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Boomers Wondered, “Where’s My Jet Pack?”

As the world of science touched our lives during the Space Race, a vision of personal flight long imagined in science fiction entered the scene as a real possibility: the jet pack, or more accurately, the rocket pack, since it did not have a jet-propelled engine. A rocket pack was a device worn by an individual that contained fuel tanks and control mechanisms to propel the figure, in science fiction, across the skies.

The first rocket pack was invented by a Russian inventor, Aleksandr Andreyev, in 1919. He imagined a liquid fuel mix of methane and oxygen as his propellent, and affixed wings that were three feet long to the back of the device for stability in flight. A patent was issued to him years later, but his device was never built.

The idea was constantly cropping up through the years. The Nazis tested versions of flying platforms during WWII, but their plans fortunately did not result in operational devices. Various companies tested versions of rocket packs in the 1950s, and the U.S. Army was interested in possible military uses for reconnaissance, passing over mine fields, crossing rivers, ascending steep inclines, etc. The government contracted Aerojet General to develop and test a rocket pack, which the Army dubbed a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In 1960, the Army discovered that Bell Aerosystems was testing a rocket pack (which they called a rocket belt), and shifted their funding over to them. Bell’s version used a propellent made of a hydrogen peroxide mixed with a bit of nitrogen.

Testing was well underway between 1960 and 1965, first with trained test pilots, then, at the Army’s suggestion, by an untrained pilot. Bill Suitor, age 19 at the time, was hired to join the team of pilots. Between 1965 and 1969, the team executed 3,000 flights with a perfect safety record. While successfully getting its pilots airborne, the duration of each flight maxed out at 21 seconds by the mid-60s. Short flight duration coupled with expensive engineering and high fuel costs caused the Army to scrap its program. Bell continued to demonstrate the device at air shows and state fairs, so it piqued the imagination of many boomers along the way.

Boomers had watched episodes of Rocketman on TV and already wanted to fly with their own rocket pack. As if rocket pack fever wasn’t enough, James Bond entered the mix in the opening sequence of Thunderball (1965). Our man 007 made his getaway courtesy of a Bell Aerospace rocket belt. His stunt double was none other than Bill Suitor.

Mister Boomer recalls seeing a Glad garbage bag commercial on TV in the 1960s where the Man from Glad flies in with a rocket pack to rescue the woman struggling with an inferior trash bag. Despite his memory, he was unable to verify this memory online.

Today the rocket pack is alive and well, with several companies producing versions with various forms of propellant, and individual inventors have created their own devices with mixed results. Two practical applications did arise from the rocket pack idea, though: today astronauts use a similar device for space walks. The NASA device is a direct descendant of the Bell rocket belt. Enterprising inventors realized that if they could figure our a way to keep a fuel supply coming to the belt, fly time could be greatly enhanced. They found a way to pump water to the propulsion unit, and the water jet pack was invented. These devices propel a person, tethered to to the pump unit, above and around a body of water. Variations on the device include one that resembles a skateboard, and others that act like individual “jet shoes.” A recreational rental market has cropped up in several tourist-centric locations around the globe.

Did you want a jet pack, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Pop Culture History,Technology and have No Comments

Boomers Grew Along With Weather Forecasting

The rash of weather-related events in recent times — hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, ice and snow storms — have never been better forecast and reported on than they are today. Continuous weather alerts via smartphones and 24-hour weather channels make us more connected to the weather than at any time in history. Boomers are especially positioned to have seen the evolution of that reporting, from the early days of television to today.

Of course, weather reporting did not start with the boomer years. It goes way back before the country was founded, but our Founding Fathers appreciated the advantage that weather reports could give them as merchants, mariners, farmers and military leaders. In particular, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid weather observers, noting temperatures and observations in daily diaries. Jefferson had a thermometer and barometer — one of the only instruments of its kind in the U.S. at the time — at Monticello, and took daily notes of the data.

Once the telegraph allowed for reporting from all parts of the country around 1849, the Smithsonian Institution supplied weather instruments to telegraph offices, which would report back on a daily basis. By 1870, a national weather service was instituted to inform military stations of impending storms, which for the first time gave ordinary citizens information that would affect their lives. In the 1920s, the National Weather Bureau provided daily reports to the fledgling aviation industry.

