Nineteen Forty-Six. Aftertime.

15 Dec

Oscar Duncan entered the new year of 1946 with great exhilaration, his fingers on the pulse of what seemed to be coming for post-war science and technology.

His monthly magazine, ” Aftertime”, was a leader in futurist publishing. As owner and editor, his own column attracted interest on a grand scale. Oscar’s predictions were convincing and credible to a readership mesmerized by the glorious, glowing future he foresaw.

Where else could one learn about the potential for geothermal, tidal, and aerogenerated energy? About resojets, aerial rams, and flying wings?

On Jan. 8, two apparently unconnected events occurred that shaped and determined his future as a prophet of science.

Telegraph service in the New York City region was shut down by a strike of 7,000 workers of Wire Union.

The same day, Oscar Duncan received a telephone call inviting him to meet with the publisher of the “New York Vertex”. There was no indication what this summons might concern. The young writer-editor was perplexed. Why had he been invited to see the newspaper magnate?

In his best blue serge suit, Oscar appeared on the morning of January 9 at the Vertex Tower in Lower Manhattan. He had never been here before. A receptionist led him to the office of the famed press lord, John Ramage.

As Oscar sat waiting, a side door swung open and a large, heavy figure rushed in. He approached, holding out an enormous hand. Milky eyes twinkled in the gigantic head, small sparks glinted in each iris. Ramage continued standing as he addressed his visitor.

“I have read your magazine with fascination. It is enjoyable and enlightening. There is much there that is inspiring. I myself share your confidence in the future. There will be no limits to us in the years to come. Science will attain what we today can barely imagine.

“I envy you. Everyone in publishing does. You are a genuine pioneer, making an enviable contribution. All that you write and all that you publish is exciting, Mr. Duncan.”

“Thank you, sir,” smiled Oscar. “What you say makes me happy. It is very gratifying to hear such words from you.”

“I imagine that you have higher ambitions, my friend,” bluntly said the press lord. “My hope is that the “Vortex” can cooperate with you on a coming project. What I am thinking of is this: a regular column by you in my paper. A weekly digest of highlights from the frontiers of science. Such a column would raise interest in your “Aftertime”. Think what the results could be!”

“I cannot answer you immediately,” apologized Duncan. “It is a momentous step that has to be considered from all sides. The possible consequences are not clear. Not yet. Can you grant me some time to think it over, Mr. Ramage?”

“Of course,” replied the latter in an even voice. If you agree, the pay will be generous. You will start at top scale. But we can discuss that later. I deeply hope you decide to climb aboard with us.”

Oscar changed the subject to something that intrigued him within the other man’s communication kingdom.

“I have kept an eye on the F.M. radio project of the “Vortex”. When will your new station begin broadcasting?”

“Early this spring. There are technical problems that have stretched out the time required to get it going. It is a financial gamble, but holds the promise of winning a great listening audience in the future. The transmission will be clear and strong. Imagine what it can mean for musical programming. Frequency modulation will revolutionize radio as we know it.”

Oscar hesitated a moment, but then made a revelation.

“There will be an “Aftertime” article in the next issue about the possibility of combining F.M. radio with visual facsimile so that electronic versions of a newspaper can be delivered directly to public sites and to homes. The transmission will be by radio wave. In the future, the promise for the press is unlimited. You could be reading your daily paper through radioed fax. Have you ever envisioned such a development?”

No immediate answer came from the publisher. Finally, he muttered a candid reply.

“Yes, something like that rests in the back of my mind. But there are business competitors who would certainly try to block any such innovation. Existing radio networks and stations, and the new television broadcasters who are preparing to go into operation soon. There would be terrible opposition to facsimile news sent by radio.”

Oscar looked down at the Prussian blue carpet of the office.

“That is true. Our country has hundreds of radio stations. There are the networks that produce programs for them. And the manufacturers of transmitters and receivers. One can foresee what their attitude would be to F.M.facsimile, how vehemently they would fight and oppose it.”

