Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Boomers Benefited from Space Products

Fifty five years ago this past week, Russian army major Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, followed a month later. Thus began the Space Race. Congress got on board with funding this competition between the world’s two super powers, and continued as long as NASA articulated the clear mission outlined by President Kennedy, to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

After Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon in 1968, and subsequent moon missions followed, the race had been won. Public interest waned without the spectacular goals of the first decade and Congress began cutting funding for space exploration.

One of the arguments for continuing to fund space exploration was, and still is, that the country would benefit from the research and development necessary to tackle the challenging issues faced in living and working in space. The fact is, the lives of every U.S. citizen, if not most of the world, has been touched by products that were developed as a direct result of space research. Among these products are advancements in solar panel energy, water purification systems, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapy, computing systems, enriched baby food and even a global search-and-rescue system, among others.

Specifically, there are products that come closer to home for boomers and every American:

• Cordless tools: NASA needed a way for astronauts to be able to work outside their spacecraft, whether on the moon or in space, and having tools with an extension cord was not going to fill the bill. The original cordless tools came about thanks to the first moon landing.

• Digital thermometers; Boomers recall the glass tubes filled with mercury or mercurochrome that their doctors and mothers slipped under their tongues to take their temperature. The thermometer was disinfected with alcohol after each use. Today’s moms use the technology developed by NASA for use on the first space station, Skylab. A digital thermometer probe could be inserted into the ear and a temperature reading was returned in two seconds. Disposable probe covers eliminated the need for astronauts to disinfect the thermometer after each use.

• Memory foam; Again dating back to the first moon launch, NASA was looking for a way to cushion astronauts from the G-forces during blastoff, but also to soften the as yet unknown impact of landing on the moon’s surface. Researchers came up with what they called “slow springback foam” for the astronauts’ chairs. The foam would conform to the astronauts’ bodies, and spring back when the pressure and weight was lifted. Today we know it as memory foam, and it’s used in a variety of products, most notably, shoe insoles and mattresses.

• Scratch-resistant glass; Space exploration has been responsible for a variety of coatings for glass and metal. In this case, a solution was needed to protect the glass from space dust and debris that bombarded it during flight. The Foster Grant Corporation was the first to license NASA’s coating for use on sunglasses. Today almost all eyewear has a derivative of the scratch-resistant coating that was developed more than fifty years ago.

• Smoke detectors; The tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire on a test run in 1967, and on-board fires in later missions, brought home the need for a detector that could warn astronauts. In 1970, NASA partnered with the Honeywell Corporation to develop smoke detectors that also detected certain gas and radiation levels for the Skylab space station. Today many states and municipalities require homeowners to have smoke detectors in their homes.

• Cochlear implants; A NASA engineer’s use of a hearing aid led him to research how NASA sensing and telemetry equipment might help the deaf and hard of hearing. Today people who could not hear are discovering sound for the first time thanks to the cochlear implants that were developed from research NASA needed to create sensing equipment and navigational aids.

Most boomers recalled tasting freeze-dried ice cream at some point in their school lives, much to their dismay. Freeze-dry technology was developed for space travel. Mister Boomer recalls his family getting cereal with freeze-dried strawberries in the late sixties. However, contrary to what many boomers believed, Tang was not developed for space travel. It was invented by General Foods in 1957 and later sent on John Glenn’s Gemini space mission, and subsequent missions, to give astronauts some variety from the water and powdered milk that was the basis of their drinking choices. Teflon was also not developed for space. DuPont invented teflon in 1938, far removed from any space program yet conceived.

There were, however, many other enhancements and inventions that are now part of our lives, that could only be thought of as science fiction when we were young boomers. Today the promise of many more live-saving and life-changing products in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, engineering, computing and software are possible from the research needed for deep space exploration and landing on Mars. In fact, advancements are already being translated for public consumption. One out of every 1,000 patents issued each year are to NASA scientists and researchers. In robotics, exoskeletons that are being designed to assist astronauts in various atmospheric conditions are now helping paraplegics to walk; water purification research is helping countries around the world to filter contaminants from available water; and advances in miniaturization are entering the world of consumer and home electronics.