During WWII, weather reporting was vitally important in many battles, especially the Normandy Invasion. Weather data on winds and tides allowed analysts to correctly interpret how the heavy fog, rain and wind of that day would lift, thereby first giving cover to the approaching invasion fleet, then as the weather improved, a better fighting circumstance for troops. In 1945 there were 900 women working for the Bureau, filling positions that were held by men who had been called to military duty.

The Boomer Generation years of 1946-1964 were extremely important to the advance of weather reporting, especially on TV:
• In 1948, the U.S. Weather Bureau gave the first tornado warnings in Oklahoma; national tornado forecasts began being issued in 1952.
• In 1950, the first 30-day outlook forecasts were released.
• In 1954, the first radar specifically designed for meteorological use was put into service by the U.S. Air Force.
• In 1957-58, the year was named The International Geophysical Year to mark the first time meteorological research data was shared among world scientists.
• In 1958, the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, was launched to observe weather. Data from the satellite is credited for the discovery of the Van Allen Belts, Earth’s magnetic fields.
• In 1963, the first polar-orbiting weather satellite, TIROS III, was launched. It provided, for the first time, continuous images of cloud cover across the globe.
• In 1970, the U.S. Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service

The British were the first to broadcast a televised weather report, with the male meteorologist standing in front of a map on a chalkboard, in 1949. The first U.S. TV weather report broadcast came out of Cincinnati in the late-1940s to early 1950s. In 1952, the FCC opened up competition for local TV station licenses, and stations saw that weather was the one place where they could get attention and distinguish themselves from competitors. By the early 1950s, weather was seen as a chance to insert comic relief into the seriousness of the daily newscasts.

Heading into the mid-boomer years, it was understood that weather forecasting was far from an exact science, so anyone with sufficient charisma and charm was tapped to report the weather. Consequently, weather reports were, depending on the positioning of the local TV station, a serious affair or a comedic interlude. A series of people, from puppeteers and poets to serious meteorologists and newsmen, were given the job at local stations. All sorts of “wacky weathermen” were reporting from local stations coast to coast. Boomers will recall the joking and physical humor of their local weather forecasters while giving the weather report; they became much-loved personalities in their own right.

Carol Reed is credited with being the first TV “weather girl,” reporting for WCBS-TV in New York City from 1952 to 1964. She had no meteorological training, and was not on the wacky side of the equation, but was well liked by TV audiences. In 1957, the American Meteorological Society began issuing the AMS Seal of Approval as a way to get science-based on-air presenters more respect and make weather reporting less of a burlesque show. By the late 1960s, most of the wacky forecasters were replaced by increasing technological abilities onscreen and added scientific data.

Mister Boomer recalls the weather forecasters in his youth. Of course, the Today Show with Dave Garroway was part of the family’s morning ritual. After national news was relayed, local stations could insert their forecasts into the program slot, so mothers knew how to dress their kids for school. What seemed ubiquitous to Mister B in the early days were the chalkboards. It was all men reporting the weather in Mister B’s area, and they would painstakingly draw warm, cold and stationary fronts on national and state maps affixed to the chalkboards, indicate temperatures in the region and forecast the highs and lows for the day as well as a general indication of sun, rain, wind, sleet, snow, heat or cold. One local station had a guy who could turn every forecast into a series of weather-related puns.

Weather forecasting has come a long way, both in format and scientific accuracy, since our boomer years. If recent tracking of impending hurricanes and “snowmaggedons” are any indication, understanding the weather in the near future will be as commonplace as our personal home assistants telling us to put on a sweater as an Alberta Clipper approaches the area.