“But there is another path that can be taken,” said the newspaper publisher in a low voice. But he did not reveal what it might be. “Come back after you have considered my offer. Just call and my secretary will set up an appointment at once. I will drop everything I am doing to talk with you, Oscar.” He looked the latter directly in the eye. “To me, you are already like an old friend I have not seen for some time. Were you in the war?”

“North Africa and Italy,” answered Duncan. “A lot of field action, but no medals. My job was in military intelligence.”

Ramage looked distracted. “I stayed here on the home front, though I tried to enlist several times. You began “Aftertime” in 1944, didn’t you?”

Oscar nodded yes. An awkward silence lasted several seconds, until the futurist excused himself and left.

John Ramage had stood on his feet all through their unusual conversation.

Several sleepless nights followed, until Oscar Duncan decided that he had to accept the offer. The potential benefits to his futuristic thinking outweighed the possible risks. Aftertime exploration would expand and soar high if he could make his new column a success. That was the way to win public support for scientific research and technological exploration. In this postwar world, the people of America needed new goals and inspiration. Futuric science literature could make a major contribution, believed the writer-editor.

In a week, a second meeting with Ramage took place. This time the giant sat at his large, dark oak desk. The multimillionaire was all business. He thought he had the power to shape what the other would be writing in his weekly newspaper column.

“I can think of nothing in applied science as important as the facsimile project here in New York. I believe there is a potential partner for the venture. Can you guess who that might be?”

Bewildered, Oscar made no response.

Ramage told him who it was.

“Wired Union is going to work with me on this. They possess the expertise that is needed. In New York harbor, they are experimenting with navigation controls by radio wave. Their plans are to build a fleet of telecars with receivers that can take in telegraphic messages sent to them over the air. Then the telegram can be delivered to any address by one of these roving automobiles. But that is still in the future for Wire Union. Their aim will be to utilize radio frequencies in coming years. What do you think of them as a partner?”

“The workers of Wire Union are on strike in New York City,” said Oscar. “All of the newspapers, including the “Vertex”, are full of the story. Their operations are shut down in the city and its whole region. Nothing at all is being transmitted, received, or delivered by that firm.”

Ramage frowned darkly.

“Yes, and their President, Richard North, is too busy to finish the deal that I discussed with him before the strike began. But we will resume our talks once the labor trouble ends. In fact, I want to have you present when negotiations are renewed with Wire Union.”

“So, the partnership for radio facsimile is not yet completed?”

The publisher gave a sly grin.

“My hope is that, with your help, I can convince him to permit Wire Union to connect by their telegraph wires a series of New York F.M. stations. They will be a network. These associated broadcasters will then be able to send out over radio the daily “Vertex” to fax receivers placed in public buildings about the city. In time, this system could be converted to using microwave frequencies instead of telegraphic wire. I know that the Army experimented with similar relays during the war. They are marvelously efficient carriers of messages, and they can be quickly improved so as to communicate great volumes of material. That is what I envision the future will hold for us, in time.”

Oscar gulped. “I’ve long believed in the capabilities of the new microwave radiation that is at the center of military radar,” he declared. “The civilian applications could be revolutionary. There would be no limits to how far we could take it.”

The big man nodded approval of what he heard.

“You can begin your work by writing about the F.M. system of facsimile that the “Vertex” and its partner plan to build. It is a topic that will fill our readers with enthusiasm and make them eager to see this new system in operation as soon as possible.”

“I’ll start on it at once,” promised Oscar.

The new column appeared in the “Vertex” on January 13, 1946, in the Sunday supplement. It dealt with the future of F.M. radio. A week later, a second column was about facsimile radio transmission of written text. On January 27, Oscar turned his attention to stratavision, the transmission of television signals by reflection from a flying aircraft at a high altitude.

The column on February 3 took up microwave communication of private telegrams and news dispatches. On the Monday that followed, an unexpected telephone call came to the writer of the column at his “Aftertime” office in lower Grammercy Park.

A secretary-like woman’s voice spoke to Oscar.