Boomers watched Star Trek every week in the early sixties, and heard the show’s opening narration of space being the final frontier. What we’ve discovered is that the further we aim out into space, the more we help ourselves back on Earth.

Are you aware of a space technology in your lives, boomers?

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

Boomers Are Still Ironing Out the Details

In a recent discussion among millennials and boomers that Mister Boomer was privy to, the subject of ironing came up. Mister B was surprised to hear that virtually all of those present said they had to at least occasionally iron clothing. Some, both men and women, said they did so weekly, while one professed to ironing every day! By contrast, Mister B avoids ironing like the plague. He refuses to buy anything that might need ironing, though many things still do. And what’s with that? Like robot maids and flying cars, we were promised that our clothes would never need ironing again!

The origins of ironing — pressing material with a hot implement in order to straighten and smooth fabric — are unknown. Yet there is evidence of the Chinese smoothing fabric by pressing with a metal basket filled with hot coals at least 1,000 years ago, and it may very well have happened sooner.

It was the late Middle Ages before people fashioned metal implements designed to smooth fabric. Then in 18th and 19th century England and Europe, glass “smoothers” were popular. These tools resembled hand stamps more than the irons that appeared in the 19th century. By the 1800s, irons were shaped implements that were heated on a stove for the express purpose of smoothing fabric. It was a hugely laborious task. Wealthy patrons could afford a dedicated stove and multiple irons, so one could heat while another cooled. Those less fortunate were forced to do without or reheat one implement over and over again. It has been noted that in Victorian households, laundry was a two-day affair; one of those days was reserved for ironing.

The first iron powered by electricity was patented by Henry Seely in 1882 in New York City. However, almost no one except the very wealthy or privileged had electricity, so it remained a novelty. It wasn’t until 1889 that a consumer-based electric iron was available. With it came the promise of relief of the drudgery of ironing that had been practiced centuries earlier.

Flash forward to the twentieth century, when the idea of ironing moved to finding fabrics that either needed less ironing, or none at all. Rayon, a cellulose-acetate product, appeared in 1924. In 1931 the DuPont Company invented nylon. It was the first fabric completely synthesized from petrochemicals. Nylon stockings arrived in 1939, and they were an immediate fashion hit with women in North America and Europe. At the beginning ofd the War, cotton was king with the US military, but nylon stockings production was interrupted as the military began to find uses for nylon. By the end of the War, manufactured fabrics comprised 15% of all fiber used by the military. A good portion of it was nylon, which was first used to replace silk for parachutes, then for tents, coats and other fabric needs.

After the War, nylon stockings production resumed, and nylon was used for auto upholstery and carpeting in the earliest boomer days. There was still no sign of the iron-free future that was predicted, until the 1950s, when new fibers became available. As manufacturers blended cotton with acrylics, the first articles of clothing advertised as “wash and wear” appeared in 1952. Development on blending cotton with synthetics continued through the 1960s and into the ’70s, giving rise to “permanent press” and “wrinkle-resistant fabrics” that could stand less ironing. This timeline coincided with the expansion of electric home dryers, which were available since the 1920s, but after the War is when they caught on with boomer families who could now afford them, and wanted the convenience. Thus started the foray into a future that promised less ironing.

Mid-century modern houses built in the 1950s and ’60s often had built-in ironing boards that, since ironing wouldn’t be needed as often, were hidden inside a cabinet or recessed into the wall. There was none of that in the Mister Boomer household. Mister B remembers that clothing literally went through the wringer in his house, so there was little doubt the items would need ironing. The circular washing machine in Mister B’s basement had a double-roller attachment above the washing drum. Mister B’s mom would pull pieces of the laundry from the drum and thread them between the rollers. His mom turned a crank with a wooden handle alongside the rollers and the laundry piece made its way through, extracting excess water that remained after the spin cycle. The extracted water was funneled down a chute to the concrete basement floor, where it slid into a drain. Then the items — clothing, sheets, towels or what have you — were clipped to a clothesline to dry. In the coldest winter months, laundry dried in the basement. The other seasons, it was hung outside. When dry, the clothing was ready to be ironed. His mother labored for hours, ironing shirts, pants, sheets and pillow cases on the folding ironing board in the living room. The board was kept in his mom’s closet when not in use, but in a small house with limited electrical outlets, it had to be brought out near the front door in the living room so the iron could be plugged in an available outlet and still reach the board.