Do you have fond memories of weather men — and women — from your early boomer years?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Seasons,Technology and have Comments Off on Boomers Grew Along With Weather Forecasting

Boomers Did Chores by Hand

It’s fall, and that intrusive noise in the neighborhood indicates that leaf blower season is upon us. After a thoroughly unscientific survey of the people Mister Boomer knows, he came to the conclusion that the days we knew — of hand rakes and push brooms — appear to be over, replaced by machines that blow things from one place to another. In Mister B’s limited survey, not a single homeowner owned a rake, nor were they interested in buying one; yet all had a leaf blower. Is this a sign that rakes are headed for extinction in the average home, destined to be equipment needed only for a few lawn care professionals in the near future? Many communities are seeking to ban gas-powered models these days, due to the pollution factor, but there are plenty of electric and cordless models around to take their place.

In our boomer years, raking leaves brought opportunity to some of us, as we could make a dollar or two. For others, it was a chore to which they would have preferred some technological solution because the task was accomplished by hand. For others still, the raking part was the prelude to making piles to jump in and play. For Mister Boomer and his brother, it was a bit of all three. Once the family lawn had been raked, the Boomer Brothers enlisted the help of a couple of neighborhood boys in finding houses that had the most leaves on their property. A lot of the time, people would prefer to do it themselves or have their children do it, but occasionally, the boys were employed. The pay was not great — usually less than snow removal — but it was a way to generate some discretionary income as a preteen.

That got Mister Boomer thinking about things other than leaf raking we used to do by hand — especially chores — that are now replaced with some device. Here are a few that come to mind:

Vacuuming. Today’s busy Domestic Engineers (who could be any man, woman or child) increasingly don’t seem to want to bother with pushing a vacuum over carpets and floors, pretty much the way it had been done since the beginning of the twentieth century. Little by little, robot vacuums are replacing the hand vacuum for household use. What’s more, with the addition of one of those home assistant thingies, the robot vacuum can be be started with a voice command. An interesting side note is that pets — boomer cats and dogs — were frightened of vacuum cleaners. Now, as can be seen in numerous videos, cats jump on the robot models for free rides, and dogs see them as a new plaything. (Rosey the robot maid was so old-fashioned with her built-in hand vacuum!)

Grass mowing. Mister Boomer remembers his first lawn mowing experiences with a hand-push lawn mower. It was a real step up when his father purchased the family’s first gas-powered mower. A neighbor had an electric Sunbeam mower that Mister Boomer thought was pretty cool, but there was always the extension cord to manage. Flash forward to today, and Mister B watched a recent episode of This Old House where a backyard robot lawn mower was installed for the homeowner. The thing was programmed to mow the lawn autonomously, activated by a scheduled program day, pushing a start button or selecting a command from a smartphone app — anywhere in the world. When it finishes the job, it parks itself back in its charging station (can you say, “George Jetson?”).

Dishwashing. Dishwashers were certainly available throughout the boomer years, but Mister Boomer knew very few people who had one installed in their homes. The kids took turns doing the dishes in the kitchen sink, by hand, with a washcloth and dish soap. Mister Boomer’s mother tackled the pots and pans. The family did not have a dishwasher until the last years of the 1970s. Visions of the future always included a method for cleaning dishes to relieve women (then the exclusive keepers of the household) of the daily chore. (Jane Jetson could “do the dishes” with a push of a button). Today, it’s practically a deal-breaker for a young couple to buy a home that does not have a dishwasher.

Car windows. There are few hand gestures that so perfectly describe the action to which one asks another to perform. There is that one, of course, but Mister Boomer refers to, for example, the universal symbol of “check please” by clasping the index finger and thumb together and air-writing a signature in order to get a server to bring the check. For the Boomer Generation, one such hand signal — though technically not a “chore” — was the making of a fist and rotating it in a circular motion. Everyone knew that meant “roll down your car window.” Power windows were around in the boomer years and before, but again, Mister B’s family wasn’t one to have such lavish technologies. He recalls the first time he saw power windows, while riding in a neighbor’s car. His friend’s father fancied used Cadillacs, so while driving the boys one summer day, Mister B watched as his buddy pushed the lever and down came the back door window. In Mister Boomer’s mind, that defined luxury.

Almost all cars come standard with power windows these days. This begs the question, how will you ask someone in the next car if they have any Grey Poupon?

