“The Place They Do Imagineering”

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Disney’s logo for its Imagineering division; source: Wikipedia

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series; it follows up with a story I began in my last post. My thanks to Ray Macauley for sharing the documents referenced here.]

After reading Carl Sagan’s March 1976 essay, NASA head James Fletcher told the scientist he would try to find some way to commemorate Robert Goddard’s Anniversary Day. About 5 months later, Herbert J. Rowe, an associate administrator for NASA’s external affairs for NASA, told Sagan about a new award the space agency was planning. In his letter, Rowe included a proposal for the “Goddard Imagineering Award.”

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Rowe’s Reply to Carl Sagan

Recipients of the new award would be “strong willed individuals pursuing innovative concepts.” It would favor the “past year’s most imaginative/innovative achievement in furthering the end objectives of the nation’s aerospace effort” and be open to contributions from people including “science, management, and engineering…They need not be from the aerospace community.” Besides the recognition, honorees would get $1,776 (the award would be initiated during the U.S.’s Bicentennial year.) The timing of the plan makes sense – the Apollo era was fading away and the space agency was keen to find its next big mission, especially in the realm of human spaceflight.

There’s a short backstory here about “imagineers”: In the histories of technology, there are individuals who have had a clear and strong vision of an expansive future created by technologies they studied, designed, and promoted. Pushing beyond hand-waving and podium speculations, their activities sometimes resulted in actual things like prototypes, models, patents, and computer simulations. Just as importantly, these people also built communities and networks so they could connect their ideas for the technological future to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and business leaders. Visioneer is the portmanteau I used to describe these people. But the term I originally wanted to use was “imagineer.”

It sounds funny now – and I live in California which makes it that much more embarrassing – but I didn’t know this was a job category at the Walt Disney Corporation. Imagineers at Disney are the people who do the design and development of the company’s theme parks. My wife, a medievalist in possession of a better sense of pop culture than me, broke the bad news so I cast about for a different term. Hence, visioneer. In the end, it worked better.

However, as it turns out, the folks at Disney weren’t the first to use “imagineering.” In February 1942, Time magazine carried an advertisement for Alcoa, the Pittsburgh-based aluminum company. Titled “The Place They Do Imagineering,” the ad’s text reads in part: “It takes a very special word to describe making aluminum cheap, making it versatile, finding totally new places to use it, and then helping people use it where they should…Imagineering is letting your imagination soar, and then engineering it down to earth.” Pretty close to what I meant by visioneers, in other words…

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 1.39.40 PMI haven’t yet located any more information on what Sagan said in response to Rowe. And, from what I can tell thus far, NASA’s “imagineering” award itself never saw realization. Perhaps NASA didn’t want to tangle with Disney on this one. But…there are at least two awards now named after Goddard, including the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy. This is given annually since 1958 by the National Space Club; this year it went to the Curiosity/Mars Science Laboratory team.

I’d like to think that if NASA had actually instituted the “Goddard Imagineering Award”, one of its early recipients might have been physicist Gerard O’Neill. Like Goddard, O’Neill had an expansive vision of how the humanization of space might be done and the long-term effects that space settlements might have. Like Goddard, O’Neill coupled his imagination to real-world engineering and design. As it turns out, in 1986 O’Neill did receive a somewhat similar award. This was named after a different Robert – science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein.

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Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award; this one was given to Burt Rutan.

O’Neill’s trophy is still in the basement of his Princeton home but will soon be going to the National Air and Space Museum. But, more than anything, Rowe’s proposal is intriguing beyond his conceptualization of imagineering as a necessary ingredient in fostering innovative thinking. It makes me wonder what sorts of people might have received such an award. Open to people from outside NASA’s circle, perhaps the “Goddard Imagineering Award” might have gone to an artist, musician, or poet. Given that O’Neill, a physicist, eventually won an award named after a fiction writer, this would have made nice symmetry. One can only imagine.

