The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THIS AGE OF POWER AND WONDER
Cigarettes have a long history, going back to the Mayas and Aztecs. They were very slow to catch on in either the United States or Europe. Chewing tobacco, cigars, pipes, and even snuff outsold cigarettes in 19th century America. Cigarettes weren't manly, as the name itself indicated to a New York newspaper writer in 1854.
Some of the ladies of this refined and fashion-forming metropolis are aping the silly ways of some pseudo-accomplished foreigners in smoking tobacco through a weaker and more feminine article, which was more delicately denominated cigarette.
Union soldiers during the civil war found tobacco plants and hand-rolled the leafs into cigarettes, creating a small burst of popularity. It wasn't until James Bonsack invented a workable rolling machine in the early 1880s that commercial sales took off, based on the rise from hand-rolling four cigarettes per minute to the machine's 210.
Blank cards stiffened the packs to keep from crushing the cigarettes. Different sources credit various firms with the idea of of putting pictures on the cards, but in 1886 Goodwin & Co. took the marketing a step up by adding the company name to the pictures to make the collectible cards promote brand loyalty. By 1888 the notion spread to England and then the rest of Europe, which embraced it far more than the United States. Modern catalogs (the hobby of collecting cigarette cards is known as cartophily) list more than 5000 series of collectible cards just from English firms. American firms rarely produced more than 50 cards in a series, while the British often ran 250 card series, and the Germans did up to 1000.
Every conceivable popular subject found its way to cigarette cards. Even the Marx Brothers got featured on them. In the 1920s firms turned to the increasingly hyped subjects of science and technology as they went through one of their periodic booms not just here in America but in Europe as well.
A. & M. Wix marketed Max cigarettes from its headquarters in London and Johannesburg, South Africa. South Africa had become fully sovereign in 1931 but still had a sizable Afrikaans population who spoke Dutch. Cigarette cards had a long tradition of placing explanatory text on the rear of the picture. Trying to serve all its primary customers Wix printed the text of its cigarette cards in both English and Dutch, making them instantly identifiable.
In 1935 Wix started This Age of Power and Wonder: A Series of 250 Pictures, a massive campaign that lasted until 1938. John Broom, in his book A History of Cigarette and Trade Cards- The Magic Inside the Packet, wrote a description that snugs right up to the intentions I have in doing this website:
It examined existing inventions and predicted future developments in science and technology. An examination of the scope of the cards can reveal much about how western civilization viewed its recent achievements, and the huge potential for future progress that existed int he foreseeable future, but also that the power that had been harnessed could have terrible outcomes for mankind. Therefore we have celebrations of advances in physics, industry, and medicine, and aspirations for the future.
How squarely the series sits at the focus of futurism is apparent by the number of cards that fall into the categories of Rays, Robots, and Rockets. (No flying cars or food pills, alas.) Let me pull out some examples from each category to put us back into the amazing present that 1935ers had at their fingertips and the even-more amazing future that seemed but a short stretch away. Other apt categories will follow.
Roentgen's discovery of invisible rays that could see through matter - so mysterious that he labeled them X-rays for the unknown - shattered Victorian notions of matter and energy. He got his picture onto one of the cards and several others showed the unrecognizable apparatus used to make the rays in the early 20th century.
The intangible rays became the most iconic tangible representation of science when doctors used the rays to probe the human body and discover what lay inside. The answer could be a life-saving revelation for the physician - or a unpleasant surprise when a surgeon's bungling was pictured for all the world to see.
Of course, as soon as rays brought instant prestige and fame, the charlatans swooped in. Stephen Pribil, whose story I tell in full in Going... Going... Gone, fooled the British public and the Max Cigarette people with his invisibility rays.
Every kind of ray was used and celebrated from the infra-red...
to the ultra-violet...
to all the frequencies in-between...
No look at modern technology could be complete without a robot. England was the home to several that made headlines when exhibited at electronic shows. This one is Alpha, the creation of Harry May. It could stand up and sit down, "read" newspapers, and fire a gun.
The word robot in 1935 hadn't yet fully coalesced around its modern definition of a metallic humanoid. Robots frequently meant any automatic system that functioned constant without human oversight. Automatic systems were a huge part of the wonders of the era.
Today a "Brain Box" would automatically trigger thoughts of computer control. Back in 1935 they had to strive to get mechanical components functioning automatically. A "robot" did the job of controlling an airplane that computers do today.
Speaking of computers, their huge and clunky analog precursors were also sometimes called robots. The differential analyzer that Vannevar (not Vanovar) Bush invented solved differential equations and was a critical step on the path to digital computers.
H. G. Wells may be the most influential writer of science fiction. Certainly in the England of the 1930s, no rival existed. Jules Verne had more sensible ideas about rockets, but Wells and space travel were inextricable at the time, especially with a major movie written by him coming up in 1936
The most famous successor to Wells was British writer Olaf Stapleton. His vast epics of the far future required space travel.
Atom-powered space-ships will blast off in the future! This is the definition of power and wonder.
MARVELS OF TOMORROW
Wix didn't include Flying Cars or Food Pills in their series, but they hit on a number of extrapolations that seem eminently prescient.
Television probably is the invention that least surprised people when it appeared. Every popular publication had been confidently talking about it for decades. Its reality in the late 1940s was almost a disappointment compared to the predictions.
One bulb to light them all! A 100,000,000 candle power tower lighting all of central London. What happens if you stare into it for too long? What would the astronomers at Greenwich say?
Nobody knew about fiber-optic cables in 1935. Even so, the basic principle was espoused. If they only knew how to manipulate it.
Talk about machine learning. Just as modern computers "learn" through endless trial and error, Dr. Stevenson Smith enabled his device to do so via purely mechanical means.
Not exactly Google Books, but the promise of microfilm to store a library's worth of content in a tiny, portable space fired imaginations for decades.
The U.S. military did their best during WWII to make the public forget that such a thing as atomic power existed. Rigorous censorship of media erased the words long enough so that the fickle group memory blanked on them until the complete surprise of the A-bomb over Hiroshima.
This loss ranks as one of the most successful government rewritings of history. Before the war - from the earliest days of the 20th century but especially in the 1930s - atomic power was continuously touted as the future, replacing coal and oil as energy and conventional explosives as war materiel. Max Cigarettes featured the atom and its power as a wonder in a numerous cards, including the space-ship on #54 above.
The British were in the forefront of physics at the time. In 1932, scientists at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge were the first to split the atom, changing lithium into two helium atoms.
James Chadwick discovered the neutron, also in 1932 and also at the Cavendish. He won the Nobel Prize for the feat in 1935 so it seems unlikely that the copy writers wouldn't have known of it, but nothing in that description of the atom indicates awareness. Chadwick's apparatus is diagrammed in another card.
If atomic power could be used for space-ships, then why not for transportation closer to home? This atomic powered ship prefigured the legion of atomic powered ships, subs, planes, trains, and cars that various inventors and governments would propose in the 1950s. Note that they were already aware of the nearly limitless power a small amount of matter could supply.
Of all the weird images Max Cigarettes thought would impress the public, this one might be the oddest. Though it looks like a hippie poster from the 1960s, The Value of Repetition exposed a psychological rather than physical principle, one that advertisers continue to use until this day. Too bad that remembering Peace is not the same as achieving it, as Britain would shortly learn.
The complete series can be found in the New York Public Library Digital Collection. You'll need to enter an individual title into search to bring up the text, however. Nor are the cards listed in numerical order. Perseverance and patience are required.
April 27, 2020