Retrotechtacular: A 1960s Look At The 21st Century Home

If you only watch the first 60 seconds of 1967’s “At Home, 2001,” you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the film is riddled with missed predictions. And to be sure, the cold open is rife with them, from disposable paper furniture to seashell-shaped houses that look like they’re extruded from concrete. Really, the only clear winner from that first tranche of predictions is the rise of the microwave oven, which given the expense of magnetrons in 1967 and the complexity of the electronics needed to drive them was a non-obvious development.

But pushing beyond that opening to the meat of this film reveals a fair number of domestic trends that actually did manage to come true, at least partially, and if not by 2001 then shortly thereafter. The film is an educational piece hosted by iconic American newsman Walter Cronkite, who lends his gravitas to the proceedings. The film opens with “Uncle Walter” sonorously pontificating on the unsustainability of the “ticky tacky” spawl of the suburbs and how the situation simply must change.

Cronkite wasn’t wrong about that need, but his skepticism that we would somehow transition to apartments like “enormous brick beehives” and somehow be happy about it was well placed. Almost 60 years after that initial 30-year projection, things haven’t changed all that much, despite the wishes and efforts of various architects and designers interviewed for the film. None of their visions have come to pass in any serious way, although the “Habitat 67” project, which Moshe Safdie designed for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, kind of resembles recent attempts to build trendy, high-density urban housing using old shipping containers.

If the macro trends for the next 35 years were a bit off, the predictions for the specifics of domestic life in 2001 were a similarly mixed bag. Flat-screen TVs, enormous by 1960s standards, were an easy win, although they weren’t quite commonplace yet in 2001. And they got the 3D TV thing right, but only for about a year before the fad died a merciful death. Misses thankfully include inflatable and disposable furniture; sadly, the prediction of 30-hour workweeks and month-long vacations was another big swing and a miss.

The projection of 1960s technology three decades into the future seems pretty quaint, but with the Apollo program spaceflights very much in the zeitgeist at the time, the home control console that looks like it came from mission control is understandable. And the hilariously unconvincing mock-ups of the computers of the future where the man of the house would get his work done are worth a chuckle too. The automation of the home kitchen is pretty far off the mark, too; custom molded plates for each meal? Why?

What would be really interesting, though, would be to follow up with the Crawshaw family of Phoenix, Arizona. They were extremely early adopters of home computing, suffering as they did the presence of a Model 33 teletype in the kitchen for father Charles’ electrical engineering gig and mother Barbara’s domestic automation needs. We’d love to see what became of the Crawshaw girls, the eldest pushing 70 by now, thanks to their early exposure to a computer in the home.

And, of course, robots — or “robits,” according to Cronkite — were just around the corner, ready to do our domestic bidding. Think your Roomba is noisy? Wait till you get a load of what Professor M.W. Thring had in mind for the domestic robots of 2001. There’s one thing he got right, though: the lack of justification for anthropomorphized robots. Elon, are you listening?

What strikes us the most about “At Home, 2001” is just how little things have really changed since the film was made. 2001 is nearly as far in our rear-view mirror today as it was down the road in 1967, and the actual living situations of today bear far more resemblance to what our 1960s counterparts experienced than almost anything presented in the film. The real changes between 1967 and 2001 — cell phones, the ubiquity of personal computing, and the Internet — would have taken a true visionary to predict.

Thanks to [my wife] for the tip.

29 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: A 1960s Look At The 21st Century Home

  1. International Crystal Manufacturing had a microwave in the late sixties. Heathkit had a kit, can’t remember when it was introduced.

    And watching Truth or Consequences with Bob Barker, Amana Radar Ranges was a common item as a prize, thiugh the first place I heard about microwave ovens.

    And not hard to drive the magnetron.

  2. My dad worked for AMF in the 60s. He thought the AMF food maker failed because they couldn’t keep it clean. All the gears and chains would collect grease and bacteria.

    Cute idea though

  3. * the 2010 census show that 80.7%: Percent of the U.S. population that is urban (not far from the 90% prediction.)
    * Inflatable furniture exists but not very popular.
    * Their ideas about the home office weren’t wrong, they simply didn’t envision the extreme versatility of computers. The biggest issue with their vision is that there seems to be almost no concept of a GUI and interfaces are limited to a strange array of specialized buttons.

    1. +1

      Thank you very much!

      There’s also another interesting sci-fi novel, “Signale auf Kanal acht” aka “Signalen op kanaal ach”.
      It’s from 1972, I think. Before home computers were common.
      It’s not as ancient as yours, but still a bit ahead of its time.

      It plays in the Perry Rhodan universe and describes at some point in the storyline a centralized computer network the citizens on that planet use on a daily basis. They have terminals and use it to transfer money, check messages, retrieve addresses, etc.

      The system described is similar to the later Videotex family of online services which began operating in the 80s (BTX, Minitel/Teletel, Prestel etc).
      Along with X.25 networks, it’s essentially a precursor to the internet.