7 thoughts on ““The Place They Do Imagineering”

  1. This is tangential, but while I could understand a Jules Verne Award being shaped like a cannon, I’m a little startled to find the Heinlein Memorial Award put in such a form. (And in fact, I see that there’s a Heinlein award in science fiction that’s just a medalion with his portrait.) The website says it’s a naval cannon, and he was certainly in the Navy–and fairly militaristic–but it still seems inappropriately low-tech.

    Heinlein makes an interesting figure as inspiration for space-related visioneering. I was once at a talk by one of the groups planning private colonization of the moon. They were planning on getting a lot of their funding through corporate sponsorship, and someone in the audience asked whether they were worried about corporate authorities limiting their freedom once they settled in. The speaker said that yes, they’d thought about it, and that they’d also been talking about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It was rather the most oblique revolutionary threat I’d ever heard, and I wondered whether any of their potential sponsors had read the book.

  2. Ruthanna-
    The web tells me that “Heinlein’s original title for the novel [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress] was The Brass Cannon, replaced with the final title at the publisher’s request.” It’s quite striking to me how many of the “visioneer” types I’ve encountered find inspiration in Heinlein. It’s also interesting how his books span the political spectrum…

  3. And the unused title The Brass Cannon connects the story of the Loonie revolution for independence to a joke related within the novel:

    “A man held a makework political job, polishing the cannon in front of the county courthouse. It kept him fed and let him put a little money aside, but he wasn’t getting ahead in the world. So one day he withdrew his life’s savings, bought a brass cannon– and went into business for himself.”

  4. It’s quite striking to me how many of the “visioneer” types I’ve encountered find inspiration in Heinlein. It’s also interesting how his books span the political spectrum…

    Elsewhere I have written:

    My general opinion about Heinlein, politics, and fiction[…]

    Heinlein enjoyed figuring out what he could do if he had a fission-powered rocket that heated liquid zinc, or a torchship that directly converted matter to m-c-squared and could swallow any working fluid, or a family space yacht that ran on “single-H.” He covered butcher paper with calculations working out orbits, launch windows, Oberth maneuvers, and so forth. He had the necessary mental tools to speculate about spaceflight, and he loved doing so.

    Same with governments.

    He played around with variations and erected fictional governments in considerable detail. Beyond This Horizon. Starship Troopers. Double Star. They weren’t consistent with one another. They weren’t necessarily systems Heinlein wanted to live under. He was exploring them. And he wanted to get the reader to explore them too.

    This culminates in the celebrated passage in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress where Prof tosses out half a dozen wacky ideas for a fresh Loonie government. They may not be practical, but they certainly bear thinking about.

    To Heinlein, governments were toys. Rather like starships.

  5. Bill-
    Thanks on both counts for the comments. I hadn’t known the bit about the brass cannon. But it sounds very Heinlein-esque. With regard to political systems – yes, there was a lot of experimentation in his books about different governments. I was always struck by how much the question of social and political experimentation on hypothetical space colonies animated, even dominated, a lot of the L5 discussion. I suppose if one couldn’t build a space colony per se, then the next best thing was to imagine what living one one might be like.

  6. That Sagan placed Goddard’s vision atop a cherry tree hints at the mythical potential of those perennials. Whether it’s the legend of George Washington chopping first nature into second, or Goddard’s imagination soaring from the sun’s third rock to its fourth, or Sagan’s commemorative tale in bicentennial America’s then-blossoming capital, cherry trees seem to inspire a fanciful imagineering that sets the mind to flight while simultaneously rooting it down to earth. Amid Fukushima’s enviro-technical catastrophe, many Japanese saw the trees’ spring blossoming as symbols of hope, lessons on loss, and inspiration for recovery (see http://www.japan-guide.com/blog/sakura11/110421_sendai.html, & the excellent documentary http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com/). Visioneers and imagineers seem to draw insights from the wells of myth and nature. Their greatest gifts might not be their technological leaps of mind and matter, but the ways they help us re-imagine life on spaceship earth.

    • Roger-
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. While I suspect it was just a coincidence that it was a cherry tree – and glad it wasn’t a lemon – the parallels that you note are nice.


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