Somewhere along the way Mister Boomer’s mother acquired a mangle, which was an ironing device popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Mister B was fascinated with the machine. It was a stand-alone metal contraption, with its own cover. When the cover was lifted, it revealed a large, fabric-covered roller approximately three feet long and a curved metal plate below it. The machine’s metal plate was electrically heated so clothing could be fed in between the plate and the roller, which pressed the garment as it moved through. Somewhere in the mid-60s, the machine disappeared from Mister Boomer’s basement. Perhaps it reached the end of its useful life and was discarded; Mister B does not know its fate. That left his mom to do all of the ironing by hand once again. Make no mistake about it, ironing was a woman’s job at that time. Dads were not yet “enlightened” enough to take on part of the household chores other than those on the outside of the house.

That brings us back to today, when advances in technology have delivered “no-iron” fabrics that everyone knows will eventually need a “touch-up.” So, the hand-held electric iron continues to be a necessary part of every household. Do you think once Google perfects the self-driving car that they might want to take on laundry that irons itself?

Do you have fun memories of ironing or watching your mom iron, boomers, or are they ironing nightmares? Have you reduced or nearly eliminated ironing from your lives or are we all doomed to a future tied to ironing boards?

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

Boomers Watched Things Come and Go

In 1965 Barry McGuire sang Eve of Destruction, which in the Cold War era, put voice to the feeling that should we engage in a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union, it would amount to virtual annihilation of the human species — a self-extinction.

Four years later, Zager and Evans sang about the future in more evolutionary terms with In the Year 2525. In both cases, though, the songs end with the extinction of the human species.

While some may say we’ve been living on the eve of destruction ever since the 1960s, we’re still here as a species, and still doing our best to change our way of life with technological marvels barely dreamed of fifty years ago.

Mister Boomer has noted many of the changes that have cropped up during Boomer Generation days in previous posts, but equally telling are the things that have disappeared during our reign. Like modern day dinosaurs, we’ve borne witness to the extinction of many things that were once commonplace, such as:

Telephones with Dials
The princess telephone was revealed in 1959, but it was 1963 before touch-tone dialing was available. That began the march to replace the dial phone with push-button versions; dials ruled the roost for decades earlier. Other than nostalgia and vintage models, the transformation was complete as no company has regularly produced dial phones since the 1980s. The push-button is now on the endangered list itself as touch-screen dialing is replacing it.

Televisions with Dials
In the late 1990s, Mister B took his portable TV in for repair. “Oh, wow!” remarked the repairman, “Channel dials!” Mister B’s TV was only a decade old at that point, but the 1990s saw an explosion of TVs with remotes, and the migration away from dials to buttons, then to nothing to change channels on the unit at all. Boomers recall that when they were young, there were no remote controls to change channels on TVs. In fact, many boomers will tell you that their parents used them as the channel changer. Now remotes are standard operating equipment, and are, in fact, necessary to operate the unit.

8 Tracks
Mister Boomer has discussed 8 track technology and the boomer connection before (8-Track Mind), but it is an obvious representation of something that didn’t exist before boomers were born, that disappeared completely when we were adults. Many boomers switched to cassette tapes, which are getting all but impossible to find now, and/or to CDs, which are also on the endangered list, as music streaming makes headway. Vinyl is making a bit of a comeback, but does anyone really think it will be the king of recorded music that it once was?

