The Future, 50 Years Ago

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Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report that surveyed Americans’ attitudes about technology and their thoughts about what technological advances would happen in the next half-century. I’ll be writing something about the report itself later – suffice it to say for now that Americans’ views of the technological future are remarkably static. But Pew’s report was quite timely because, 50 years ago, the New York World’s Fair opened.

The juxtaposition, while surely accidental, prompted me to go back and revisit how people a half-century ago thought about technology and the future. So, climb into your TARDIS of choice and let’s go back to Flushing Meadow in 1964 —

On a drizzly spring day in 1964, some 92,000 people arrived by car, subway, and helicopter at a former swampy ash dump across the East River. They came to visit the future. They found it spread out over a 646 acre park dotted with lakes, lagoons, and reflecting pools. There, after paying $2, visitors entered the New York World’s Fair, hopped aboard air-conditioned monorail trains, and strolled amidst a colorful medley of domes, fins, pylons, and cubes fashioned from plastic, aluminum, glass, and concrete.

At the Fair’s official dedication, a teenaged Boy Scout from Queens Troop 183 joined President Lyndon B. Johnson at the Federal Pavilion with its façade of glittering colored glass and massive staircases. From here they could see the Unisphere, a 450-ton stainless steel model of the earth rising twelve stories over Flushing Meadow that became the Fair’s iconic symbol.

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The Unisphere, 1964

Together, they cut the ribbon that officially opened the extravaganza’s international plazas and corporate exhibit halls. Over the sporadic voices of civil rights protestors, Johnson reminded listeners of the remarkable progress scientists and engineers had made since New York hosted a World’s Fair on the eve of World War Two. In 1939, Johnson reflected, few people would have predicted an era of space travel, global communication via satellites, wonder drugs and organ transplants, and the promise of nuclear power. But, as sodden flags moved limply in the chill breeze, Johnson warned that recently technological progress displayed “two faces” and urged world leaders and researchers to “conquer conflict just as we have conquered science.”

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Pres. Johnson is flanked by Lady Bird Johnson and Norman Winston, head of the U.S. Pavilion; May 9, 1964. Source.

For the 51 million people who visited the Fair in 1964 and 1965, by far the most popular attraction was fully focused on the future. Each day Futurama received some 80,000 visitors who sat three-abreast in moving lounge chairs. From these perches, they saw “a brighter promise of things to come” yet “well on its way to tomorrow’s world” as imagined by stylists at General Motors, the sponsor of the $50 million exhibit.1 “Built around the idea that the human population has ample room to explode,” Futurama took its time travelers past carefully detailed dioramas that showed future cities that future people might build on new frontiers with future machines.

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Advertisement for GM’s Futurama

The exhibit predicted new technologies that would enable future people to live wherever they wish, be this in isolated deserts, polar regions, remote mountain regions or at the ocean bottom. Travel to these regions, of course, would be key but General Motors proposed all manners of transportation alternatives from “aqua-copters” to ice-crawlers and nuclear-powered submarines. And if no highways existed, the world’s largest car maker was prepared to make them – one of the most talked about scenes in Futurama featured machines that would imaginably fell trees with laser beams, the foliage then gobbled up by massive road-building machine which extruded a mile of four-lane highway from its rear every hour. The new frontiers were not just for habitation and travel, however, but sites of production and extraction. The ocean floor had abundant minerals and plant life that could be harvested while the earth’s deserts, irrigated by vast desalination plants, could be turned into verdant farmland, a “science of plenty for a growing world.”

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GM’s Futurama was only the Fair’s largest and most visible symbol of the dominant place that technology, especially corporate and government-created technology, occupied in mid-century American culture.  American Express, IBM, and more than a dozen other major companies had similar future-oriented pavilions that extolled optimism, progress, and convenience that the consumer-oriented technologies of the 1960s brought. The Fair debuted in the same era when The Jetsons presented a technological cartoon utopia of robot servants, three-day workweeks, and flying cars. For many fairgoers, the two presented interchangeable visions of the future.