The quick adaption of leaf blowers to replace rakes, house robots and power-everything gadgets signal that we are indeed heading toward the Space Age Future we imagined and were promised in shows like The Jetsons. Yet Mister Boomer has to ask, wouldn’t a leaf vacuum be more practical?

What hand chores have you replaced with technology, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Seasons,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Feared the Automation Reaper

The recent buzz about the coming round of automation is instilling fear and dread in the hearts of some, while fulfilling the promised dreams of a future world for others. The interesting thing to Mister Boomer is, like Yogi Bera said back in the day, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

This has all happened before. During the Industrial Revolution, thousands of jobs were rendered unnecessary in the wake of technological advances in modern machinery. At first, small jobs were automated — the types of jobs that could save a small business owner, farmer or homemaker hours of work — and were generally well received. In other words, these devices were viewed as labor savers rather than labor subtracters.

When steam-powered machinery entered the industrial world, things changed on a larger scale. One of the industries where jobs were particularly impacted by the automation of the late 1800s was the textile industry. Suddenly a single machine could replace hundreds that were needed to man looms to create fabric. The response from workers was predictably negative. Workers revolted, protested, sabotaged machines, and even burned down plants. Yet in the end, the jobs were lost as new methods replaced old. As time went on, new technology created more jobs than it eliminated, and the country prospered.

The end of World War II brought a new wave of innovation to the forefront in American business, and with it a national optimism for a new future that gave rise to the Baby Boom. However, a rising unease gripped the country by the mid-50s as automation found its way into offices and factories. The prevailing fear was that machines would be replacing people, and jobs would be lost. Ironically, in the decade after the War, the unemployment rate had steadily declined.

The auto industry, as it had done in the 1920s, brought a great deal of automation to their processes. Between 1951 and ’53, the Ford Motor Company constructed new automated stamping plants for engine parts in Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio, that the company hoped would relieve the stress of the strikes, outages and union negotiations experienced in the 1940s. Ultimately, it was discovered that people were still a necessary part of that equation at those plants — the loading and unloading of machines, and therefore the production pace of the machinery, needed to be managed by humans after all. It would be a couple of decades before robotic loading and packing could fully enter the process. While experiencing fits and starts with their automated processes, the auto industry had greater success in automating the dirtiest jobs, such as spot welding and spray painting.


Desk Set (1957) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Isn’t it amazing that they got the automated function correct, but the computer now fits on a desk?

Fear of mass unemployment was growing as the 1950s became the ’60s and the country entered 10 months of recession. Lawmakers in Washington heard the buzz and wondered aloud what, if anything, they should do about it. President Kennedy addressed the public’s concerns in a speech he gave on May 25, 1961. The president proposed “… a new Manpower and Training Development program to train or retrain several hundred thousand workers particularly in those areas where we have seen chronic unemployment as a result of technological factors and new occupational skills over a four-year period, in order to replace those skills made obsolete by automation and industrial change with the new skills which the new processes demand.” Most people will not remember this part of Kennedy’s speech, because it is the same one in which he laid down the challenge to American science and business for “… landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth …” within the decade.

By 1964, concerns of automation causing unemployment had not been assuaged. This led President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law creating a National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. The Commission released its report in February of 1966.
In addressing the situation on behalf of the American worker, the Commission recommended several steps be taken. Among them:
• a program of public service employment to provide work for “hard-core unemployed” in useful community enterprises
• a guaranteed minimum income for every family
• removing obstacles to education, including universal high school education and up to 14 years of schooling guaranteed
• a national, computerized job-matching service to provide information to workers on where jobs were available
• relocation assistance for families

Boomers hit the job market in the swirl of this automation tempest, only to become the engineers of the automated future we are now facing. Some prognosticators are now forecasting that automation will affect nearly half of all workers in the next decade. Many jobs once held by boomers have long since been replaced by automation, with more sure to come. How many boomers were pinsetters in bowling alleys? switchboard operators? typesetters? keypunch operators? The list continues to grow.

Automation did not adversely affect Mister Boomer’s working life. He, like many boomers, became adaptable as computers entered various fields. In fact, he credits his embrace of the personal computer for his later-life work success. Now that he is anticipating retirement, Mister B looks back with nostalgia, but is very glad he doesn’t have to face a job market rife with the prospect of diminishing career opportunities.