Phone Booths with Doors
No, not the Jim Morrison kind, we’re talking about a phone booth you could walk into and close a door behind you. They were getting rare in the 1980s, as kiosk-style phone booths replaced the full booth models. By the 1990s they were a rare sight on the American landscape. Mister Boomer holds a special nostalgic place in his heart for the indoor wooden phone booths that were in office buildings, restaurants, hotels and many more places. A good portion of these beautifully crafted booths were engineered in the 1930s and ’40s, and remained in service through the 1980s. They had a wooden bench and, when you grabbed the door handle and pulled it shut, a light went on inside the booth, creating an instant film noir scene to those watching from outside. Now, the only place you can see this type of booth is in old movies. The pay phone inside phone booths is also on the endangered list these days, as the proliferation of personal cellphones is making the need for pay phones obsolete.

Oral Thermometers with Mercury or Red-Dyed Alcohol
When boomers were young, our mothers or doctors would take our temperature with a thermometer design that was, at the time, already decades old. It was a glass tube tipped with metal at one end and filled with an alcohol-based red liquid, though some boomers will recall the silver mercury types. When the metal ending was placed under the tongue, the change in temperature was registered, over the course of a minute or two, by the markings on the glass tube. The thermometer was sterilized with alcohol after each use. Today digital thermometers have all but eliminated the mercury-tubed models. Digital versions can be aimed into a child’s ear and a temperature taken with a click of a button, producing an instant readout.

Refrigerator Freezers that Require Defrosting
Mister Boomer recalls seeing an episode of I Love Lucy where Ethel (or was it Trixie?) removes a bowling ball from the oven and places it in her refrigerator’s freezer. Mister Boomer’s mom had a similar tack in that she boiled pans of water, then placed them into the freezer. It was necessary to defrost the refrigerator’s freezer from time to time to remove the layers of ice that had accumulated on the walls. Mister B and Brother Boomer were often enlisted to help pry away the chunks of ice from the freezer walls, which they promptly smashed into the kitchen sink. Most freezers now have a defrosting feature that eliminates the need for the hand defrosting methods of our boomer years. As time goes on, freezer technology is improving to the point that ice no longer builds up on the walls, so the day may soon come when defrosting a freezer will be a thing of the past.

Vacuum Tubes
Before the age of transistors, TVs and radios operated with vacuum tubes. The tubes needed replacing from time to time, and in most cases, was an easy do-it-yourself fix with replacement tubes purchased at the local drug store. The incandescent light bulb is another vacuum tube on the way out. Boomers recall taking burned out bulbs back to the Con Edison store for free replacement bulbs, and now, various types of LED and CFL bulbs are slowly but surely replacing the incandescent glass vacuum bulb model. In 2012 the U.S. and other countries passed bans on inefficient and environment-harming incandescent light bulbs, with a phase-out planned. Congress has since defunded all efforts to eliminate the incandescent bulb, but the industry has retooled and moved toward newer models, sealing the fate of the incandescent bulb.

Ignition Points Inside Car Distributor Caps
The continuing technological revolution in car engines has eliminated the need for hand-calibrating of points inside a distributor cap. Most boomer boys will recall the little metal tool they used for such a procedure. It was like a Swiss Army knife in that multiple small shafts of metal were housed in a single case. Each shaft was a different width, and each was labelled. Once the car’s engine specifications were known, the proper point gap could be made by loosening a screw in the distributor cap, placing the proper measuring tool between the ignition points to gain the correct gap, and tightening the screw.

There are many more items that boomers will recall were commonplace in our day, and many more still that are now in danger of disappearing. What items that are now extinct make your list, boomers?

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

Boomers are Helping to Seal the Fate of the Envelope

As if he needed another indication of the passage of time and how things are changing, Mister Boomer experienced “déja vu all over again” this past week when he discovered his box of 100 standard number 10 envelopes was depleted. The box had served him well for several years and, now empty, was destined for the recycling bin.

