The Infinite Matrix | Howard Waldrop | Week 18
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01.15.05

The World of Yesterday... Tomorrow!

2. Chickens Tattooed to Foil Thieves

The first thing you notice about this 1937 Modern Mechanix and the two 1939 Popular Sciences is how many of the things they talk about are ideas that seem so much more recent than they are. Tattooing, earmarking, and identifying livestock and pets (never so much an issue as now with BSE) — only, not foreseen then — is now being done with microchips. (Back then it would had to have been a two-tube transponder that weighed 3 lbs you'd had to have glued to the poor bastard cow's horns...) Drive-in banking is in the 1937 magazine — only three years after the first drive-in theatre opened. (Irony at work — there are a million drive-in banks and few drive-in theatres left.) In there are remote-controlled model airplanes — only the remote has an antenna that could bring in Canopus, and the plane has to be a three-footer to accommodate its receiving aerial. There's an inside-the-car way to raise and lower your car's radio aerial — only it's a with a bicycle pump and you have to retrofit the whole antenna housing. (The first car that came with a radio installed had been made in 1928.) The word television pops up everywhere, in the ads and articles. (Commercial TV broadcasting here started in 1939, went to sleep during the War, and retooled with a vengeance in 1946. As I wrote elsewhere, pre-1946 broadcast the picture on FM — where all of TV is today — but sent out the sound on shortwave, so your 1939 TV was junk by 1945...) There's an article on the Gelatone process, for printing full-color photographs cheaply in magazines (soon superceded by every other process). There's a photo of Eugene Vidal (Gore's dad) when he was still head of what became the FAA, looking over experimental passenger planes with propeller de-icers and automatic pilots.Page from Popular Science: Air Liner Used as Guinea Pig

When Bill Gibson wrote "The Gernsback Continuum" in the early 80s, he posited a leakage into ours of that lost future world of the late 1920s and early 30s — a six-story flying wing airliner goes over — the narrator hears dance-band music as it majestically soars by — ten lane superhighways with teardrop-shaped cars; daily Moon rockets, all that. It's a tremendous story, because that lost vision is still so powerful. It was a future imagined, for the most part, by teenage boys and the scientists, engineers, and SF writers they grew up to be.

Popular Science and Modern Mechanix, as the titles say, were made for, and largely by, a different breed of guy (and girl). They were mechanically-minded and technically-skilled people who liked the smell of sawdust and the constant spatter of metal shavings from the lathe. They not only got their hands dirty, they liked nothing more than wrestling with some recondite matter that called on conceptual visualization and the ability to think in three dimensions, and to turn the work or problem upside-down and backwards, if needs be. The solution could be something as simple as using Mason jar rubber rings instead of tacks to keep extension cords up out of the work area — you looped the rings around the cord and tacked them up — they gave and couldn't come loose even if you pulled ... What they were searching for was practical solutions to everyday problems. Gadgets, if you will, though lots of times it wasn't so much a gadget as simply using something lying around that hadn't been used that way before (like household fire alarms made from the old thermostats from a five-year-old Packard).

The magazines are more or less divided into two sections. One is about the Official, or Real, World — news of what's up, new inventions, articles about individual breakthroughs (the first cellulose sponges, roads paved with rayon byproducts), a military need, something to speed up retail commerce. There's a heavy emphasis on patents — they were still under the sway of Edison, who'd only been dead seven years, and Tesla was still perfecting his death-rays and bazillion volt light shows. Like the title says — Popular Science — the kind that's going to affect your everyday life in some small or large way. Or it's going to be a dead-end now that will lead to something else later. (In the 1937 M.M. there's an article on new dirigibles steering vanes, made to counteract the wind shears that brought down the Akron and Shenandoah; the issue was probably on the stands when the Hindenburg went down, ending the need for steering vanes for airships...)

The second section is what I call the Handyman World; pages and pages showing how to do stuff, make things, how to jazz up the drill press and the radial saw; news of Craftsman's Guilds and the toys they make for poor kids at Christmas (and how to make the toys they make); ashtrays made from Plymouth pistons (you do your own ring-jobs, of course?). In other words, every basement and shed its own Menlo Park. (How to make ice-boat runners out of old brake rods — you reline your own brakes, of course?) It's a private world; it's a wonder half the handymen in the country weren't killed by their own formulae to make lacquer flow smoother. Page from Popular Science: Why You Should Start....

Sometimes the knowledge is divided into sections — photography, electronics, automobiles, and vacation trailers (you build your own on an old Ford chassis, don't you?), wood-and-metalworking, chemistry, household tinkering, and job-jar hints. (Use candle wax on sticking drawers.)

In almost every drawing or photo, you'll notice, even though the guys are wearing those aprons that make them look like kosher butchers in a slaughterhouse, they're still wearing their ties. (The past is a different country...) The exceptions are 1) kids 2) women 3) farmers. (There's a drawing showing a farmer rigging up a high-voltage stock fence — no woosy city stuff for him — the joke would be "He used to be Ferdinand the bull until he backed into my fence...") These are the kinds of guys who come home from the office, have supper, walk down to the basement and put on their shop aprons without taking off their ties — or maybe they have special, racy ties ("will you kiss me in the dark, baby?) they put on, just for the workbench...Page from Popular Science: ...A Home Workshop and How to Do It

It was from this practical Handyman World that the practical future would come. Radio bookends — with the works on the left side and the speaker on the right, and knowledge of the world in between. A radio on a pole lamp (the thing weighed about 8 lbs) for reading. Collapsible backyard furniture you broke down and stored inside for the (presumably Yankee) winter. How to replank that boat (I'm still looking for Popular Mechanics' 25 Boats You Can Build) you stove in up on Lake Bitegood (all this before good aluminum, fiberglass, and kevlar...).

These are utilitarian, quotidian ways to improve your everyday life and your leisure-time (when you're not doing ring-jobs and brake relines...). There's stuff you can build for around-the-house; you don't need to spend (in those days of cheap lumber) a lot of money to have a houseful of stuff.

What they were doing is making things more comfortable, handier, easier to work. It was about improving the lifestyle of the working-person, not just the rich and upper-middle class. This was science and engineering for the masses. And day by day, step by step, they were bringing us closer to the cyber-world in which we now live, though it would be as unrecognizable (in fact, though familiar in hazy theory) to them as if they had been plopped down on Mars one day when what they were doing is turning the corner on Main Street to go to the hardware store. (Back to the Future had it exactly right, only from the other end, in the first scene of McFly looking at the 1955 service station...)

And how were they going to get to that future?

 


I C London, I C France, which may be the Web's most technologically primitive blog, is brought to you through the typing, proofreading, editorial, and coding efforts of Team Waldrop, also known as Mary Kay Kare (proudly reality-based) and L. Blunt Jackson (Seattle, Philadelphia, Tau Ceti), and via the steadfast couriers of the United States Postal Service. Much thanks to all involved!

New: Locus Magazine is offering a special deal on the issue with the superb Heart-of-Waldrop photo and interview. Che'ekidaou'ut.

Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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