Even with its enthusiastic, even Panglossian, expressions of faith in technology and corporate futurism, cracks were visible in the Fair’s ideological façade. Johnson’s dedication speech acknowledged that in the realm of science and technology, “reality has far-outstripped the vision” and suggested some temperance in what scientists and engineers could or should accomplish. The Fair’s motto “Peace through Understanding” surely struck many as questionable in a year when the global nuclear stockpile topped 36,000.

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The New York World’s Fair (and a ghostly Robert Moses) featured on the cover of Time in 1964.

While the coming months would see Robert Moses’ promised land blasted for financial scandal and its failure to turn a profit, critics complained of its “tacky, plastic, here-today-blown-tomorrow look.” Indeed, cultural observers decried the Fair’s very imagining of the future. A journalist for Time noted that the corporate and government exhibitors “displays not what might be done in the future but rather what has already been done…The 1939 fair was a promise. The 1964 fair is a boast.”

Comments such as these were not just isolated barbs from journalists. By the time the New York World’s Fair closed in October 1965, there was a growing sense of unease and skepticism about whether technology, especially that promulgated by government programs and corporate research labs, was an unalloyed force for good. General Motors, for example, closed its popular Futurama pavilion in the same year that a young consumer crusader named Ralph Nader blasted the “designed-in dangers” of that company’s cars in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. By the end of the decade, this general sense of ambivalence transformed into widespread pessimism, especially among intellectuals and cultural critics. For many Americans, the scenarios suggested by Futurama and other fair exhibits weren’t just banal and boring – they were threatening.

When Gay Talese, then a young New York City reporter in the 1960s, made a point of interviewed elderly visitors to the Fair, he and was to find that many had also visited the 1939-40 World’s Fair which opened at the same site on the eve of World War Two. “I was so skeptical,” a retired school teacher said, “at the 1939 fair when they showed us all those rockets.” Another chimed in, “And television!” Those who took the 15 minute ride through Futurama, received a small blue and white lapel button. It proclaimed: “I have seen the future.” And then they returned to the Fair, squinting into the bright and persistent glare of the present…


  1. The exhibit was officially called Futurama II  to distinguish it from General Motors’ wildly popular Futurama ride at the 1939 New York World’s Fair but contemporary press coverage typically did not make the distinction. []

Where Did That iPod Come From?

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Apple’s 1st Generation iPod, 2001

Few topics are more controversial among people who study histories of science and technology than the categories of basic versus applied research. In part, it’s because the borders between basic vs. applied research shifts over time. What was “basic” in 1880 might be applied (or simply black-boxed knowledge) a few decades later. Moreover, even within one particular time period, the labels “basic” vs “applied” are actors’ categories. They’re contingent on the circumstances in which researchers deploy them and the rhetorical work they (and we) want them to do.

I was reminded of these distinctions this week when the Technology Academy Finland announced the recipient of its prestigious Millennium Technology Prize (and a cool 1 million euros). The winner is Stuart S.P. Parkin, an IBM Fellow based at the Almaden Research Centre in San Jose as well as the director of the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics.

2014 Millennium Technology Prize

1 million reasons to smile.

Parkin is being honored for his discoveries which have “enabled a thousand-fold increase in the storage capacity of magnetic disk drives.” These innovations, according to the Finns, have “underpinned the evolution of large data centers and cloud services, social networks, music and film distribution online.”

Parkin’s work is especially illuminating for the “what is science and what is technology?” question given the historical background of his work. The origins of it go back to basic physics research carried out in the late 1980s in France and Germany. In 1988, Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg independently discovered that tiny changes in magnetism can produce unexpectedly strong electrical signals. Because the response was so much greater than any of them expected, they named the phenomenon giant magnetoresistance (GMR).1 In mid-1988, both the French and the German research teams presented their results at a conference in France and submitted their studies for publication in the Physical Review. Aware now of each other’s work, the two scientists agreed to share credit for the discovery. Their work also helped initiate a new field of interdisciplinary research called spintronics which blends novel solid-state physics and device engineering with well-established areas of research such as magnetics and materials science.


Happy days…Fert and Grünberg, 2007

In 2007, the two European scientists shared the Nobel prize for physics. Yay! But what happened between 1988 and 2007 is the key here…and this is where Parkin entered the picture.

