21: Norbert Wiener's Magazines: Part II

Concluding our visit to the cybernetics pioneer's attic

When last we met, we were in cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener’s attic, looking through his old magazines. Before we were interrupted, I had just shown you some of the highlights from his magazines of the 1950s.

Here’s the rest of the 1950s bunch:

Keen eyes may notice a couple issues of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists with their famous Doomsday Clock on the cover. It shows two minutes to midnight, where it was set following the United States’ first thermonuclear device test. In 2020, the clock was moved to 100 seconds to midnight. Last week they confirmed that it would remain there for 2021. As the New York Times put it, “Humanity is 100 seconds away from total annihilation. Again.”

And that issue of Congress Weekly (“A review of Jewish interests”) actually doesn’t have an article about Norbert Wiener like the rest of these do, but about his father, Leo, who was a historian of Yiddish literature.

There are great old ads in these magazines, too. Here, from the Saturday Evening Post, is an earnest three page ad for the Edsel, Ford’s famous flop:

I first heard of the Edsel in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married, where Kathleen Turner travels back in time to high school, and laughs at her dad for buying an Edsel.

I didn’t get the joke at the time until someone explained it to me. But it turns out the Edsel has been the butt of jokes in so many places that there’s actually a web page that tracks Edsels in the Media. The page looks like it was designed for Netscape, but it’s actually still being updated. It even mentions an Edsel briefly seen in a Justin Bieber video released just a few weeks ago.

[Aside: Peggy Sue traveled back in time from 1986 to 1960. If the movie took place today, she’d be traveling back to 1995. What product flop would her dad have bought then? A PC with Microsoft Bob?]

Here are a couple other fun ads I found. The G.E. Toast-R-Oven is a beauty of mid-century appliance design:

And here’s George Burns hawking the Zenith Space Command TV:

Where is Gracie supposed to be in this scenario? In the same room with him, but unseen? Is she stuck in the TV? Is he threatening to change channels instead of watching her show, which was also his show?

The Space Command TV is why people sometimes call a TV remote control a “clicker”. The wireless remote control was an entirely mechanical device, with no batteries. When you pushed a button, a little hammer struck a piece of metal that made a noise that the TV would interpret as a signal to change the channel, mute the sound, or turn the TV on or off.

One for Margaret

Looks like I left one magazine out of that 1950s collage. It probably wasn’t actually Norbert’s, but his wife Margaret’s. It’s this September 1956 issue of The American Home.

It looks like something Betty Draper would read:

Before the 1950s

There aren’t very many magazines from before the 1950s, and there’s only one that was clearly Norbert’s. It’s this 1949 issue of Tech Engineering News, with tiny Norbert Wiener in the corner of the cover:

The article about him is called “Wiener — Paul Bunyan of M.I.T.” but of course Paul Bunyan was a giant so I feel like they could have gone a different way with the cover.

Anyway. That’s the last of Norbert’s magazines, but this is where more of his wife Margaret’s magazines show up.

There’s this 1933 edition of House Beautiful:

And these three copies of House Beautiful from 1930, all missing their covers:

One of them has this ad explaining why you would want a telephone in your home:

Even though it touts that you can “call other homes, other cities, other countries,” the big selling point seems to be:

It enables women to give all of their household directions for the day within a few minutes time. To make sure, with no unnecessary bother, that domestic affairs are progressing smoothly. And to keep fresh their energies for the varied activities of their interesting lives.

With phones all over the house, you don’t need to talk to your staff face to face. Just put a phone in your bedroom, the laundry, and the butler’s pantry. Just like we do today.

The last and earliest magazine in the attic is this 1927 issue of House Beautiful, also missing its cover:

This one has four full color ads for cars. These are some vehicles you might have considered buying in 1927:

Check out that rear seat on the Buick. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Was it considered offensive to ask someone to sit back there?

And that’s it for the magazines! Having finished up my tour through Norbert Wiener’s decades of saved periodicals, I stacked them all back up as I found them in the corner of the attic.

Maybe next summer I’ll see what’s in the basement.

Thanks for joining me again this week. Next week’s newsletter is about something sad and beautiful. I’ll see you then.

David