“Mr. Duncan? This is the office of Wire Union in Manhattan. Mr. Richard North, our President, wishes to see you. Would four o’clock today be convenient for you?”

Oscar swallowed hard, then answered he would be there.

The invitation shook him so hard that it took time after the secretary hung up for him to do the same.

What was this about? the startled young futurist wondered. What did such an important, busy person want with him? It had to involve the facsimile developments he had described in his “Vertex” column, nothing else could it be.

The chief of Wire Union was a surprise in almost every way. He was the exact physical opposite of John Ramage, his partner-to-be.

North worked in a tiny, cluttered room with no special furnishings or signs of authority. A small, short man with blond hair and almond brown eyes, he was in shirtsleeves as he met Oscar at the door and ushered him to a plain Scandinavian chair of pinewood.

“I am so glad you came on short notice, Mr. Duncan,” said the executive, sitting down in the swivel work chair behind a small desk covered with papers. “As you surely know, Wire Union is in a serious strike situation here in New York. No rest and little sleep for me or my staff. But the time came when I had to talk with you directly, and I hope candidly. I have been deeply impressed by your columns in the “Sunday Vertex”. They are extremely impressive.”

“Thank you,” said the writer.”I appreciate what you say.”

North furrowed his brow as he went on.

“Critical decisions must be made before this year, 1946, ends. I refer to the direction that future technical development is to take. How are the existing communication carriers and new inventions going to be combined? That will determine much about future life in America and around the world.”

“I understand, sir,” Oscar managed to say at this point. His guess had been correct. The man wished to discuss his columns on the F.M.-fax conjunction then in the planning stage.

“You know of the program for F.M. facsimile, with electronic news material. Eventually, a nationwide microwave network will be able to replace all my company’s land lines that use copper wire. Everything will finally travel over microwave radio frequencies. It would be far more advanced that what we now use. There will be many times more traffic and business than we ever saw before the war.”

“Mr. Ramage and I have talked about that system in very general terms,” said Oscar. “I agreed that it might be feasible in time, but would need a large investment of resources. I was informed of the role that Wire Union could play in an intermediate, less complicated venture using F.M. radio.”

North’s eyes and voice suddenly seemed distant. “There are other interests that would be affected besides ours. Can you conceive of what the radio industry will say if we begin the project, or the baby television broadcasters? And what they might attempt in order to block us? I am especially worried about Azimuth Radio. They are the leading manufacturer of radio sets and equipment, as well as the largest broadcaster and producer of programming. And Azimuth is ahead of everyone in the field of television transmission.

“I have several times informed John Ramage that nothing can be settled between us until we know how Azimuth will react, and then how the entire radio-television crowd will respond. But it is Azimuth that is the leader and the key to what can be accomplished in the immediate future. I fear that they will be negative. There is no doubt about that in my mind. That is our greatest obstacle. Those who now dominate the air waves can block our plans if they decide to. They can fight us to a standstill, preventing the public use of the F.M. frequencies as common carries of all types of messages. Our plan for the near future would be halted in the name of their far distant superior system.”

“Yes, there could be contention and strife between the two,” said Oscar with concern.

“The Federal Communications Commission is the judge in these matters, and finally come the courts. It could take years to settle questions of licensing and authorization. I have numerous times pleaded with John that we consult with Azimuth before proceeding with any actual plan.

“For example, there is the question of whether we should build one-way or two-way facsimile devices. That is a crucial matter for Wire Union. Telegraph, as we have had it for a century, has been a public carrier of messages. Any person or company can use our public system for their private purposes. The same, of course, goes for the telephone. But we do not yet know whether F.M. facsimile will have the same open duality. Can individuals use the new system that we build for their own ends and purposes? Can a person sitting at home or in some office send a radio telegram over our network to any particular receiver in the United States? Or will the system operate on a different basis?”

“I see what you are getting at, Mr. North,” nodded the writer.

“These questions must be answered before anything can go further. That is the reason I want you to talk with my Wire Union engineers. They will reveal to you ideas never before made public. Your column can then present these concepts to the general public, many for the first time. I believe that even Azimuth Radio, with its dominant position in radio, will react positively to what your newspaper column will disclose about what we plan to develop in F.M. facsimile.”

