Mention “Futurama” to young people of the 21st century and they will immediately assume you are speaking of a wildly popular sci-fi cartoon series by Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, that began airing in 1999, was still seen in re-runs until very recently, and can now be ordered on Netflix at your convenience.
But this blog entry isn’t about that Futurama. It’s about this Futurama.
The picture above is obviously not a cartoon, and obviously not from recent times.
This is a scene from the interior of the “original” Futurama, a massive, wildly popular attraction at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, a splendiferous, futuristic fair nick-named “The World of Tomorrow.”
Much like some of the modern rides at Walt Disney World, visitors to the Futurama attraction would ride in comfortable seats, listening to a mellow-voiced narrator from speakers behind them, as they were whisked along a path around a vast model representing the potential future coast-to-coast United States of 1960.
Sponsored by General Motors, the main point of the attraction was to promote the idea of a proposed national system of limited-access super highways, and beauteous “carefully-planned cities” for business, manufacturing, and commerce, with homes for every family in idyllic, pastoral outlying suburbs. (We ended up with those super highways, but the planned cities and pastoral suburbs…not so much!) And, of course, the “hidden agenda” of the attraction was ultimately to promote buying GM vehicles for the present and to explore that “not-so-distant future.”
The attraction was designed by famous industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, shown here tinkering with some of the diorama planning models.
The scale was enormous, since it had to reach from sea to shining sea of America. Here are some workers getting the scenes ready for the opening day.
Here’s an overview of how the attraction was designed.
Compared to other “visions of the future,” Bel Geddes’ was rather achievable—the most advanced technology posited was the automated highway system, of which General Motors built a working prototype by 1960.
Futurama is widely held to have first introduced the general American public to the concept of a network of expressways connecting the nation. … Bel Geddes expounds upon his design in his book Magic Motorways, stating:
“Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country – across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns – never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy.”
He had acknowledged this in the belief that a “free-flowing movement of people and goods across our nation is a requirement of modern living and prosperity.”
The modeled highway construction emphasized hope for the future as it served as a proposed solution to traffic congestion of the day, and demonstrated the probable development of traffic in proportion to the automotive growth of the next twenty years. Bel Geddes assumed that the automobile would be the same type of carrier and still the most common means of transportation in 1960, albeit with increased vehicle use and traffic lanes also capable of much higher speeds.
To meet these assumptions, four general ideas for improvement were incorporated into the exhibition showcase. First, that each section of road be designed to receive greater capacity of traffic. Second, that traffic moving in one direction could be in complete isolation to traffic moving in any other. Third, segregating traffic by subdividing towns and cities into certain units that restrict traffic and allow pedestrians to predominate. And fourth, consequent traffic control for predetermined maximum and minimum speeds. Through this, the exhibition was designed to inspire greater public enthusiasm and support for the constructive work and planning by engineers and public officials who had contributed so much toward improvement of streets and highways.
… The highway system was supported within a one-acre animated model of a projected America containing more than five hundred thousand individually designed buildings, a million trees of thirteen different species, and approximately fifty thousand motorcars, ten thousand of which traveled along a fourteen-lane multi speed interstate highway. It prophesied an American utopia regulated by an assortment of cutting-edge technologies: remote-controlled multi lane highways, power plants, farms for artificially produced crops, rooftop platforms for individual flying machines and various gadgets, all intended to create an ideal built environment and ultimately to reform society.
Bel Geddes’ “future” was synonymous with technological process, no less in its simulated low-flying airplane journey through the exhibit. The aerial journey was simulated by an 18-minute ride on a conveyor system, carrying 552 seated spectators at a time, covering a winding path a third of a mile long through the model. Along with light, sound and color effects the ride moved at a rate of approximately 120 feet per minute, allowing spectators to look down through a continuous curved pane of glass towards the model. The virtue of this elevated position allowed spectators to see multiple scales simultaneously, viewing city blocks in proportion to a highway system as well as artificially controlled trees in glass domes.
This scale was modelled off 408 topographical sections based on aerial photographs of different regions of the US provided by the pioneering company Fairchild Aerial Surveys.
Lots of little “touches” were added by the thousands, to “breathe life” into the scenes. For instance, there was the “wedding party on the steps of a country church, complete with bride in lace, groom in best suit, flowers, and parson–all in the scale of 200 to 1 and arranged to be seen by the visitor as if from an airplane flying overhead.” And even perhaps more poignant…”a batch of little houses each the size of a matchbox. But these aren’t ordinary little houses, they are tumbled down houses, with leaky roofs and broken windows. They have old-fashioned, outdoor country plumbing.” [Source]
Yes, you were to envision yourself “flying across country” and looking out your airplane window, down on America. At the beginning you were high in the sky, looking down on tiny buildings as you passed over cities. As you approached closer to the end of the ride, the dioramas were larger and larger, as if you were getting closer and closer to the ground. At the end, you stepped out of your seat and found yourself in a full-size “set” like in a movie, of some of the futuristic buildings you had just seen in miniature. Each building held further GM displays and demonstrations, including, of course, lots of samples of the latest models of GM cars.
And on your way out of the attraction, you were issued your “I have seen the future” button.
If you have the time to spare, below is a fascinating 23-minute promotional video of this attraction, that will take you along on the “cross country trip” that 1939 spectators enjoyed at the Fair. You can go Back to the Past to See The Future.