The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
In the 1950s every kid loved Gyro Gearloose. First, he was an inventor, a gadgeteer, an eccentric genius, progenitor of the coolest things. He built a flying saucer once and it doesn't come close to his top ten best. He had a little helper named Little Helper. It had metal arms and legs that looked like they could be found in your father's toolbox and a light bulb for a head that lit up whenever he had a good idea. Gyro's inventions always worked, too. Usually the problem was that they worked too well - the world wasn't ready for the way he thought, sideways yet to the point. The art was perfect and the stories ended with a perfectly made point, because they were both written and drawn by Carl Barks, who was better than anyone else working in comics in the 1950s. Gyro came at the tail end of a five-year burst of creativity that started with Uncle Scrooge in 1947 and soon enlarged to encompass the many-splendored whole of Duckburg, a city of infinite possibilities that co-existed with the farthest-flung corners of our Earth, each of which Scrooge visited as part of his endless and thoroughly researched adventures with Donald and Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the Junior Woodchucks, an outfit also created by Banks.
Duckburg may have been a huge city, but we saw it through the eyes of the various members of the Duck clan and their shirt-tale relatives, the Geese, including Bark's Gladstone Gander, and the Chickens, of whom Gyro was the proudest scion. An unstoppable comedy trope from the dawn of time involved throwing a character up against his or her diametrical opposite and letting merry hijinks ensue. The Duckburgian most least like Gyro had to be Grandma Duck, nee Elvira Coot, wife of Humperdink Duck, mother of Quackmore Duck, who was father of Donald. Born in the 19th century, a farm dweller her entire life, Grandma Duck hews to the olden ways and refuses to change them an iota, since they continue to work so superbly, although she has condescended to drive a sensible Detroit Electric automobile vintage circa 1910.
In Grandma's Loaded Landing, Gyro olunteers to cook dinner for Grandma Duck. Her cooking is famous. It's old-fashioned, of course, cooked on a gigantic wood stove that calls for four hands and a deft eye. Gyro is appalled at the amount of work that would entail. He's devoted his life to transforming long arduous tasks to the simplest, easiest, quickest technologically-assisted bagatelle. No need to cook, he tells her, I've invented food pills. She's dubious but unfailingly polite, so they swallow their pills and go off to bed. In the middle of the night Gyro's stomach is growling from emptiness so he sneaks into her kitchen for a snack. And there he finds Grandma Duck, also unsatisfied and unfulfilled with her meal. She whips up the giant tableload of food that says Grandma in any language and they both agree that food pills will never replace old-fashioned cooking.
Food pills are the comic relief of the Consensus Future. Born in the late 19th century - around the same time as Grandma Duck - out of the near total ignorance about what food was and what food did in the body, overconfident scientists swelled with hubris about their soon-to-be-achieved mastery of chemistry and biology. The inefficient and often insufficient farming system that employed the bulk of the world's population but still left millions hungry needed to be replaced by a more rational system. Throwing a few chemicals together meant that food could be created out of dirt, directly that is, and the busy businessman could eat at his desk and not waste his time at two-hour lunches.
Eventually scientists learned about carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, not to mention fiber, and figured out that food necessarily contained bulk that only a magic pill could contain inside a capsule. Food pills were impossible, yet they kept appearing both in fiction and in the real world, especially after vitamins were discovered. Vitamin pills are food pills in all but name, a near-magic panacea that will counteract all the other junk you put in your mouth. The notion that vitamins are vital kept the hope that similar magic in pill form could yet be found by the sufficiently clever, a hope that mostly keeps alive a vast and profitable online industry devoted to selling you promises in a pill.
What nobody has ever solved is that problem of taste. Food tastes good. Often the worse it is for you, the better it tastes to a species evolved to hanker after fat, sugar, and salt. Food pills are punishments, fit only for emergency rations for astronauts and polar explorers. We might want their convenience but we fight their puritanical medicinal bleakness. Food pills say more than almost anything else about the Future we wanted. It's full of contradictions and impossible to create, but the longing never quite completely stops.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Excerpt from James Payn's “The Fatal Curiosity; or, A Hundred Years Hence,” one of the first mentions of food pills in fiction, with an Introduction.
2. A LETTER FROM THE INVISIBLE POLICE
For once, food pills aren't comic relief but part of a very dark future.
3. MENU OF CHEMICAL FOODS
Fred T. Jane imagines the future from 1895.
4. BAUM'S MAGIC PILLS
L. Frank Baum's 1901 follow-up to The Wizard of Oz: The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale.
5. THE NEW FOOD
Stephen Leacock spoofed the food pill at Christmas dinner in his first, 1910, collection of short humor,
6. A TRIP TO PLUTOPIA
The literal 1% rule the world on the backs of the food-pill fed working class.
7. THAT SYNTHETIC FOOD OF THE FUTURE
Traces the history of a famed syndicated cartoon on food pills back to the 1926 scientific conference that spawned it.
8. OUR BOARDING HOUSE
The resident blowhard has a brilliant idea - food pills.
9. FOOD PILLS IN COMIC STRIPS
More dimbulb inventors get into more hot water with food pills.
10. SUITCASE AIRPLANES
30 years before George Jetson folded his car into a briefcase, E. D. Skinner was folding his 10-pound airplanes.
11. FOOD FOR STARVING PATRIOTS
The Justice Society of America carry food pills to feed the captive populations in Nazi-occupied Europe.
12. DAN DARE AND THE FOOD CAPSULES
The hero of England's greatest sf strip must stop an entire planet of food-crazed aliens.
13. GYRO GEARLOOSE'S FOOD PILL
Disney inventor Gyro treats Grandma Duck to a full dinner in a pill.