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Closer Than We Think! Universal Language Boxes (1960)

The August 21, 1960 Chicago Tribune ran this Closer Than We Think! strip about "Universal Language Boxes" of the future.

In the world of tomorrow, you'll be able to talk in English and be understood by a Japanese who knows only his own tongue, or by an Ottoman Turk who's acquainted with his own language and no other.


A robot translating machine has already been developed by our Air Force. Right now it operates at only 40 words per minute and is bulky and complicated. But miniaturization, combined with magnetic tape, suggests far more dramatic possibilities for the future - a translating box that might listen to one vernacular and instantly relay a verbal translation. Any language would than be usable anywhere, universally!

See also:
Language of the Future (1982)
Connections: AT&T's Vision of the Future (Part 1, 1993)
Vision (Clip 1, 1993)
Vacations of the Future (1981)
Closer Than We Think! (1958-1963)


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Reader Comments (12)

This one is really too funny. Translation programs may be faster, but they are still worse than useless. I have yet to see one that can reproduce even the plain meaning of a text, let alone any subtleties. Translation is such a highly complex task, that current IT can't hope to touch it.

December 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

Oo Babelfish.

December 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBook Calendar

Was "Ottoman Turk" as a phrase common coin in 1960? Or is a resurgent Empire under" REL="nofollow">Osman IV Fuad also Closer Than We Think?

December 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

To think that we have billions of times the computing power and knowledge than we had in 1960, yet machine translation is still almost useless.

December 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRenan

and, "a Japanese" what? How odd. I know what is meant -- a Japanese *person* -- but would we say "I talked with a British" without adding a noun (man, woman, person, etc.)? Along with the "Ottoman Turk" comment this piece has some interesting insights into 50s and 60s ethnicism and prejudices.

December 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterWutzke

And how do you translate dynaprops in Ottomannish?

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTimeFlies

wutzke, it's perfectly grammatical to use "Japanese" as a noun denoting a person, as well as an adjective. Perhaps you just meant we'd be less likely to use it that way today, & you may be right, but the appropriate comparison is not to *"a British", *"an English", *"a French", *"a Dutch", where gramatically the noun has to be "a Briton", "an Englishman", " a Frenchman" &c., but rather to "a Korean", "a Belgian", "a German", or "an American".

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I've often heard "Chinese" as a noun being used by native Chinese speakers to describe themselves. I think it's to do with how adjectives and nouns are more interchangable in Chinese, and I'm pretty sure the same applies to Japanese too.

December 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

What was this 1960 translation machine, I wonder? Somehow I doubt it took spoken input...

December 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Language Log just put up a post about a" REL="nofollow">spectacular and amazingly common translation-software failure (warning: hilariously crude language)

December 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

I took a class in computational linguistics, and the professor told us this story:
In the 40s or 50s, after several years of fast progress in computing and linguistics, the computer science department at MIT was so confident in their abilities that they sent their grad students home in the summer with the task of "solving language" as a computational problem.

Needless to say, it didn't work out so nicely.

December 31, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Next week: Honeycomb hospitals. Where those busy bee doctors just love to cut it up! Welcome to the Honeycomb Hospital hideout! (You'd have to have been a kid in the 1970s like me to get that on.)

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

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