At one point, in a small room that my siblings and I always referred to as "the bomb shelter" (since it contained a cot, a portable toilet, first-aid supplies, and a can of something called "Family Emergency Protein Food Product") I found a plastic bag filled with some very well-preserved copies of Science Digest. Great-grandma let me take the magazines home, and as far as I know, they are stowed somewhere in my apartment to this very day (though I couldn't tell you where right now, which unfortunately means I can't scan any of them in and post the images).
In reading the decades-old periodicals, I was struck by both the accuracy and quality of some of the articles (e.g., writings on early space flight and accessible commentary on Einstein's notions of relativity). But I was also equally struck by how, well, silly some of the articles seemed.
There was an unmistakable tone of soaring excitement, and yet it was tinged with a kind of conservatism -- images of high-tech nuclear-powered kitchens contrasted starkly with sketches of archetypical aproned housewives. From both a futurist and cultural-anthropology standpoint, I am not sure how this sort of thing could not be fascinating.
Media and advertisement is perhaps a kind of cultural background noise -- and admittedly, most days I find modern advertising and much of the popular media to be irritating. Nevertheless, sometimes there is some very intriguing information buried in the noise -- media frequently carries the pulse of a culture in a manner that can be examined and extricated as a sort of progress barometer. When I was a small child in the 1980s, I very rarely saw girls in toy catalogs playing with tool sets and spaceship toys; now there is a bit more of this, and there are also more women working in scientific and high-technology fields than before. Something tells me this isn't just coincidence.
Needless to say, the Science Digests were only the beginning -- now that I knew how interesting that sort of publication was, I would remain on the lookout for other, similar magazines through the years, though these delightful discoveries turned out to be few and far between. But now, we have this wonderful thing called the Internet. Which means that finding physical copies of old and interesting magazines is no longer necessary for every individual who wants to look at them -- thanks to the joys of modern electronic interconnectivity, fascinating images and cheerfully apocalyptic commentary are frequently only a few keystrokes away.
For instance, at a site called Modern Mechanix (subtitled, "Yesterday’s tomorrow, today.") you can find literally hundreds of magazine covers, articles, and advertisements from decades gone by (particularly the 1930s - 1960s). Someone apparently has access to numerous backdated issues of Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, and Mechanix Illustrated (among others), and has kindly chosen to share them with the world.
A few particular articles that readers here might find intriguing are:
1. Miracles You'll See In The Next Fifty Years
Here, we learn that by the year 2000, everything is going to be very, very tidy. And brightly lit! The example (fictional) town of Tottenville is described as follows:
There are parks and playgrounds and green open spaces not only around detached houses but also around apartment houses. The heart of the town is the airport. Surrounding it are business houses, factories and hotels. In concentric circles beyond these lie the residential districts.
Tottenville is as clean as a whistle and quiet. It is a crime to burn raw coal and pollute air with smoke and soot. In the homes electricity is used to warm walls and to cook. Factories all burn gas, which is generated in sealed mines. The tars are removed and sold to the chemical industry for their values, and the gas thus laundered is piped to a thousand communities.
The highways that radiate from Tottenville are much like those of today, except that they are broader with hardly any curves. In some of the older cities, difficult to change because of the immense investment in real estate and buildings, the highways are double-decked. The upper deck is for fast nonstop traffic; the lower deck is much like our avenues, with brightly illuminated shops. Beneath the lower deck is the level reserved entirely for business vehicles.
Tottenville is illuminated by electric “suns” suspended from arms on steel towers 200 feet high. There are also lamps which are just as bright and varicolored as those that now dazzle us on every Main Street. But the process of generating the light is more like that which occurs in the sun. Atoms are bombarded by electrons and other minute projectiles, electrically excited in this way and made to glow.
Well, we do use electricity to heat and cook nowadays (at least in some homes), but I am still trying to figure out the appeal and purpose of "electric suns" and why we'd want to mount them on 200-foot towers. Light pollution, anyone?
Anyway, if you read onward, you will find out that not only are those ubiquitous housewives going to be able to clean the entire dwelling with a hose, but families will have their own private helicopters! And that's not all...world hunger will be solved through the creation of "sugary foods" out of wood pulp, and candy out of recycled underwear.
