. . .
As noted last week, the publisher of Radio-Craft was the influential (sometimes infuriating) Hugo Gernsback, inventor, investor and perhaps the person most responsible for turning science fiction into a literary field.
(Gernsback wouldn’t have blushed at this description, by the way. Hugo was many things, but “modest” wasn’t one of them.)
The March 1938 issue of Radio-Craft devotes three full pages and parts of three others crowing about Gernsback’s predictions that had been fulfilled, including radio networks (1909) “radio movies” (he claimed credit for coining the word “television”), long-distance shortwave radio (1918) and fax machines (1921).
. . .
For the big “golden jubilee” issue of Radio-Craft, Gernsback went back to his crystal ball to peer into radio’s future.
He did admit that some of his prognostications were just a case of projecting trends: “Any industry, and science in particular, always follows a well-planned path which can be predicted with fair accuracy by anyone who takes the trouble to do so.”
. . .
Still, some of his technical ideas are prescient. Take Gernsback’s prediction that rotary tuning dials and knobs will be “thrown overboard” within 20 years.
“The day may come when we will use neither the present type of tuning inductance nor today’s type of condenser,” he writes.
In Gernsback’s time, experiments were just beginning “phase-locked loop” electrical circuits.
By the 1970s, when integrated circuits became inexpensive, digital tuners began showing up in TVs and radios. Only the cheapest new sets still have tuning dials.
. . .
Gernsback also foresaw the day when FM would supplant AM for music broadcasts.
“Our broadcasters are spending untold fortunes on the very best of programs, and the finest music that was ever heard on this planet,” he says. “It is the height of absurdity to have such a program marred with all sorts of noises which, believe it or not, will no longer be heard in a radio set 25 years hence.”
Gernsback was just a little bit early. Music was still plentiful on AM radio in 1963, but the switch to FM was on by the mid-1970s, because there was “no static at all,” as Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen famously sang.
. . .
Or take Gernsback’s bold prediction that vacuum tubes — state-of-the-art in the 1930s — would become miniaturized and eventually go “cold,” with no need of heaters or filaments.
“That means, of course, that the power which we require for a radio set will be infinitesimal,” says Gernsback.
He had conceived the idea of the transistor nine years before scientists at Bell Labs began their experiments!
. . .
And finally, Gernsback notes that:
Physicians, contractors, businessmen and others find it necessary to be in touch with their offices many hours of the day. Special broadcast stations will be erected whereby special messages to certain individuals will be broadcast … such broadcast stations probably will operate at special frequencies.
In other words, this will be a glorified paging system, but not limited to the confines of a hotel; it will be possible to page individuals within a radius of 100 miles.
It was another 20 years before Motorola introduced the first consumer models of the device it called a “pager,” using almost the same terminology that Gernsback had coined! And indeed, doctors were among the earliest users. Pretty smart, eh?
. . .
On other topics, unfortunately, Gernsback’s crystal ball got foggy. He was fascinated in 1938 by what he called “molecular vibration,” the transmission of sound directly into the human body by vibration, bypassing speakers.
“I can see in the future, furniture such as chairs or beds wired with a special appartus or instrument which will give off sonorous sounds the instant one touches the chair or the bed merely with the fingertips,” Gernsback says. “Anyone standing even one foot away from him will hear nothing.
“When radio manufacturers adapt this principle, we will be able to enjoy radio as we have never been able to enjoy it before, and at the same time we will not annoy others when they wish quiet,” he predicts.
Although some hearing aids work on a similar principle — transmitting sounds via bone implants — Mr. Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix doesn’t know of any TVs or radios that transmit “sonorous sounds” throughout the human body, probably because it’s such a creepy idea.
. . .
Almost as creepy is Gernsback’s related idea for “learning as you sleep,” again through special vibrating beds.
“The time is not far away when this will actually come into universal use, and again by means of the above-mentioned molecular radio-sound transmitter,” he says. “Broadcast stations will give special programs at night, and stations will vie with one another to give important instruction, whether it be languages, mathematics or history.”
. . .
The jury is still out on one idea that Gernsback predicted would soon be reality — “television eyeglasses” that would allow users to watch programs in simulated 3-D.
The TV screens would be positioned right at the end of the wearer’s nose, and the receiving equipment would fit into their pocket.
“This means, of course, that the television images received are small, but they need not be large, because they are right up close to the eye,” Gernsback says. “Indeed, they will be sharper in this matter.”
According to a 1963 story in Life magazine, Gernsback was still predicting “television eyeglasses” 25 years later.
Maybe the virtual-reality goggles used on some video game systems are really “television eyeglasses.” But no TV broadcasts are being made in 3-D, and no one’s wearing glasses that allow them to watch “Maury” and “The View” while they walk around.
. . .
We close with some advertisements from the March 1938 issue of Radio-Craft.
One is for a company that was headquartered in the eastern part of PBRTV-Land — Emporium, Pa., based Sylvania Electric. The brand name is still around, but the company is no longer based in Cameron County:
Two other ads are for the company that dominated the electronics business almost from its very beginnings until the late 1970s, Radio Corporation of America:
Finally, there’s one ad for a business that’s still in existence — the National Broadcasting Co., or NBC:
Of course, with it’s current TV ratings, it’s hard to say whether NBC is still “Broadcasting Headquarters” … but that’s a musing for another time!
Previously on Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix … We perused the March 1938 issue of Radio-Craft magazine, which celebrated “50 Years of Radio,” or more specifically, 50 years since the first experiments in transmitting and measuring electromagnetic waves.
March 1938 seems like a primitive era in radio from our perspective. The first regularly scheduled FM radio broadcasts (from Edwin Armstrong’s W2XMN in Alpine, N.J.) were still a month away, while commercial U.S. television broadcasting wouldn’t begin until 1939.
Still, for anyone who had grown up without radio in any form, it must have been exciting to look back. In less than two generations, after all, radio had gone from spark-gap transmitters and crystal sets to national networks and high-fidelity consoles.
It was only natural for the radio professionals of 1938 to wax nostalgic. Muses Radio-Craft Research Editor Robert Eichberg:
Remember when it was hard to tell speech from music, and static might have been mistaken for either, so faithful was reproduction? Ah, my ancient ones, those were the “good old days”! …
Radio has become respectable. Sets are complete units, with self-contained speakers … but is the radio listener of today as happy as the fan of yesteryear?
I doubt it, for though programs have improved along with equipment, the old thrill is largely gone. No more does one wonder, every time the set is switched on, whether it will actually work!