Disney’s 1959 fantasy about war on storms
Mark Twain once quipped, “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” But what if we could change the weather at will?
That’s the sort of huge dream we once dreamt during the 20th century, when our technological achievements seemed to promise a limitless future. And in 1959 no place on Earth created more vivid man-made dreams than the Walt Disney Studios.
Under Walt Disney’s leadership, the studio had by the end of the 1950's branched out far beyond its core expertise in best-in-class animation into live-action film, documentaries and what is now sometimes termed “edu-tainment.” The entire suite of Disney proficiencies were employed to produce the great volume of product needed for Disney’s movies and weekly TV series.
Disney’s signature polish and dash brought satellites to life in Eyes in Outer Space, a Disneyland TV episode which aired in June 1959. The “science-factual” topic introduced by Uncle Walt himself consisted of a spritely animated exploration of weather concepts followed by a colorful overview of orbiting satellites and their uses.
This was already pretty cool stuff—only a handful of man-made objects had yet entered orbit.
The episode showcased satellites’ potential for earth observation and weather forecasting. Though unbeknownst to the audience, the episode was oddly topical—the U.S. was then launching its own very real and very secret eyes in the sky: Project Corona, the world’s first spysats.
But the last part of the show went somewhere else, into the place just over the twilit horizon where the Jetsons live in Tomorrowland. Seemingly from the pages of pulp sci-fi, Disney artists, animators and directors produced a vision of war on the weather.
Like many concepts so beautifully brought to life by the Disney studios, weather control was in the air during those years.
In 1954, the same year ground was broken for the original Disneyland, Collier’s magazine published a florid account of the possibilities of weather control. In 1959 it was still just within reason to speculate about bending the weather to human will.
Sometime in the future, teams of weather warriors working in war rooms scan the Earth with weathersats.
When a hurricane is seen approaching the Bahamas and Florida, a graphic weather display plots high-pressure systems over North America. The weather men ready their technological assault on the storm.
Commanders order cloud-seeding efforts to force rainfall over Kansas and Labrador. Giant seeding towers blast silver iodide into the fronts while robot planes attack them from above. High- and low-pressure systems are steered into the hurricane’s path. Cloud-seeding missile salvos add to the precipitation power that steers the hurricane out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Once again the steely-eyed staff of Weather Command have averted climatic disaster.
Except that cloud-seeding is one of those technologies that work well enough to use, but not well enough to change the world like, say, the Green Revolution.
It certainly can’t produce effects like those depicted in the Disney TV show, and even if it could, would we really want to pump zillions of pounds of chemicals into the atmosphere every hurricane season? The ozone hole and the highway-salt damage to our cars suggest not.
It would all feel very 21st century if we could control the weather from NORAD-like command posts using whiz-bang technology, but until some as-yet-unimagined discovery gives us such control, the Disney fantasy remains just that.
In the meantime, we can appreciate those practical parts of this half-century-old edu-tainment, its look at earth observation and nod to big data, and realize that a lot of Tomorrowland has arrived.
Eyes in Outer Space can be found in Walt Disney Treasures - Tomorrow Land: Disney in Space and Beyond. Hat tip to Matt Novak.