
Many Americans celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow will have a meal centered around Ben Franklin’s favorite bird — the turkey. But if this cartoon from the September 19, 1926 Ogden Standard-Examiner had proven prescient, the Thanksgiving meal of the 21st century would’ve been entirely pill-based.
The turn of the 20th century brought a whole host of predictions about the future of meat consumption and food chemistry in the United States. Whether borne of a Malthusian fear that the earth simply could not support a growing population, or a repulsion at the conditions of both slaughterhouses and the average American kitchen, the future of food was envisioned by many prognosticators as entirely meatless and often synthetic.
In an 1894 McClure’s magazine piece called “Foods in the Year 2000″ Professor Marcelin Berthelot predicted that chemistry would completely replace agriculture in providing humans the sustenance they need:
Wheat fields and corn fields are to disappear from the face of the earth, because flour and meal will no longer be grown, but made. Herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and droves of swine will cease to be bred, because beef and mutton and pork will be manufactured direct from their elements. Fruit and flowers will doubtless continue to be grown as cheap decorative luxuries, but no longer as necessities of food or ornament. There will be in the great air trains of the future no grain or cattle or coal cars, because the fundamental food elements will exist everywhere and require no transportation. Coal will no longer be dug, except perhaps with the object of transforming it into bread or meat. The engines of the great food factories will be driven, not by artificial combustion, but by the underlying heat of the globe.
Likewise, the March 29, 1895 newspaper Homestead (Des Moines, IA) wrote that, “a so purely practical man as Edison has indulged in prophesies of a time to come when agriculture shall be no more, and when the beefsteak of the future shall be the product of the chemist instead of that of the feeder and live-stock grower.”
Synthetic food was also seen as a possible liberator of women from the kitchen. In 1893 feminist Mary E. Lease, a vegetarian, advocated that food be synthesized in laboratories for both the benefit of woman and animal. She predicted that by 1993 the slaughterhouses would be converted into “conservatories and beds of bloom.”
A January 11, 1914 article in the Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) was titled “How Things Will Be in the Twenty-First Century” and assumed that the era would be entirely meat-free.
Cooking, perhaps, will not be done at any large scale at home… and cooking will be a much less disgusting process than it is now. We shall not do most of our cooking by such a wasteful and unwholesome method as boiling, whereby the important soluble salts of nearly all food are thrown away. As animal food will have been wholly abandoned before the end of this century, the debris of the kitchen will be much more manageable than at present.
Interestingly, that last line appears to have been plagiarized from Baron Russell. The March 17, 1907 Washington Post published an article from the Chicago Tribune titled “How Our Progeny Will Live One Hundred Years Hence.” The piece takes predictions from Russell, who wrote a book in 1905 titled A Hundred Years Hence. Russell imagines a world of air purifiers, automatic dishwashers, zero crime, and vegetarians.
While envisioning the kitchens of the future, Russell also notes that city buildings will be so high that there won’t be sufficient sunlight for people and vegetation below. The solution? Artificial electric light which is capable of sustaining life.
Cooking perhaps will not be done at all on any large scale at home. At any rate it will be a much less disgusting process than it is to-day. In no case will the domestic servant of a hundred years hence be called upon to stand by a roaring fire laid by herself and to be cleaned up by herself when done with in order to cook the family dinner. Every measure of heat will be furnished in electrically fitted receptacles with or without water jackets or steam jackets, and unquestionably all cooking will be done in hermetically closed vessels.
Animal food will have been wholly abandoned before the end of the century, the debris of the kitchen will be much more manageable than at present, and the kitchen sink will cease to be a place of unapproachable loathsomeness. Dishes and utensils will be dropped into an automatic receptacle for cleaning, swirled by clean water delivered with force and charged with nascent oxygen, dried by electric heat, and polished by electric force. And all that has come off the plates will drop through the scullery floor into the destructor beneath to be oxygenated and made away with.
All apartments in city houses will contain an oxygenator, which will furnish purer air than the air of the fresh countryside. And in bedrooms at least there will be a chemical apparatus which will absorb carbon dioxide and at the same time slowly give off a certain amount of oxygen — just enough to raise the oxygenation of the air to the standard of the best country places. Similar appliances will be at work in the streets, so that town air will be just as wholesome, just as tonic and invigorating as country air.
Since the high buildings of the future wil keep out the sunlight, electric light, carrying an all the ray activity of the sunlight and just as capable of fostering life and vegetation, will serve the street. Thus so far as hygiene goes, town life will be on a par with country life.
The absolutely fascinating 2006 book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food by Warren Belasco elaborates further on the hopes and fears of the era:
Similarly, in 1893 the first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Jeremiah Rusk, predicted that improvements in conventional farming could increase production sixfold — perhaps enough to feed even a billion Americans by 1990.
Rusk’s assessment was part of a series of nationally syndicated newspaper columns designed to transmit the largely cornucopian spirit of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Most of the series’ seventy-four experts confidently assumed that modern technologies — ranging from conventional seed selection to that science fiction favorite, the meal-in-a-pill — could easily feed the 150 million Americans expected in 1993 (actual: 256 million).