Standard envelopes were used for decades to send and pay bills, whisk personal letters to friends, family or business associates both near and far, and as the occasional repository for small items like rubber bands, nuts and screws, flower seeds or tax receipts. As such, a family could easily rip through a box of 100 envelopes two or more times a year.

Prior to 1950, residents in the U.S. received mail deliveries twice a day. In 1950 that was reduced to once a day, which is what we boomers recall. Sending letters, for whatever reason, wasn’t just the best way to communicate, it was the only way. Until electronic mail — e-mail — was popularized in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the need for envelopes continued to grow, along with the number of letters sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

In 1950 about 28 million first-class letters were sent by a population of nearly 106 million. By 1963, the U.S. Postal Service introduced Zip Codes to speed the delivery of mail. The end of the Boomer Generation in 1964 had seen the population balloon by another 70 million people, so it didn’t appear that letter sending — requiring the need for envelopes — would diminish any time soon. Nonetheless, the peak year for letter sending was four decades later in 2001, with nearly 104 million standard-sized envelopes sent from a population numbering 284 million people. Volume has been dropping ever since. If you are an envelope manufacturer, that’s got to be disconcerting.

As boomers, letters delivered in envelopes were so much a natural part of our experience that it permeated popular music. From Please Mr. Postman to Return to Sender; Sealed with a Kiss to The Letter, the envelope we were about to send or receive was of utmost importance. Mister B can personally attest to the anxiety of waiting for an “official greetings” envelope from his Uncle Sam, too.

As a child, Mister Boomer remembers the box of envelopes was stored in the hallway linen closet. In those early days of the 1950s, most of the family bills were paid in-person and not mailed. Mister B’s mom would, with kids in tow, walk to the ConEd office to pay the gas and electric bills. The same was true for the phone bill, since the telephone company store was on the same downtown block.

As near as Mister B can recall, that started to change in the mid-’60s. Although some banks continued to accept bill payments for utilities, Mister B’s father began mailing in payments. Most of the envelopes, though, were supplied by the companies, so the box in the closet didn’t have to be opened that often.

When Mister B was on his own after college, he was a fan of letter writing. The envelopes completed the process to send notes to friends and family, many of whom had moved to other places. As always, a box of envelopes stood at the ready, and when one was emptied, another would take its place.

Paying bills always entailed writing a check and sealing it in an envelope to the appropriate payee. Once online banking came along, some boomers became early adopters of the technology, while others — like Mister B — waited. That wait time has ended for Mister B and many others, contributing to the decline in the need for envelopes.

Mister B knows he has to replace the empty box, but wonders how long this next one will last? Five years? Ten? The rest of his life? It’s almost like boomers are saying to the Post Office, “It’s not you, it’s us… or rather, them.” Texting, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and online banking are all lined up, waiting to administer the coup de grace to our old friend, the envelope. The Post Office is just the delivery method that is collateral damage.

Remember the joy you felt as a kid when Aunt Thelma remembered your birthday? You’d tear open the envelope and, after politely reading the card, couldn’t wait to grab a hold of the $5 bill tucked inside. Now Mister B wants to know, once envelopes are as extinct as the eight-track tape player, how are you going to send your granddaughter $10 for her birthday in an e-card? With bitcoins?

When was the last time you bought a box of number 10 envelopes, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comments Off on Boomers are Helping to Seal the Fate of the Envelope

Now Boomers, Isn’t That Special (Effects)?

In our digital-everything modern era, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for younger generations to envision a time when none of it existed. We boomers on the other hand, don’t have to imagine it because we have lived before, during and beyond the digital dawning. A case in point is special effects technology.

There was nothing new about special effects in movies in the early boomer era. Every boomer is familiar with the stop-action animation of King Kong, and that film was released almost a decade before the first boomer was born. In fact, special effects in movies go back to the dawn of movie making, 50 years before King Kong. In the mid- to late-1890s, filmmaker Georges Melies developed what he called “tricks.” By employing simple techniques — like proportion alterations to stage settings that played with size and perspective, and early stop-action scenes that enabled him to show things and people appearing and disappearing — he delivered real magic to those early movie-going audiences. Yet TV was a whole different medium, and by the time the first boomers arrived in 1946, the technology for special effects hadn’t migrated to the small, black and white screen.

