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Monday, 17th December 2007
Tomorrow Sometimes

Or Hal, where are you? Part I


T he observant amongst you

he observant amongst you could well have noticed this is part one of this article. This is a first for me, often I have said there is almost too much information in a set of cards to do it justice but never before have I accepted defeat and cut the article into pieces. So I take a leaf out of Dickens book and publish the story in several editions and then bring them together as the complete article at a later date for future generations to mull over quietly after a nice Christmas lunch. I dream.

I was beginning to wonder if this article was ever going to get off the drawing board. It has been at least eight months in the making but finally I have found something to link it too. March 1998 saw a scare relating to a lump of rock hurtling through space which was definitely going to impact us early next century. My newspaper even had the year, date and probable time (5.30pm GMT).

Apparently a Brit did the impact calculations. Now I do not want to draw any conclusions on this but suffice to say he was being rather pessimistic as to the outcome. In fact he seemed to be out by about half a million miles give or take.

This gave me my initial reason but the final justification was the death of Hideo Shima (March 1998), the fellow who almost single-handedly created and built the shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train whose production started in 1958.

Well twenty years earlier in 1938, Westminster produced a set called The World of Tommorow, 50 cards of an absolutely fascinating nature.

It is a hideous generalisation but for a brief period of time the future was full of excitement, the 1950's and 60's were futuristic in outlook. In Britain you only have to look at the motorway service stations which were built along with the first motorways, the sort of structures you could park you spacecraft. The future was largely utopian. That future was not to pass, the design of a service station is as bankrupt as just about any other architectural design today. Now when we imagine the future it is a dark cyber-punk misery of overcrowding where technology has enslaved us as typified by Blade Runner. Hard to imagine a cartoon like the Jetsons making a debut in todays future culture.

Card 37, Birdman

Now this shift of view is nothing new or as uniform as I make it but certainly it is an interesting area of study which I am going to leave from another day.

As this set was being compiled the thunderheads of World War Two were forming and this somewhat coloured the nature of the set. I use the word colour reservedly as this set is actually black and white in format.

It also means it was one of the last sets to sneak out of the factories before the War closed the industry down for good. Fitting then it should be peeking into the future.

Now this is not really the future of little green men, ray guns and mind control. It is more an extrapolation of the sort of things which were going on at the time.

Of all the things which are mentioned, computers fail to appear in any significant manner. The closest the set gets is card 10, Office of the Future:

Details from Card
The invention of new calculating machines and other labour-saving devices, as well as advances in architecture, would make a great difference to office work. Clumsy ledgers and records would be replaced by handy cards compiled and interpreted by intricate machines. Rooms would be linked by pneumatic tubes and by television screens to accompany the familiar telephones. Offices would be built with an eye to hygiene, and their air-conditioned and warmed, so that staff, male as well as female, could wear light overalls, possibly uniform in type in every business house.

The card shows a scene from the British film, 'High Treason', others borrow from the film, 'Things to come.', and 'Just Imagine', which explains the black and white format. You can see in which direction the author was heading. It took a long time for those television screens to come about though, indeed video-conference is still really in its infancy. If he was thinking of punch cards when he was talking about 'handy cards' then give me those clumsy ledgers any day of the week. I must say though the idea of corporate uniform brings unpleasant images to the mind, perhaps the card puts the wrong 'spin' on things. I have never been a uniform man in that sense anyway, very Orwellian.

If the cards did not see computerisation coming then he was not the only one. Just about every writer missed that one and the ones that did widely missed the mark. Asimov brought Multivac into the world (interesting name that one.) A huge computer, it was very much based on the mainframe concept of control rooms and techies rushing about doing things. The first series of Star Trek is another classic example of just how far from the mark things could be. All that technology and the computers still used continuous tape and flashing LED's. No doubt the Next Generation is going to look just as humorous in a few years time when it comes to computer interfaces.

So I cannot blame the compiler for missing this one.

I am going to stick with Asimov for a while because he highlights an interesting mental block. He was the fellow that invented the three laws of robotics, used so often and generally considered an industry standard. A stroke of genius no doubt. He was not the only person who used the concept of the mechanical man in their stories. Almost without exception these mechanical men were superior to their human counterparts. Exactly how a robot was to carry about that much computing power in a world where Multivac was the last thing in computing is not really explained. Anyway it all happened in the Positronic Brain for Asimov, Commander Data (Star Trek again) has one, so they must work.

Star Trek have avoided this problem by making the Positronic Brain the work of a lone genius and nobody really knows how he did it. This stops us wondering why computing is so feeble on the Starship Enterprise, by comparison to Data.

The compiler of this set has not fallen into this particular trap however, card 38: Robot or Mechanical Man:

Details from Card
The word 'robot' was first used by M Karel Capek's play R.U.R to describe artificial men built up in the laboratory. Today it is more often used for machines made more or less in a human form: such devices attract much attention at exhibitions. The one shown is a Russian invention: it can handle and carry loads far too heavy for a man. Spectacular though these machines are, it is doubtful whether they will be of much practical use, but they may none the less be used as a 'stunt' for impressing people or even frightening them. Any burglar who encountered one of these mechanical watchmen would probably beat a hasty retreat!

Capek wrote about them in 1921, they were artificial men of organic origin, for those that care. This might have been the first time the word had been used but people had been writing about them for years before. ETA Hoffmann wrote about them in 1814. By the 30's though Robot fever was hitting something of a high. In avoiding the pitfall of the intelligence of the robot our gentle compiler manages to miss the point entirely. Imagine being able to write that the mechanical man, robot, would have little practical use. Go tell the car manufacturers. Again the card shows an interesting mind set. The mechanical man could be used to frighten people. Humanity is rather more adaptable than that. The only fright we got was when they put us out of work and society failed to do anything about finding alternative uses for the unemployed.

Picking up a thread from a previous card, office of the future having televisions in it. Card 22 gives television star billing and just goes to show how far things have moved:

Details from Card
Already television is in use very successfully on a small scale, and it may develop still further. Images of people or events would be transmitted far and wide, to be reproduced in lifelike colours and in three dimensions, so as to have a 'solid' appearance. They might be received on a screen at the front of an ordinary wireless receiving set, or on a smaller dial, like that of a watch, carried in the pocket or even on the wrist. In public places they might even be projected to appear in more than life-size, high above the heads of the crowd. The images would appear free from haziness or flicker, and the broadcast voices free from distortion.

They say the past is another country (they do things differently there) and this card just proves it. I am probably not the person to be talking about this as a couple of cold days in winter leaves me wondering what hot weather is actually like. Even as the era of the cigarette card was closing television might become popular. Still this was reasonably risky thinking as there were plenty of people saying television just did not have a hope.

Happily the compiler did mention colour images as a possible future development before he leapt off into other areas. Colour has been with us a long time now but the other developments have had a rather more torrid time. Three dimensional viewing has been achieved by means of wearing special glasses, which has rather hindered its development. Certainly not quite the three-dimensional image as developed by the hologram. That is still in the realms of science fiction.

Then there was the strange idea of strapping the television to the wireless. Science-fiction has really enjoyed the idea of the television you can wear on your wrist and the Japanese have finally managed this. Again the card brings you back to the times they were written in. The television was the size of a watch was going to first go into your pocket, when did you last see someone regard a pocket-watch when wondering about the time.

Quite why the complier fails to mention 'smell-o-vision' I do not know, afterall this has always been the 'next big thing' in televisual experience.