Typewriters, Underwater Hotels And Picturephones: The Future, As Seen From 1964

Aug 21, 2014
Originally published on August 22, 2014 4:56 pm

The 1964 World's Fair showcased jet packs and new miracles of science. There was an entire house made of Formica. You could wipe it clean with a sponge!

The people who put the fair together tried to imagine how the future would look. Here are a few predictions, and how they actually turned out.

1. We had picture phones back then?

Vito Turso was at the fair when he used one of the first picture phones. Back then, he was a boy selling pizza at the fair. He says the Picturephone was one of his favorite exhibits.

"To walk into this room and have a conversation through what was like a small television — it was incredible," Turso said. "The lines to use the Picturephone were unending."

But the Picturephone was expensive back then — and it took decades before the technology became affordable. Also, it turns out, people don't always want to see the person they're talking with. Even now, in the era of Skype and Facetime, people mostly just want to talk on the phone, without seeing the person on the other end.

2. The fair basically missed the computer and the Internet.

IBM had an exhibit at the fair. But it focused mostly on the Selectric typewriter, according to Larry Samuel, who wrote a book about the fair.

Samuel says while the exhibit did include computers, they just seemed like machines for adding numbers together. "At the time, it really was just a business machine," Samuel says.

The fancy new electric typewriter seemed like a bigger deal.

3. Why don't we have underwater hotels?

Futurama was a ride at the fair that took you past dioramas of what the future might look like. One showcased an underwater hotel.

Alas, there aren't many underwater hotels open today. But there is the Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Fla. It isn't fancy. It's at the bottom of a lagoon, and you have to scuba or swim down to it. There's no stove (but there is a microwave).

Neil Monney, who developed the place, said he has tried to build a fancier underwater hotel. But investors are hard to find. The World's Fair brought together futurists and the diorama-makers. But they didn't invite bankers.

A fantasy utopia

The fair presented a Utopian vision of the future, where technology and science could solve problems. But, Samuel says, even back then people didn't quite believe it. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated a few months before the fair opened; there were civil rights protests; the Vietnam War was happening; and the economic optimism of the 1950s was fading.

People went to the fair, Samuel says, because it was a fantasy.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Fifty years ago this summer people from all over came to New York to visit the 1964 World's Fair and to get a glimpse of the future. The fair had stuff like jet packs and new miracles of science like a house made of Formica. You could wipe it clean with just a sponge. David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team looks back at how we saw the future 50 years ago.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: I bought an actual guidebook for the fair on eBay, and it's amazing to flip through it today - 50 years later. There are some things that, looking back, are clear misses. We do not, for instance, have any colonies on the moon today. But there are other things where you're like, really, we had that back then? It turns out there was a picture phone at the fair 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Someday, people may want to see, as well as talk, over the telephone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) In a place where electronic wonders abound - a marriage of sight to the drama of sound.

KESTENBAUM: We tracked down someone who had used that picture phone at the fair 50 years ago. Vito Turso - today, deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Back then, he was a boy selling pizza at the fair. The picture phone was one of his favorite exhibits.

VITO TURSO: To walk into this room and have a conversation through - with a, like, small television - it was incredible. The lines to use the picture phone where, you know, unending.

KESTENBAUM: So why didn't the picture phone takeoff? Well, they were really expensive. But there was another reason, as well - a reason that explains why we often get the future wrong. Sometimes, the idea of the thing is cooler than the actual thing. It turns out people don't always want to see the person they're talking to. We've got picture phones now, but, for the most part, people still seem to prefer talking and not seeing. The fair got some things right. Those new color TVs - we really liked those. But it basically missed what was arguably the most futuristic thing that really was going to happen over the next 50 years - the computer and the Internet. IBM had an exhibit at the fair, but a lot of it was focused on the selectric typewriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here's a better way to put words on paper - a remarkable electric typewriter.

KESTENBAUM: Larry Samuel wrote a book about the fair. The IBM fair did cover computers, he says, but they seemed boring - machines for businesses that could add numbers.

LARRY SAMUEL: I wouldn't say it bombed, but, you know, I think it was just - people - you just couldn't get it. And they tried to break it down a do little skits and little, you know, puppets and stuff to make it really easy. But I think it was beyond the reach of most people.

KESTENBAUM: As a kid, which did you think was cooler? - the typewriter or the computer?

SAMUEL: Oh, definitely the typewriter.

KESTENBAUM: So there were things the fair got right. There were things it missed and really one other category - things where you wonder, why didn't that happen? It seems like such a good idea. Take, for instance, the underwater hotel. This is from a ride at the fair called Futurama, which took you past dioramas of what the future might look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A weekend, if you wish, at Hotel Atlantis in the kingdom of the sea - a holiday of thrills and of adventure.

KESTENBAUM: My colleague Robert Smith looked into this one, and he did find an underwater hotel you can stay at today - the Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida. He talked with Neil Monney there.

NEIL MONNEY: It's a very unique experience to dive down and spend the night and to, you know, just live underwater.

KESTENBAUM: The hotel used to be a research facility. It's in the bottom of a lagoon. Inside, there's no stove - just a microwave. But it's got windows.

MONNEY: I'm not sure that it's working at this particular time, but we had a little fish feeder that you could drop some food in inside the habitat. And it would pop up by the window and then the fish would gather around at feeding time.

KESTENBAUM: Neil Monney says he has tried to build a bigger, fancier underwater hotel. The problem has always been finding investors. When the organizers built the World's Fair, they invited the futurists and the diorama makers. They did not invite the bankers. The fair presented this utopian vision of the future where technology and science would solve all manner of problems. But Larry Samuel, the author, says that even back then, people didn't quite believe it. Outside the grounds, things were happening that made the fair seem pretty naive. JFK had been assassinated just five months before the fair opened. There were civil rights protests and the Vietnam War. The economic optimism of the '50s was fading. People went to the fair, he says, because it was a fantasy. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MCEVERS: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.