This Robot Gardener From The 1960s Looks Like A Techno-Utopian Version Of The Apocalypse

The May 6, 1962 edition of the Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think, illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh (Illustration: Brett Ryan Bonowicz Collection)

When people of the 1950s and 60s imagined the robot lawnmowers of the future, they were generally pretty small and cute. But not this guy.

The May 6, 1962 edition of the Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” pictured the most enormous and frankly terrifying robot gardener of all time. Illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh, this lawn maintenance machine had all of the bells and whistles, from radio control to enormous blades that you wouldn’t want anywhere near the family dog.

I mean, look at this thing. Even the spikes on the back seem more designed to intimidate than to shoot water. Sometimes mid century techno-utopian design looked more like a shiny apocalypse; an almost happy Mad Max landscape where the wasteland lost its cannibals and bounty hunters but kept some of its aesthetic choices as a reminder of the before times.


The text of the strip explained that this “gardening go-cart” was the future for American homeowners, but kindly ignores calling out the edgy design choices made by Radebaugh:

A lawnmower that cuts weeds, feeds, seeds and sprays is now being made by Simplicity Manufacturing Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin. Tomorrow such devices will give way to all-purpose go-carts which will do these chores automatically. A tape or radio controlled computer will give the signals, and fertiliser flow may be regulated by reaction to the the lawn’s colour.

Thus tomorrow’s “gardener” will take better care of your lawn than any yardman could; and it will require only gasoline (or perhaps sunpower) for incentive. Also, when not tending to the lawn, it might carry your golf clubs or perambulate the baby!

The entire premise of Closer Than We Think was that Radebaugh and his editors would take a story from the news and imagine that concept or invention deep into the future. So it makes sense that they took what Simplicity Manufacturing was producing and made it even more automated, but with design choices that border on the dystopian.

This wasn’t even the first time that Closer Than We Think tackled the subject of futuristic lawnmowers. The June 28, 1959 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s groundbreaking strip looked at solar lawnmowers that were, again, pretty intimidating in their own way—even if the 1959 version was decidedly smaller than the 1962 version.

Illustration: Closer Than We Think

Again, you don’t want Fido anywhere near that thing.

If you look closely at the 1962 strip, you can spot some fun Easter Eggs in the background of this panel. Eagle-eyed fans of Closer Than We Think might notice the “Follow-the-Sun House” on the left. There’s also the houses of 1958 that were supposed to be under glass domes by now. Everything seemed to be under domes in the retro-future.

Strangely, looking at these old badass designs from Closer Than We Think have a way of depressing me. These strips would often present the most progressive ideas for transportation and energy production as cool without question. Did you catch that this new lawnmower of the future might be using “sunpower” to get along?

Those are the kinds of innovations that were taken for granted as the best course for humanity well before my lifetime. Why would we want to keep using old ways of powering things when we had new ways just over the horizon? At least that was the thinking well before my lifetime.

Here in the year 2019, a full 57 years later, we still have politicians who mock the idea that renewable energy is worth pursuing. As just one example, President Donald Trump constantly makes fun of solar and wind energy, all while showing tremendous ignorance about how those technologies work.

“When the wind doesn’t blow, you don’t watch television that night,” Trump told a crowd during a speech on May 14.

President Trump regularly says this kind of thing, ridiculing wind and solar energy while lying about how those technologies actually function. Needless to say, wind and solar energy can be stored and used whenever you need it—even when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. And they have the added benefit of not continuing us down a path of environmental destruction.

Meanwhile, Trumps EPA has said that burning coal is carbon neutral. There’s no end to the idiocy of our era, and with Trump in power, it’s just going to keep getting worse. At least we can look at our old drawings of solar-powered robot lawnmowers though. Because today’s futurism isn’t quite cutting it.

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