The first commercial application of the GMR phenomenon was in devices to detect slight magnetic fields for applications like landmine detection and traffic control systems. While sensor devices were fine for niche applications, other companies were eager to apply the GMR effect to more lucrative markets. This included IBM and the researchers it employed at its Almaden lab, a place where there was already a long tradition of work on magnetic information storage technologies.

Parkin was one of the IBM researchers who undertook this research. In 1980, Parkin earned his doctorate in physics while working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. Still in his twenties, he joined IBM Almaden laboratory in 1982 and did research on topics such as high-temperature superconductivity for several years. After learning about the Europeans’ GMR research, he began to explore the magnetic properties of multilayer thin films with an eye toward improving the capabilities of the company’s hard disk drives.

In 1991, Parkin and his colleagues described what they called a “spin valve,” a device that makes use of the GMR phenomenon.2

Unlike Fert and Grünberg, who built samples using the more precise but slower and expensive tool of molecular beam epitaxy, Parkin’s group tried using sputter deposition equipment. This fit the goals of the Almaden group which wasn’t on basic science per se but on making devices that could be readily manufactured. Parkin’s use of sputtering held appeal for a company like IBM which had extensive experience in fabricating sputter-deposited magnetic storage media on an industrial scale. As one observer of Parkin’s research later recalled, the British scientist and his colleagues “simply engineered the shit” out the underlying GMR discovery as they made and characterized over 30,000 different multilayer combinations.

IBM eventually used the spintronics research Parkin and his colleagues had done to redesign and improve a basic element – the read head – in the company’s hard disk drives.

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In November 1997, The Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story about IBM’s unveiling of a new innovation for the personal computer industry. Based on the Almaden group’s exploitation of the GMR phenomenon, the new drives featured exquisitely sensitive magnetic read heads. For example, they could store eight times as much data as competitor’s equipment while still being smaller in size.3 This helped set the stage for the subsequent explosion in computer memory.


The result? Tiny hard drives that Apple incorporated into its early iPods. Fert and Grünberg’s work – channeled through Parkin and his colleagues at Almaden – found its way into the hands of millions of earbud wearing teenagers and subway commuters.

Historians, recognize that “pure science” is very much a social construction and one that often, after closer scrutiny, may not be quite so uncomplicated. Fert and Grünberg originally discovered GMR in the tradition of small-scale basic physics research. Parkin helped translate this into practical applications. Businesses, large and small, swiftly patented these applications and integrated it into products worth billions of dollars in annual sales. In this week’s Millennium Prize announcement, we can discern connections between contemporary scientific research and engineering applications and also see the shifting boundaries between science and technology.

  1. Peter Grünberg, then at the Jülich Research Center in western Germany, and his team made their discovery using Fe/Cr/Fe tri-layers. At the same time, Albert Fert and his group at Laboratoire de Physique des Solides at the University of Paris-Sud were examining more complex Fe/Cr multilayers. Fert and Grünberg’s work represented nanotechnology research long before the word itself fully entered the popular lexicon. For example, Fert’s team prepared its alternating iron and chromium layers – each less than ten nanometers thick – with molecular beam epitaxy, a key proto-nano research tool, before observing the GMR effect. []
  2. As described in its basic form, a spin valve is composed of two magnetic layers separated by a nonmagnetic layer. When the magnetic moment of the magnetic layers are aligned, electrons move more easily and the sample shows low resistance. If the magnetic layers are not aligned, the spin-dependent movement of electrons is impeded and resistance goes up. In this way, the device acts as a valve, affecting the passage of electrons depending on whether the valve is “open” or “closed. At about the same time, Parkin and four other colleagues filed for a patent. This was awarded in October 1992. []
  3. Raju Narisetti. “IBM Unveils Powerful PC Disk Drive, Confirms Plans to Join Two Divisions.” The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 1997: 1. IBM’s device held about 17 gigabytes of data (double what the company had previously offered) and was 3.25” in size; the best products from other firms had about thirty percent less storage capacity and were two inches bigger. []