The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
NEW DEPARTURES OF TOMORROW
Part of a series of articles on ad campaigns featuring futuristic inventions. See also Pan-Am's Rocket Car, Super-Transport on Super-Highways, Quaker State's "Year's Ahead" Campaign,
New Departure is a heck of a name for a company. It promises the future, or at least a total break from the past. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the new department in the name eschewed the future for the past.
Albert Rockwell came to Bristol, CT, in 1889 because of its reputation for high-quality clock parts. He had a new doorbell he wanted to manufacture. Electricity was the hot new technology and most new doorbells were being wired into homes. Rockwell scorned that. His used a clockwork spring mechanism. He named his firm the New Departure Bell Company.
Who am I to scoff at success? Rockwell expanded his inventive prowess in a half dozen directions. The doorbell led to the bicycle bell and then to the invention of the coaster brake, a gigantic advance in bicycle safety. In 1904 he created a taxicab. The now famous Yellow Taxicab Company of New York fame was another of his brainstorms.
Along the way, in 1901, Rockwell came up with a better way of making ball bearings. The bicycle fad had faded quickly and the brutal New York cab competition crushed his taxi operation. Ball bearings were a safer market: they were needed in everything and couldn't go out of style. The company's name changed to New Departure Ball Bearings. After Rockwell retired, Albert F. Sloan swallowed the company and incorporated it into his United Motors in 1916. United became General Motors, the corporation legendarily run by Sloan that in a decade dethroned Ford as the world's largest car company.
New Departure products rolled along in GM cars and in a multitude of other products. Its sleek ads in the early 30s looked like they had been dropped in via time machine.
GM thought enough of the division to give it a spot in its Hall of Progress at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition.
With GM's money and advertising department behind it, New Departure could control to roll out unusual and eye-catching advertising. They even got Dr. Seuss to draw their ads. Wait. Did Dr. Seuss invent the Flintstones in 1942?
Their all-time best advertising campaign, IMHO, started in January 1955. For reasons I can't imagine and I've never seen explained, New Departures decided to start advertising in Scientific American (SA). Ball bearings are found everywhere, as I've said, and that includes scientific equipment, but very few pieces of technology are purchased on the basis of the quality of their ball bearings. Doubly odd is that New Departures placed their ads on the magazine's rear covers. The rear cover of a magazine is an especially desirable spot because it is so easily visible; therefore the cost of a rear cover ad is more, possibly several times more, than an interior ad. As if that added expense wasn't a sufficient deterrent, the ads were in full color. Color was extremely expensive to print in the 1950s. Scientific American had no interior pages at all in full color. Only the four pages formed by wrapping a glossy stock paper around the less expensive interior pages had full color: the front cover and three advertising pages, the inside front cover plus the rear cover and inside rear cover. SA managed to attract full-color ads on all three only 7 of 24 months in 1955 and 1956. That's how rare and costly such an ad purchase was. Yet New Departures ran not merely one but a series of ads every other month for those two years. True, they got a volume discount, but an analogy might be buying a series of Cadillacs when your budget normally ran to Chevys. Odd is a pathetic understatement.
I have to hope that New Departures felt it got its money's worth, because the ad campaign looks wonderful to modern eyes, wild, whimsical, eye-catching, and thought-provoking. New Departures built their campaign around ... new departures. Finally. Each ad postulated a seemingly plausible new future advance over current design. Similar optimism about what postwar prosperity would bring to Mr. and Mrs. America could be found in every issue of the popular science magazines and amazingly often in mainstream magazines and newspapers. The world of tomorrow so often dangled in front of Depression-era sufferers had arrived as promised with more and better stuff on the way. The ads cleverly reminded buyers that New Departure ball bearings were currently being used by "leading manufacturers" and gave an implicit reassurance that the company would still be around tomorrow when the futuristic products required them. Stability and excellence all in one brightly-colored package. They ran it up the flagpole and everybody saluted.
The ads, in chronological order.