TV sales really started to take off after the War. The television industry had struggled with increasing its audience through the Depression and War years, but between 1949 and 1969, the number of households owning at least one TV jumped from 1 million to 44 million. That made us the first television generation. Early post-war TV days were dominated by mostly live broadcasts. The Big Three networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — had to literally film live TV broadcasts in order to get copies of programs out to affiliates. That meant there wasn’t any budgetary room — or need — for special effects.

By the early 1950s, the most popular shows on TV were variety shows with hosts such as Arthur Godfrey, Bob Hope or Jackie Gleason, situation comedies like The Goldbergs, I Love Lucy or Amos ‘n’ Andy, or game shows like You Bet Your Life or Beat the Clock. Again, not much need for special effects.

As the ’50s progressed, filmed broadcasts became more common, and the Western became a favorite genre of TV viewers. Davy Crockett, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, The Real McCoys, Rawhide and Have Gun Will Travel all appeared in the mid- to late-1950s. Finally, special effects became necessary in making TV programs, but regular movie effects could be brought to the small screen without reinventing the wheel.

The special effects explained in this You Asked For It program illustrate how rudimentary the effects were in early boomer TV programs.

The 1960s saw an explosion of sitcoms with “special effects,” among them My Favorite Martian (1963), Bewitched (1964) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965). Upon examination, however, the special effects featured in these shows weren’t anything that Georges Melies wouldn’t recognize: Raising Ray Walton’s Martian antennae, or Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden making things appear, disappear or “levitate” wasn’t taxing the medium.

At the same time that Ray Walton stood motionless facing the camera as his TV-like antennae appeared “out of his head,” another TV show was looking to push the boundaries of TV special effects: The Patty Duke Show (1963). The simple premise of two identical cousins presented a production dilemma when both parts would be played by one actress. In 1962, Patty Duke, a boomer herself, had won an Oscar at the age of 16 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She was looking for a a TV show that would allow her to further her acting prowess when The Patty Duke Show was created as a vehicle for her.

The question of how to get both characters on the same screen became a challenge for special effects personnel. There had been split-screen technology in movies long before The Patty Duke Show — take, for example, scenes from Pillow Talk (1959) with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In that case, as in other split-screen movie scenes of the time, each side of the screen was a separate entity in and of itself. The screen often purposefully displayed a visible line between them. Now the people working on The Patty Duke Show were tasked with making it appear that Patty’s two characters were in the same scene, next to each other. With limited budget and post-production time, the main solution was to frequently picture one of the characters from behind while the other faced the camera. The back of the head that appeared onscreen belonged to actress Rita Walter, who became the stand in for either the Patty or Cathy character by donning the appropriate wig. When the two characters did appear face to face, there was often a strong vertical element between them that allowed the special effects editors an easier outlet with which to stitch the scenes together. This technique was known as a traveling matte process.

The show was quite popular for two seasons, but special effects played a role in its cancellation as well. When ABC, the network that broadcast the series, demanded that United Artists, producers of the show, film in color for the 1966 season, United Artists refused on the basis that production costs would be too high. United Artists thought ABC would seize the opportunity to negotiate a higher price for the series, but instead, they cancelled it.

Today we see stars on TV acting in scenes filmed decades ago with people long gone, and a deceased music star appearing at a live concert via a hologram. We’ve come a long way since The Patty Duke Show, boomers!

Were you a fan of the special effects that brought us The Patty Duke Show? Mister B wasn’t a big fan of the show, but he certainly remembers the theme song. C’mon, boomers, sing along: “… Our Patty loves to rock ‘n roll, a hot dog makes her lose control, what a wild duet!…”

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Technology,TV and have Comments Off on Now Boomers, Isn’t That Special (Effects)?