Space, gaming for girls, burgers, and human obsolescence
Delightful stories about the history of technology and the humans who use it
This week in 1963: the AP reported on two very important questions about the space program: what would astronauts eat, and how would they shave?
The first American spaceflight, in 1961, lasted just 15 minutes. Now, NASA had its sights set on the moon, which would require longer missions, which would require food—and, apparently, a way to groom.
Whirlpool, the appliances giant, created “a shaver operated by a spring motor, like a windup toy train. It has a built-in vacuum cleaner that collects the cut whiskers—which otherwise might float around getting into eyes and noses or fouling instruments.”
For food, Whirlpool came up with a menu of dehydrated, just-add-water, ACME-style delicacies. During a demo, a Whirlpool manager “popped open a sack of shrimp, poured in two ounces of water, and 10 minutes later there were nice moist shrimp that tasted just like shrimp.”
Coincidentally, 10 minutes was also the duration of Bezos’ space jaunt last week. Barely enough for some rehydrated shrimp.
Gaming for girls
This week in 1983: Behold Jenny of the Prairie, a video game whose protagonist was (gasp!) a girl.
“Pac Man fever […] is largely a male disease. Dodging spaceships is a yawn to many little girls,” said the game’s creators, software designer Lucy Werth Ewell and psychologist Elizabeth R. Stott. (Also largely a male disease: creating toxic work environments in the gaming industry.)
The women founded their studio, Rhiannon, to make computers more accessible to girls. “Sexual stereotypes and societal pressures discourage girls from embracing the computer revolution, even though they have the same aptitudes for computers,” Stott said in a 1985 report from the AP. “We believe girls ought to have an equal crack at careers. We didn’t want them to get tuned out before they were 10 years old.”
Sounds like an idea worth investing in, right? What might possibly prevent them from securing funding?
Ah, right. Sexism.
“When the women looked for money to start the business, banks agreed to lend it only if their husbands co-signed the loan. When they borrowed again to expand, Ms. Stott had to turn to her father as a guarantor,” said the AP report.
Jenny was part of a series that also included Chelsea of the South Sea Islands, Cave Girl Clair, and Lauren of the 25th Century. They were survival games. In Jenny, players had to chop wood, pick apples, hunt rabbits, and avoid mountain lions and rattlesnakes to keep the main character alive. It was, it seems, a good game. So much so that during play tests, a little boy asked Ewell and Stott to design a “similar game,” but with “a boy hero.”
“Why should we do a game for boys when they have all the games on the market now?” Stott said. “Actually, we’re concerned about the WASPiness of the characters more than the fact that they’re all girls.”
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This week in 1973, the digital revolution arrived at Burger King via computerized cash registers that could tally order totals, calculate sales taxes, and keep track of inventory.
People who think about technology often envision an ideal state of human-computer cooperation, where humans offload mindless tasks to machines so they can focus on things only people can do.
Burger King had the same idea: by automating rote tasks, the new cash registers would free up workers to “return to the ‘old ways’ of friendly, face-to-face merchandising.”
That vision of fast-food service will sound impossibly quaint to anyone who’s visited a drive-thru in the last 25 years. But for a while in 1973, it seemed to work: “The queues [...] are moving faster than ever, but the store supervisors are actually slowing down enough to chat with customers.”
This week in 1968: The dean of USC’s School of Engineering proclaimed humans wouldn’t be obsolete until at least 2050.
The dean’s point, though, was more sophisticated than simply “we are doomed.” He painted two scenarios for our obsolescence. In one, machines would declare war on humans, and they’d win. (Then, we’d spend existence as organic batteries with our consciousness suspended in a simulation until The One freed us. Obviously.)
But in the other version of the future, humanity would offload all labor and industry to machines, leading to a future presumably financed by universal basic income.
“It is predictable that when one man meets another in the coming centuries and says ‘what do you do?’ he won’t be asking what the individual does for a living, because no one will be working for a living. He’ll get answers such as ‘I’m a mountain climber,’ or ‘I paint,’ or ‘I’m a musician.’”
Maybe obsolescence isn’t so bad?
This week in 1963, the world’s best bridge players gathered for the 35th national championship. For the first time ever, dealing and scoring would be done by a computer.
But the Honeywell manager who installed the system also saw potential in having it compete. “By next year I think we can have it outperforming 90 percent of tournament players,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” countered the tournament director. “I saw the computer broken down for three hours the other day, and I will have to admit I felt a little triumphant. I felt more human, somehow.”
This week in 1982: A delightful infographic explained computers to kids (or, as the piece calls them, “compu-tots”).
“Computers are very helpful. They can do many things without ever becoming tired, hungry or bored.”