New Departures was off by only about 50 years in this forecast. A bevy of machines that wash, dry, and fold have been introduced, as least as concepts, in the past few years, like the Panasonic Sustainable Maintainer. As we'll see, most of the near-future gadgets the ads forecast would never see reality. Innovations that seemed easy and natural increments over the present almost always prove to be near-impossible without an unexpected breakthrough.
Scientific American, January 1955
The proto-Jetson look of the drawings were the signature of Fred McNabb. He specialized in homely scenes of upscale suburbanites drinking beer in the present or lounging in their sure-to-appear futuristic homes. A two-page spread he drew for the January 22, 1956 American Weekly is a fixture on retrofuturism sites. Note that he incorporated the Automatic Home Laundry into the scene.
Machines that cut and de-limb trees are called harvesters, with the first fully mobile one being introduced in 1973. That's only a quarter-century later than the Automatic Lumberjack. The ads would continue to slew wildly between housework, officework, and brawny machinery. Ball bearings are everywhere.
Scientific American, March 1955
The Valet-mat looks suspiciously like a dry-cleaning copy of the Automatic Home Laundry. I suppose the truly futuristic aspect of the drawing is that the husband is doing the work.
Scientific American, May 1955
Farm Hands were to become as obsolete as every other expensive labor-hogging profession. Farm fertilizing machinery is a familiar sight today, although none look quite like these bubble-topped behemoths. Bubble concept cars were wildly popular in the 1950s so bubble fertilizer-planter units were the logical extension. Didn't anyone in the 1950s understand that a bubble of glass stews whoever is inside, and strains the air conditioning? I suppose not or else we wouldn't have gotten the AMC Pacer.
Scientific American, July 1955
No men in this kitchen, although none were needed with a Super Chef. How the machine took food out of the freezer, cooked it via infra-red ray, and arranged it neatly on plates on a conveyor belt is best left to the imagination. An infra-red ray is merely a heat lamp, not much of an advance. When McNabb created his home of the future he included a microwave oven in what looks to be a similar arrangement. That's probably because microwave ovens were only huge and hugely expensive contraptions for the first half of the 1950s. Not until 1955 did they start being touted as part of the kitchen of the future, one of the first mentions being in that very issue of American Weekly.
Scientific American, September 1955
Commute from the suburbs in a atomic-powered flying saucer to a Metro-Port! Why wasn't this the last in the series as the topper? Earlier in the decade, the popular science magazines assumed readers that such commutes to landing fields on top of skyscrapers would soon be available through personal helicopters or flying cars. Saucer craft that seem to be able to handle an entire commuter train's worth of passengers soars that vision by a couple of orders of magnitude. I hope it's just a trick of perspective that makes those rocket blasts appear to be washing over the crowd. Note the inevitable 50s monorail that connects the Metro-Port with the rest of the city on a wire that must have been spun by Spider-Man for its tensile strength.
Scientific American, November 1955
That's where the men are, bow-tied executives at the office dictating into the Letter-Matic, a female hovering abstractly in the background. If science fiction is always about the present, as I loudly claim, so is advertising. Advertisers do not want to change their world: they want to reinforce it. Bespectacled middle-aged men with a touch of distinguished gray at their temples ran the companies which bought ball bearings for their products, controlling them at every level down to the midlevel staff who decided which brand of ball bearings their own foresighted engineers, also males, would install in the machinery they in turn sold. It was men all the way down. The displaced squadrons of secretarial staff could go home and push buttons on their Super-Chefs and get through the long days waiting for the arrival of the hot bread trucks. The Feminine Mystique was seven years in their future.
Scientific American, January 1956
Fresh frozen wasn't yet a term and wouldn't appear for more than a decade, yet the concept surely could be understood by every supply chain manager who knew the huge losses and therefore the huge costs that every moment of time placed upon transmigrating raw materials into finished products. The blue collar setting is a red herring. The Complete Angler is more directly aimed at home office brass than even the Letter-Matic. Calling it an Angler is a nice touch in a decade when part of the stereotype of executive males is their love of getting away weekends for some fishing, drinking, and male bonding away from the womanfolk.
