The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
I'D LIKE TO SEE THEM MAKE...
Looking at lists of what people think is needed is a quick and easy way to get a slice into contemporary technology as well as peoples' psyches. Articles on predictions for the future fall into this realm. So do suggestions for Inventions That Ought to Be Invented.
Combining the idea with cute cartoons was a popular newspaper feature, probably culminating in Ray Gross' hundreds of cartoons for his strip Can It Be Done? in the 1930s. Naturally the popular technology magazines couldn't resist. Raymond Francis Yates's column "What to Invent" ran in Mechanics and Handicraft magazine for years in the mid-1930s. (Was there ever a mag with a more on-the-nose name?)
After WWII, with consumer demand pouring out of the unnatural hold on new technology forced by the Depression and War, Popular Science magazine started a similar column called "I'd Like to See Them Make." It's twist was soliciting the ideas from their readers, awarding them a big five dollar prize if the idea was used. That translates to about $125 in 2020 money, not a bad return for a postcard.
The column must have been popular: it ran for decades. Cartoonists were rotated regularly. The earliest were humorous, almost caricatures, but by the start of 1950s they had turned realistic. That's no fun, so I'm going to limit myself to the 1940s. The first appearance was in the April 1946 issue, after which the column ran irregularly; sometimes monthly, sometimes skipped.
Lots of contemporary concerns on exhibit. Discharge buttons were a short-lived concern and leaky tires would soon be eliminated by better materials. But hands-free phones have been a recurring need down to today's headsets and earbugs.
Compare these ideas to those in the same issue from the magazine's other regular feature, New Ideas from the Inventors.
You see a similar mixture of useful, imaginative, and just plain silly notions along a continuum from frivolous to life-saving. Popular Science in a nutshell.
As Henry Petroski, my favorite writer on engineering topics, often points out, form doesn't follow function, form follows failure. Products don't spring whole from the minds of genius-level inventors; they arise out of the myriad of little irritations of products that don't quite meet all our needs. They could be faster, or quieter, or more adaptable, or contain more helpful features. Every user of every product must have grumped at the lack of their ability to conform to our needs and comforts. Modern companies have long used focus groups to point out these failures that occur in the ways that multiple households use a product, in ways no lab would ever imagine. (Open-source software institutionalized the user's dream of pointing out a problem and providing a solution.)
By July 1946, the cartoons were turned over to Syd Landi, who had drawn for Yank and Service during the war and would for the next several decades contribute cartoons to a huge number of magazines. His style was looser and his imagination zanier than the "F. C." who drawn the first couple of installments.
Much of the charm of these user-supplied ideas lie in that vast chasm between identifying a problem and providing a workable solution. Those inventors who were featured in New Ideas had a failure rate of near 100% for getting their ideas incorporated into general society. Hindsight gives the letter-writers the advantage of seven decades of technological advancement and loose interpretations of what it means for their notions to become real.
Most of the above ideas have therefore come true, for various definitions of "come true." Battery-operated foot warmers exist, northern motorists have long used electric warmers to keep cars from freezing in below zero winters, phone have adjustable loudness for ring tones, minor leagues already are experimenting with miking the players, and my car is equipped with cameras and sonar all around to warn me about obstacles. Typewriter ribbons to work in the dark? Well, nobody bats 1.000. In fact. I'm betting Skippy McRitchie was a spy; that couldn't be a real name.
Viewphones had been predicted regularly since the 19th century and they of course pop up again here in the October 1946 column. Did cars really not have oil and water guages back then? They have for decades. And my last couple of cars give me readouts of the pressure in each tire as well as a warning signal if a drop occurs.
This was the only early one with a color tint to make the page pop out. I wish they'd done that more often, it really works.
We forget just how much casual sexism was present in that era. The November 1946 installment shows Landi falling back on the cartoonist's staples of nasty mother-in-law and complaisant secretary jokes. Somebody must have exerted an editorial hand, though, because they mostly stop after this. What doesn't end is the stereotyping of women as yakkers, shoppers, and homemakers. The only job they're ever allowed is secretary.
People of color have it far worse. They're kept out of every illustration save for one in December 1946, in which they are used in the stereotypical role of train porters. Perhaps to make them stand out less, the passenger is also rendered in silhouette. That "sneeze trap" looks timely, though. (People of the future. I'm writing this in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The nose muff in the April 1947 column sure looks silly, but a Google image search for "nose muff" shows that the real thing is even sillier.
Another idea that came to life is the book that glows in the dark, eventually solved by LCDs and backlit e-ink droplets for the joy of millions. Adjustable seats are an idea that needs to happen for those millions of us who aren't exact median height.
Does anyone eat grapefruit for breakfast anymore? There's no reason they shouldn't, but its life as the standard breakfast seemed to come to an abrupt halt sometime in the 1960s. Blame it on The Beatles. Or maybe The Monkees.
Readers provided a never-ending flow of suggestions for cars, every one of which is now standard. Is there another industry that listens so closely to its customers?
Easily breakable glass products are another relic of the past. Plastics may be abominated today but they became ubiquitous for good reason. The plague of breaking glass needed to be stopped. Ask every youngster who lived with the horror of dropping their eyeglasses.
The July 1947 column reminds us that battery-operated devices were rare in the 1940s. So many of these suggestions were for little conveniences that manufacturers have tended to over the years. And no-lick stamps are ubiquitous.
But some conveniences still are just beyond out grasp. Who wouldn't want a waiter catcher? At least we all have earphones, headphones, earbuds, and noise-cancelers to shut out the world.
Starting in 1948, Lester Fagans took over the art, launching the trend toward realistic depictions. Notice they're no longer even called cartoons. Rather, they get the dignity of being "drawings." They remain era-specific, with suggestions for pipes, fountain pens, and twin beds.
"I'd Like to See Them Make" lasted through the 1960s but seems to have been abandoned when Popular Science switched to a new size and format in 1970. One nice change - as this installment from July 1964 shows, women were finally let out of the kitchen.
March 30, 2020