How about you, boomers? Did automation play a role in your working life?

posted by Mister B in Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Watch As Things Disappear

When contemplating the rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing, Mister Boomer was reminded of the lyrics to a song by Badfinger (1970):

If you want it, here it is, come and get it
But you’d better hurry ’cause it’s goin’ fast

You’d better hurry ’cause its going fast

Mister Boomer has chronicled the field of disappearing things before, including phone booths and TVs with dials. Here is an update to add to the list:

Steering Wheels
Unlike the flying cars we were promised in our youth, the driverless car is becoming a reality faster than many boomers could ever dream. Now word comes from the Ford Motor Company of their plans to start production on an autonomous vehicle in 2020! Cars may not be disappearing any time soon, but over the next decade cars with steering wheels and pedals will. That means boomers who probably learned how to drive on a car with no power steering will now live long enough to see cars on the road without a driver — and no need for a steering wheel.

Wallets with change pockets
For decades, women’s wallets came equipped with a change pocket, and many men’s wallets did, too. Mister Boomer’s very first wallet had a leather change pocket built in. The problem these days is, of course, that young people do not carry change. It may drive Mister Boomer crazy to see a Millennial pay for a pack of gum with a debit card, but that is the way our society is heading. To be fair, in our day a package of gum was a nickel or dime; today it’s over a dollar. We may not only see change pockets and change disappear, but paper money as well.

Postcards
When people were off seeing the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet in the decades before the Internet, e-mail and social media, they sent postcards to friends and family to tell them, “Wish you were here.” The cards were individually handwritten and stamped with the proper postcard postage, then whisked on their way courtesy of the U.S. Post Office. Sometimes the sender could return home before the postcards arrived, but it was a normal practice to send and receive postcards to/from family and friends when traveling. Some people sent holiday postcards rather than deal with envelopes; they were cheaper, too. Now, they are disappearing because with a click a message, photo or video can be sent to anyone in the world, no stamp necessary.

Celebrity Autographs
Since the dawn of celebrity, when people saw their larger-than-life stars, there is only one request they would make of them — an autograph. Many boomers will recall their mothers and some fathers having autograph books designed just for the that purpose, and some boomers carried on the tradition. Now, what people want from celebrities is a selfie more than an autograph. A selfie plays better in the show-and-tell social media landscape, much better than an “I got so-and-so’s autograph today!” message.

CDs
Boomers saw 8-track tapes come and go, then cassette tapes, then the decline and fall of vinyl records (even though vinyl is on a bit of a comeback tour right now). CDs were a latecomer to the music party, and are now disappearing. Music is easily downloaded or  listened to on any number of devices. The CD, we’ve come to learn, is not as stable a medium as vinyl records were, so many have already degraded to the point of being unplayable. Can you say “planned obsolescence?”

Personal Ownership
The shared economy is upon us. For many years now a plethora of boomers have accepted the fact that they would lease their cars instead of buying them. The reasons are simple: lease payments are often cheaper than ownership payments and the cost of operation can be lower, too. With the advent of car services available at the click of a button and driverless vehicles on the horizon, are car ownership days on the wane? We’ll know which way the wind blows in the next decade.

Boomers loved buying records. We went out to get 45 RPMs and albums from our favorite artists on the day they were released. And the beauty is, now that we are approaching our old age, many of us still have those records. Boomers watched vinyl get replaced by cassettes played on a Walkman, only to be replaced by CDs; then CDs replaced by downloadable music played on an iPod. The iPod started its decline when music could be stored and played on a smartphone, and now, music streaming is threatening to hasten the demise of personal music ownership altogether.

Before World War II home ownership was far from a given, especially for the lower and middle classes. Less than half of the population owned their homes. The Baby Boom changed that by a full ten percent in one decade after the War, thanks to the GI Bill and VA loans. Today more than one third of the population still does not own a home. In California, our most populous state, home ownership peaked in 2008. The Great Recession and Millennials rethinking the need to own a home is changing the game once again. How long will it be until owning a home is no longer part of the American Dream?

The rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing seems to be accelerating. So how about it, boomers, do we hang on to what we had as long as we can or go with the flow and embrace the new?

Read Mister Boomer’s other posts on disappearing boomer stuff:
Going, Going… Gone?
Boomers Watched Things Come and Go
Boomers’ Labor Love Lost

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comments Off on Boomers Watch As Things Disappear

Boomers Banked the Old-Fashioned Way

A major financial institution announced this week that it was rolling out a new smartphone app that could control all functions of their ATMs. For several years now banks have accepted check deposits through their smartphone apps when the consumer takes a photo of the check. This announcement, however, eliminates the need for a physical ATM card altogether. You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. The writing appears to be on the wall as we inevitably move toward a future where all monetary transactions are handled through some personal electronic device.

That dots the “i’s” and crosses the “t’s” for placing the boomer generation as the last to be required to visit a bank teller in person to do routine banking functions such as deposit checks and withdraw funds. Banks have been discouraging the traditional face-to-face bank teller visit — the one boomers recall — for nearly 40 years now. They have trained us to use the ATM instead. Now they want to come one step closer to eliminating the need for an ATM at all.

What triggered this latest nostalgia bomb in the mind of Mister Boomer was that recently he and his spouse opened an account at a neighborhood bank for the sake of convenience. This particular bank is a little unlike others in that there are no bullet-proof partitions separating customer from teller, so there is no need to shout through a hole to relay one’s reason for today’s banking. This was much more like the banks of yore.

Mister Boomer was probably around six or seven years old when his mother brought him and his brother, with his sister in tow in the kids’ wagon, to the neighborhood bank. This visit was to open an account for Mister Boomer. The nice lady behind a desk got the pertinent info, Mister B’s mom handed over a couple of dollars — more than likely the contents of a birthday card from his grandmother — and then went behind the teller counter to finish the transaction. When she returned, she handed Mister B the book — which he was now informed was a “passbook” — and was greeted with a “Welcome to the Bank, Master Boomer.” That was the way it was — men and women would be addressed as “Mister” or “Missus,” girls as “Miss” and boys under the age of twelve as “Master.”

For the next twenty years Mister B banked at that branch. Each time he produced his passbook, where tellers dutifully recorded deposits and withdrawals by stamping the date and amount. When the pages of one book were filled, another was given to take its place. The tellers knew your name when you walked through the door, and they were always happy to see you. It was like Cheers — a place where troubles were all the same, and everybody knew your name.

Of course, boomers did not have a choice but to visit a bank weekly, at the very least. We had to stand in line with all the other people who just got their paychecks in order to deposit part and take back the cash we would need for the week. There was no such thing as “direct deposit.” This might result in lines of 45-minute waits or longer, despite a full complement of tellers for every window. It meant a race to the bank after work if you wanted to cash your paycheck, or using a lunch hour to do so instead. Some banks began to open one day a week a little beyond their usual 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours (known as “bankers hours” to boomers) to accommodate the weekly crush. Others established drive-through windows to increase the number of tellers and lessen the lines, only to have long lines at the drive-throughs.

Mister Boomer’s neighborhood bank wasn’t much bigger than the size of a gas station. It was dwarfed by the size of its parking lot, which was easily double its size. Drive-through windows first appeared in the late 1920s, when people began owning more cars than horses, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s when Mister B’s bank installed drive-throughs. The bank’s main branch had them probably since the building was built, which looked to be the 1950s. But Mister B’s branch was old-fashioned. Following suit, Mister Boomer didn’t use the bank’s drive-throughs until the bank established Saturday morning drive-through hours in the early 1970s. If you couldn’t make it to the bank on Friday payday, the Saturday drive-through window was going to be a life-saver.

Like most boomers at this time in history, Mister Boomer has moved along to embrace whatever ways the banks have laid out for us to give them our money. Forty years ago, would any boomer have envisioned a day when we could make bank transactions and bill payments by computer, let alone a smartphone? Mister Boomer, though, wouldn’t mind banking at a place where everybody knew his name.

Do you remember banking in our boomer days fondly, or as a necessary evil?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)