Scientific American, March 1956
Viewers of these ads needed to instinctively understand that each future was to be considered de novo. Trying to piece them together into a coherent future world is a fool's game fit only for science fiction purists. If automatically cleaning, gutting, trimming, sorting, freezing, and packaging fish were accomplishable by a single machine then surely getting a box of food into a car trunk would be trivial by comparison. Yet this image of suburbanites driving to a Drive-in Market to pick up a week's worth of bread and milk - hot bread delivery trucks notwithstanding - strikes the modern eye as foreseeing today's service economy. Actual supermarket employees await at most chains to carry prepackaged orders out to cars for quick pickup in a world of increasingly minimal free time. The only differences are that the orders are emailed earlier to give the employees time to assemble them and none of the cars have the dreaded bubble tops.
Scientific American, May 1956
Wait, weren't the housewives getting their bread from Drive-in Markets for convenience? Once again we're reminded that this is not a coherent exercise in world-building. A hot bread Bake-O-Mat truck cruising the suburbs is well past whimsy into head-scratching oddness. What do those astoundingly wasp-waisted housewives do with their time? Obsessively exercise? Besides, those loaves of plastic-wrapped bread aren't going to be any hotter by dinnertime than Wonder Bread. On the plus side, one of the dispensers reads "Health." Clive McCay, a professor of nutrition at Cornell University, created a healthier recipe for bread in the 1930s, used for feeding institutionalized mental patients. In the 1950s it was sold commercially as Cornell Health Bread. Soy flour, wheat germ, and nonfat dry milk added the extra oomph.
Scientific American, May 1956
Scientific American, July 1956
With history's usual precision irony, the prediction shunted off second farthest into the future was the one closest at hand. Earlier in 1956 Malcom McLean had a grand launch of the SS Ideal-X, a converted tanker carrying fifty-eight 35-foot shipping containers. The Ideal-X moved them from the port of Newark to the post of Houston, where they could be unloaded and refitted onto trucks or trains. Costs of loading a ship dropped from $5.86 per ton to 16 cents. A representative of the longshoreman's union presciently said at the time, "I'd like to sink that son-of-a-bitch." McLean needed until at least 1968 for the world to catch up with him and retrofit the cranes and connectors required to make loading and unloading close to automatic but today's world depends on shipping containers making travel costs virtually negligible. This would have been the best prediction in history if it didn't take place after the fact. (You could argue that the entire campaign had probably been written in 1954, before the first one appeared, but a few small container ventures had been sailing since 1952.)
Scientific American, September 1956
Short-haired male with glasses and white shirt? Is that the same guy with a Letter-Matic? Naturally, a female is in the background doing nothing obvious. At least today she would have an iPad. Of more interest are the pictures on those giant screens labeled Order Assembly. Astounding anticipations of Amazon, is that a robot picking packages in an automated Wonder Warehouse? Certainly is. Interesting that the male-oriented extrapolations have a higher percentage that achieved real-world status than those for housewives.
Scientific American, November 1956
And then there's The Mystery of the 13th Image, a great title for a Golden Age mystery whodunnit. The Portable Air Conditioner - 1963? seen at the top of the page is obviously part of the same ad campaign. Some sites give it a date of 1955, which would be appropriate were it not for the fact that I found all six 1955 SA back covers and none of them are it. I checked all of 1954 and 1957 as well, to no avail. Nor do any of the other sites feature the full-page ad that it would presumably have appeared in. Its provenance is an utter mystery.
The arrival of the Future is always unpredictable, as wild as ball bearings are stable. The first of the New Departures of Tomorrow ads would have appeared on newsstands in December of 1954, 64 years ago, when I was four years old. The Automatic Home Laundry is just now appearing. What seemingly small advances will we have to wait until the end of 2072 to see? That's so far off that any prediction, no matter how outlandish, can be made to fit. Yet the world of 1954 is entirely recognizable in these ads as our own today, minus a few new departures. Have the interim decades simply been a lull after the tsunamic societal changes from 1890 to 1954? File your predictions now and hand them to a nearby four year old to look at in 2072.
December 27, 2018