I realize this article was probably authored for a popular audience and therefore written with attention-getting in mind, but underwear candy?
In terms of "what they got right" (or at least, nearly right), this article did at least make some reasonable speculations regarding the growth of communication interconnectivity -- it's really funny to read a description of something that is almost exactly like the Internet, but without the "internet" part:
Of course the Dobsons have a television set. But it is connected with the telephones as well as with the radio receiver, so that when Joe Dobson and a friend in a distant city talk over the telephone they also see each other. Businessmen have television conferences. Each man is surrounded by half a dozen television screens on which he sees those taking part in the discussion. Documents are held up for examination; samples of goods are displayed. In fact, Jane Dobson does much of her shopping by television. Department stores obligingly hold up for her inspection bolts of fabric or show her new styles of clothing.
It's interesting how they did get the "shop from home" thing fairly on-target, but assumed that department-store personnel would be holding up the merchandise for Housewife Jane to examine. And of course, there's that whole tacit, unstated assumption that a woman's place will still be in the kitchen, despite the fact that she'll be serving up food prepared from "frozen bricks".
2. Birth Control - A Two-Edged Sword?
I suppose I can only be thankful that this 1922 article from "Physical Culture" now comes across as absurd rather than mainstream. Though I realize that prejudice (against women and minorities of all sorts) is still not completely vanquished, at least we're not getting things like this in mainstream print these days:
Thousands of women are shirking their tremendous responsibilities, n[o]t because they do not want babies, but because they have allowed themselves to want phonographs, and upholstered furniture, and installment pianos, and “freedom,” and travel, more than they want to carry their fair share of the world-old burden of woman. Thousands and mil-lions of women are shouting “birth control” to-day simply because they don’t want to tote fair and play the big game of carrying on this vast scheme of organic evolution towards a happier and better race.
Check out the scare quotes on "freedom". Enough said.
3. CAN SCIENCE MAKE US LIVE FOREVER?
Apparently, Dr. Alexis Carrel was at least somewhat optimistic about the notion of life extension, despite some of the bizarre speculative claims made in this article. Nevertheless, I find it interesting how closely some of the statements made in this 1936 article mirror today's more mainstream views on the prospects of superlongevity:
It is quite possible, too, Dr. Carrel believes, that men and women may be enabled to live on vigorously to incredible age simply through a better understanding of the mysteries of the human body. Even today we have centenarians in every land who prove that our bodies hold secrets of vitality we do not begin to suspect.
The conquering of age is not to be looked for in our own generation, or for many that will follow it. Dr. Carrel’s view of the future is an extremely long distance one, and he is careful to make it clear that he does not predict human immortality.
“There is no hope of ever conquering old age and death,” he says. “But it is quite probable that the maximum duration of life can be more or less considerably extended.”
Fundamentally, of course, his predictions are no more unbelievable than Roger Bacon’s prophecy of the airplane in the fifteenth century. Dr. Carrel, like Bacon, is looking many centuries into the future.
The absolutism of the "no hope, ever" part of the statement quoted above sits somewhat (and rather ridiculously) in contrast to assertions also in the article that "Heavy water may be fountain of youth". However, in many respects this article is strikingly similar to modern popular articles on the subject of longevity -- a few quotes from a cautious scientist-type followed by a few paragraphs of wide-eyed wonder at the latest nostrum to come out of the health-fad world.
4. Second Dog Is Restored to Life
From 1935 comes a Zombie Dog Story! An account of scientists managing to revive a dog that had been clinically dead for half an hour. I can't help but feel somewhat sorry for the dogs, but it was an interesting proof of concept, particularly for so long ago.
Again, I highly recommend perusing the site linked above...not just because of its entertainment value, but because of the way it throws the obvious progress of social evolution that has occurred over the past few decades into sharp relief. The technology (and the technology predictions) are certainly interesting to look at, but perhaps even more interesting is the cultural subtext contained amidst the grand proclamations of the sparkling, mechanized world-to-come.