Oscar was now breathless with excitement.

“This sounds intriguing, I must admit,” he managed to say.

Thus it came about that the research laboratories of Wire Union opened up to the editor of “Aftertime”, who also now wrote for the “New York Daily Vertex”.

Oscar Duncan decided he had no obligation to inform John Ramage of his visits to the Wire Union technical facility on Long Island. After all, he was there merely to obtain material for future articles on a topic that the publisher of the “Vertex” had first raised with him. Besides, this was a facility of a friendly partner of Ramage. What could go amiss? He saw himself as completely justified in accepting the invitation of the chief of the company that was on the same team as Ramage on the F.M. facsimile project.

Wire Union provided him one of their telecars and a driver to transport him to the research center in a corner of the countryside on the northern shore of Long Island. Oscar enjoyed a slow, pleasant ride past snow-covered fields. Traffic, consisting of prewar autos, was light. The trip was along a wartime neglected highway.

The Chief of Research met the visitor. Dr. Fred Potter was a renowned figure in electronics. His reputation was familiar to Oscar.

The short, round man met him with laughing coffee-colored eyes. He wore an immaculate white lab coat. Oscar followed the scientist to his private little sanctum, its walls full of book shelves.

“I am quite familiar with “Aftertime” since it started in 1944. It is a very thoughtful publication. There is speculation, but no fantasy. I like that,” grinned Potter. “Its content is science, pure science. Your efforts are a real contribution to the education of the American public.”

Oscar thanked him for his positive comments.

“Mr. North instructed me to reveal to you whatever you have any interest in. Nothing is to kept back, nothing. You are to see everything we are doing.”

The visitor spoke slowly and carefully.

“I have thought deeply about microwave relays, F.M. transmission, and facsimile. How can these separate areas be melded together? How can the most efficient, useful system be built so that there is a single, unified system of communication?” Oscar gave the researcher a sincere smile. “My hope is that I can find some answers to my questions here on Long Island.”

Potter became seriously centered and focused.

“The near future will see automatic facsimile telegraphy with apparati located everywhere. Think of it. Public drop-off receivers in hotel lobbies, railroad stations, corporation offices, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, libraries, and airports. Everywhere.

“All a person does is drop a handwritten message into a slot. A revolving cylinder picks it up and rolls it by an electronic eye that scans the writing, then sends it by microwave to the nearest Wire Union telegraph station. From there, it travels to its destination by radio. Our entire society will be connected in a single telefax net. We will really become a tightly knit social system then. The web tieing us together will be an electronic one.”

The two looked at each other in a state of excitement.

Potter went on in a hushed tone. “We begin with cooperation in F.M. facsimile, but later go far beyond that. Once the Wire Union strike ends, we will renew our marine news reporting system for New York harbor. There are already numerous subscribers for weather and navigation information from the Wire Union radio boats. We will spread our net over the entire region. Our plan is to begin a public demonstration of microwave telefax in April. That is where you can come in, Mr. Duncan. You will be publicizing that big event soon to be held.”

“I certainly intend to do so,” said the  visitor with enthusiasm. “Both my magazine and the newspaper column can be at your service.”

“There will be a four-page radio fax transmitted by the “Vertex” this spring, I understand,” noted the scientist. “It will be the first of its kind.”

“On the frequencies of the F.M. stations,” added Oscar, grinning.

“We shall be using Mr. Ramage’s station and several others, for a time,” said Potter.

Duncan thought over that final phrase: for a time. What did the engineer of the system indicate with those words? Had he inadvertently revealed too much? Was he giving out a secret?

As he left the little sanctum in the company of Dr. Fred Potter, his mind reviewed what he had found out here. Returning to the city, he pondered the road ahead for radio facsimile. Was the route clearly delineated? Did all the parties involved understand it the same way? What would its final stage be, when F.M. and microwave radio were both in operation?