  4. Fairly accurate actually. I think they only erred in their optimism about how our standard of living would improve. They of course could not have foreseen the negative aspects of ubiquitous computers, and technology designed to be addictive.

    1. If you dissect the opening of the movie ‘2001’ it’s incredible how much they had not just “about right” but eerily accurate – a man reading the news on an iPad in a space station, and the number of implied technological advances embodied by that single shot. Even if you only count “from date of filming” rather than when ACC was first writing this stuff, it’s still mightily impressive.

  5. Love it. And right up front, Number Two’s “egg chair” from The Prisoner makes a cameo.

    Some of it, they got right. But they didn’t know about Moore’s Law, or its consequences. Very nice find!

  6. This was wonderful – thank you so much for sharing it!

    Some thoughts…

    * I love how Cronkite says ‘robut’ instead of ‘robot’; from other recordings, I think that was possibly the more common pronunciation back in the ’60s and ’70s.
    * This reminds me of Jules Verne: like Verne, it makes some very good predictions about the technology in the 21st century whilst completely missing the social impacts of that technology. For example, the idea that we’ll have automated kitchens, but it’s still the wife’s responsibility to prepare food and oversee the household. It’s less about how people will live in the 21st century, and more about how mid 20th century people would live with advanced technology.
    * I would love to have a living room with that much open space. Also, I kind of love the idea of a home dashboard.
    * I can’t help but wonder how the conversation with his spouse went that that GE engineer has a teletype in the kitchen – was it a reasoned discussion ending with a mutual agreement, or was it more of a “we’ll do it because I said so!” or more of a “please please please please please!”
    * Those prefab concrete homes are absolutely appalling – I get that Brutalist was a style of the time, but I just can’t imagine anyone looked at those and thought “This is absolutely where I want to live!”

    1. Hey, it was the Amerika of the 50s, after all. Elvis, Rock ‘n’ Roll, motorbikes.. With people still living in traditional houses and with backyards having apple trees. ;)

      No seriously, such futuristic concepts aim for an idealistic world.
      Their creators often assume unconsciously that by that time, poverty was nolonger a thing.
      Especially if the concept was created by researchers/scientists.
      They live in a different world, altogether.

      And the other thing.. Well, it were the 60s and they didn’t mean to touch that topic, maybe. Or they didn’t realize it was important. Maybe because such people rarely existed at their work place, not sure. Best would be to ask the people, if they’re still alive. Assumptions alone rarely help finding out the truth, I guess.

      Personally, being from Europe, I don’t consciously think of such a scenario, either. If I met such “different” looking people in real life, then that’s okay, though. They’re just people to me, not better/not worse. Sure, they may look a bit alien to me at first, because they’re less common here, but I can get used to it. I try not to stare. ;)

  7. I think that the things they got right were more interesting than what they got wrong.
    – tract housing is soul less ticky tacky
    – microwaving frozen food
    – living rooms built around a big tv on the wall
    – work from home (maybe not what the computers would look like, but totally understanding that many jobs could be done from home)
    – home automation
    – kids doing school work on a computer
    – automation in restaurants (look at how the drinks are done in a mcdonalds drive through)
    but they should have known that no one wants to sit on plastic furniture.

    1. The “work from home” bit is a bit misleading, since it’s an exception and not the rule still. The majority of (productive) work cannot be done from home – someone has to be there hand in dirt to do it.

      Assuming that the majority of people can work from home is assuming that the majority of people are working in administrative tasks, or in “creative” tasks, which turns out mostly means non-productive work such as advertising, social media, or other fifth-sector work like making youtube videos which don’t really benefit anyone.

      1. Or in education, for which I can say with hands-on experience: the remote solution is worth shit. People are better off reading the course books than wasting time attending the online lectures because there’s just no interaction and the lectures work worse when people are sitting at home and simply pretending to pay attention.

        As much as people like to think they’re working hard for their education, they don’t actually do anything until they’re forced to sit in a classroom, bored as hell, to the point that the only thing they can do is listen to the guy at the front and write down what he says. People in their late teens, early 20’s are still just adult children.

          1. Former teacher here. I can assure you that while autodidacts exist, they are in a very small minority. And usually even they are only autodidactic in fields that interest them. For most students, in most fields, a classroom is actually a pretty reasonable way to ensure exposure to, and awareness of, the basics needed for modern life. Does school teach everything? No, and it isn’t supposed to. That’s why schools don’t run 24/7/365.

  8. If you look at the material listing of a large portion of Ikea furniture you’ll ind it’s actually a lot of cardboard/paper filling with a thin layer of board on top, and also it is considered semi-disposable.
    So yes we have disposable paper furniture.
    And yes people have TV’s that are ridiculously large.
    And concrete housing is actually more common than you think, although over here they stick fake cladding on them so it looks like brick when finished. (Personally I think they often look better before the cladding.)

    1. Many European countries come pretty close. Maybe not a 30 hour work week, but 6+ weeks of vacation isn’t unusual, and many employers are experimenting with 4-day work weeks which is pretty close to 30 hours.

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