He had a vision of F.M. as the central, wholesale aspect of communication, while microwave radio would be the retail, localized portion of the universal system.

In the end, that was the road that science had to take, he told himself by the time he had returned to New York City.

Richard North was occupied day and night with crisis. He had no time to see Oscar. The latter made two more trips to the research facility on Long Island. He asked Dr. Potter to allow him to peruse the laboratory records and was given permission to do so. What was the object of his search? He was himself uncertain what it was he was looking for. Perhaps some unforeseeable key to the future course of radiofax, beyond what was already known to him. Some secret not yet visible.

It was late on a gloomy February afternoon that an unusual report came to his attention. It was not about a Wire Union project, but a description of activities at a laboratory of Azimuth Radio. How did it get into the files of its competitor? That was not as important as its startling contents. These hit Oscar like a lightening bolt.

He read it over and over again. His mind raced forward with incredible speed.

One last perusal and Oscar headed for the office of Dr. Potter.

“What is it? Can I help you?” asked the scientist.

The writer spoke, still standing up.

“There is an interesting project at Asimuth Radio described in one paper I found. We will be years in the future before they develop and perfect it, but the device could be the key to a successful two-way system of facsimile. They call the system micromemory.”

Potter thought several seconds, as if searching through his own memory.

“Information storage and management, that is what they are concerned with over there at Azimuth. But how does that affect what we are doing? This report came to us under the table. A disgruntled employee of Azimuth Radio obtained it for us. We had to pay a high price to get our hands on the thing.”

“It was espionage on a competitor, then?” archly frowned Oscar.

Potter nodded yes. “Dry photography will someday be able to place entire libraries on microfilm. A network of micromemory machines could share a limitless treasury of books, periodicals, and newspapers, all recorded. A rapid electronic selector will deal with the indexing and retrieval of the transmitted material. Entire libraries could be recorded and preserved this way.

“Links and associations on an unprecedented scale will become possible at each individual memory apparatus. Information could be gathered, combined, and recombined without limits, in seconds. And from any one micromemory unit, data could be sent by microwave to any other, anywhere.

“This is not, of course, attainable in our lifetime. But it is the ultimate destination of radio facsimile. Each micromemory will have the capacity of an electronic brain. At Azimuth they believe it can be done. So do I, and my advice to Mr. North is to proceed in the direction of future micromemory development at once, with urgency.”

Duncan asked him a question. “Do you have any objection to my writing about it?”

“No,” answered the research chief. “None at all. Success lies many decades away, I believe. But the public should be informed of the idea.”

On February 10, the strike against Wire Union came to a sudden end.

Richard North was involved with business till evening. When he returned to his office, he was surprised to find Oscar Duncan waiting to see him. After greeting the writer, he asked him a sharp, penetrating question.

“Is this important?” he grumbled.

“To me it is. And I think it will interest you too, sir.”

“Come in,” said the exhausted executive, ushering Oscar into his office.

When the pair were seated, the visitor revealed his purpose.

“I want to discuss a project going on at Azimuth Radio with enormous implications for radio facsimile.”

It took barely two minutes to outline the projected invention named the micromemory. North listened with growing interest, picking up every word. A bright glow came into his milky eyes. His sharp mind caught the implications instantly. When Oscar was finished, the President of Wire Union started to talk.

“So, someday in the future microwave will link up thousands of these memory machines. Each one of them will have a microfilm bank of its own. And all the data of the thousands will be shared.”

The writer grinned. “It is many years away, but that is where technology is headed. Facsimile, transmitted over microwave, will have a multitude of separate stations. Each will be connected to all. In time, there will be a worldwide facsimile-micromemory network. The implications are astounding. Such a universal system is inevitable. In time, it is bound to come about.”

North, thinking of something, suddenly frowned. “F.M. stations will not be needed that far in the future to carry facsimile signals. What will John Ramage say when he learns that we will not need him then? That microwave transmission will be the only medium that can transport such a great volume of messaging?”

“But many years must pass before that becomes a reality,” argued Oscar. “My intention is to write about all of this in both my own “Aftertime” and in my “Vertex” column. It is only right to tell Mr. Ramage all about what I believe is going to happen. F.M. will probably be a temporary medium, until microwave transmission between micromemory machines is realized. That must be the direction of future technology. F.M. will be replaced in time as inadequate and obsolete. That will be its fate. The volume of communication permitted by a micromemory system will make the change to microwave inevitable.”

“I must take all of this under consideration,” muttered North as if to himself.

On February 14, the tugboat strike that shut down New York harbor ended.

That was the day the owner-publisher of the “Vertex” had set an appointment to meet with the columnist. As soon as Oscar stepped into the office he sensed the icy rage hidden behind the press lord’s mask of placidity. Once the visitor was seated, his employer addressed him.

“I’ve looked over your column for next Sunday. It was a jarring surprise for me. Why are you flying off on this tangent concerning data memory devices? If you ask me, it resembles something out of Jules Verne. Why don’t you set it aside for now and give us something practical, in the present? You weren’t hired to be a science fiction writer here. That’s for sure.”

“I’ve covered facsimile radio already, sir. Shouldn’t I explore new ideas?”

Ramage seemed to bite his lower lip. “Now that all the strikes have ended, I am trying to reopen my negotiations with Wire Union. But Richard North tells me he is still too busy to make a deal with me at this time.” He paused, staring at the futurist. “It has come to my attention that you have made many visits to the laboratory of Wire Union on Long Island. You have become very close to their research director. I can only guess what has been said between the two of you.”

He gazed at Duncan with a withering look of scorn.

The writer realized that his career at the “Vertex” was over for good.

“Mr. Ramage, let me inform you that my report on micromemory will appear in next month’s issue of “Aftertime”. I went to the Wire Union lab as the editor of my own magazine. I was willing to give first publication rights to your newspaper. Should you refuse it, my article will still become public, but on the pages of my own publication. I alone will take the responsibility for what appears there. All the content will originate from me.

“I have to conclude that you feel so much distrust toward me that I cannot go on with a clear conscience as a writer for your paper. Therefore, I must immediately quit my position with you. I believe that there is no reason for you to deny me release. Am I correct?”

Astounded and shaken, John Ramage groped for the right words.

“Nothing will come of the micromemory idea. No such apparatus is possible. It is an idle mirage. F.M. facsimile is the next major step in electronics. It will not soon be replaced, but will dominate the future of communications for a generation or more.

“In a few years, I will be transmitting entire films into theaters in the New York area, all at the same time. What do you think of that? F.M. will feed movies into the theater chains of the region. Later, the whole country will be covered. Hollywood will depend on me for an audience.

“Let me reveal something very important to you: micromemory linkage over microwave is a scheme by Azimuth Radio to take over monopoly control of the air waves. Do you think that the radio and television broadcast networks want anything that is open to private use by the public? Not at all. Like radio and television, any microwave system will remain a one-way medium. Of that I am completely certain.

“I can remember how modern radio was established with central stations for mass broadcasting. Person-to-person, point-to-point communication was impractical and still is. Similar centralization will dominate any future microwave system. It will be a one-way medium for the most part, like my own coming F.M. newspaper. The public will be a passive audience, a consumer. Content will be sent to them, they shall not create any of it themselves.

“It’s too bad that Wire Union is balking. North may finally throw in with Azimuth, for all I know. Perhaps your wild speculations have infected his mind, I don’t know. But today, in 1946, there is no micromemory technology and I doubt there ever will. As a result, microwave networks will not be available to replace F.M. frequencies as the dominant system of electronic communication in our time.”

Oscar rose, excused himself, and hurried out of the office.

He realized that the future of his “Aftertime” had to be in free-wheeling futurist thinking. No one should have the power to control his speculations. No one was to set limiting boundaries of any sort on his mind.

A microwave facsimile network with micromemory components was worth exploring in his magazine. If it was a development possible and plausible, even if it took a century to reach, then why not describe it for his readers?

It certainly promised to change all of life when it was finally built.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s