Back before the Golden State Freeway was finished in the mid-1950s, I had a neighbor and mentor who owned a laboratory on Riverside Drive in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was a short, dark man, a Turkish Jew born in Harlem in 1916 to parents from Istanbul and Haifa. Like his poorly educated mother and father, self-taught social engineer, industrial designer and utopian futurist Jacque Fresco never finished school. Nonetheless, he became famous, specifically for the flying wing aircraft that he helped create with Los Angeles aviation pioneer Jack Northrop in 1939.
Last March, Fresco, who worked as a freelance inventor and contract city planner and was well ahead of the curve in envisioning such things as a “resource-based economy” and ecologically and socially “sustainable cities,” turned 100. A film about his remarkable life is set to premiere sometime in 2017.
We talked briefly in March and my thoughts immediately turned to when I first walked into Fresco’s laboratory in 1952, when I was 10. Our discussion took me back to the time that I met the man who came to be known as “the flying wing guy.”
I remember visiting his lab, Scientific Research Laboratories, where he lectured and worked as a scientific consultant. After walking through a kitchen loaded with good things to eat, you emerged into a study full of fascinating objects, including oscilloscopes, as well as a giant 3-D model of a fly that was several feet long. A door opened to a work space. The place, a stucco-painted two-story aluminum structure, had amazingly comfortable couches where students relaxed and listened carefully to Fresco speak. Like so many others, he was a supporter of the Communist Party in the 1930s. But by the 1950s, well after denouncing Karl Marx as being wrong, he became a technocrat.
During our talk earlier this year, Fresco surprised me by arguing city planning had now become more important to people than buzzing around in flying wings and driving fancy cars. He also reminded me of a term that I first heard when I attended school at his lab: “cybernetics” — the design of machines to make better machines than those produced by humans. Fresco was certainly a pioneer of the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) among his many attributes. And at the heart of his thinking was cybernetics.
Outputs and Inputs
By the time he was 14, Fresco had traveled the country, hopping freight cars heading away from the East Coast. He had grown up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, mostly among Ashkenazi Jews — unlike him. He was Sephardi. Most people in the neighborhood who ate herring on the weekend were Ashkenazi, not like his parents. Fresco was, and no doubt remains, a deep and abiding anti-mystic.
In 1939 he left the cold weather of the Northeast and headed toward always sunny Los Angeles. By the age of 23, he had not finished school, and he never went on to get degrees in physics, aeronautics or anything else. Formal education was “all bust for him,” as a friend once said.
By the late ’30s he was working with Jack Northrop on the flying wing project for the Northrop Division of the Douglas Aircraft Co. The two men argued about their respective designs, but it was Northrop’s concepts that were commissioned and built, even though Fresco got numerous patents for his design as well. The Air Force grounded Northrop’s aircraft after one of them crashed. Local news broadcaster Clete Roberts was a well-known public affairs commentator of the time who examined the design aspect of the revolutionary aircraft, pointing out that Fresco’s designs were never tested as a result.
For me and his other students, Fresco was not just the “flying wing” guy — he was a man who wanted his students to understand the mechanisms that drove not only airplanes, but also cars, trains, cities, nations, even the universe.
Cybernetics is a concept invented by Norbert Weiner at MIT, who, simply put, considered it a formalization of the notion of feedback — something that occurs when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause and effect that forms a circuit or loop. The concept has implications for engineering, systems control, computer science, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, and the very organization of society.
Fresco was never a religionist. He was a mechanist, one who saw mechanisms as the explanation for what made things happen throughout the universe. The ultimate point of cybernetics was simply that it was a design that allowed machines — i.e., computers — to create new machines.
About 40 years ago, Fresco moved increasingly toward a type of city planning in which meeting the actual needs of people was paramount. He now says it is time to build cities that meet the needs of people who live in them, not just answer the demands of architects, corporations and bureaucrats. Most human needs can already be met, he believes. What must be eliminated before long is the need for money with which to live, as most manual and clerical work that pays wages will be eliminated by advances in technology.
Among Fresco’s supporters during my youth was Earl “Madman” Muntz, a salesman who dressed in costumes and performed stunts for cameras broadcasting his television commercials, much as Cal Worthington later did to sell cars and “Crazy” Eddy did to sell electronics. Muntz, who sold televisions and even created his own automobile, the Jet, a precursor to the Corvette, sold cars from a lot in Glendale. He commissioned Fresco to create cheap, prefabricated living quarters for GIs returning from World War II. Fresco designed what came to be known as “Trend Homes” for Muntz, who paid $500,000 in seed money for the project and provided Fresco with a place to live while working on his new idea and other inventions.
A “laboratory” of Trend Homes was set up at Stage 8 at the Warner Bros. studios in Hollywood for about three months. Although there was great interest, the idea was not as cost-effective as Muntz had hoped and never took off. Muntz himself was an inventor, creating a 4-track cartridge that was a predecessor to the 8-track cartridge developed by Lear Industries.
Despite their differences on the value of money, Fresco was not unlike Muntz in some ways. Many of those who disliked Fresco were no doubt a bit turned off by his wearing a beard. Asked why he refused to shave, he asked his inquisitors why they didn’t just relent and allow their beards to grow. Much as Muntz did not like being told what to do, this was also Fresco’s independent spirit.
The Venus Project
Since the time I got to know him, Fresco developed a strong following — he’s spoken on utopian studies in Florida and was a guest lecturer on future planning in Dubai. He was also a speaker at the Technical University in Vienna, and a guest speaker at conferences in China and Nigeria.
Fresco’s Venus Project, built on nearly 22 acres in a pristine area of south-central Florida, contains archetypes, dome-shaped structures and drawings of all the ways life will be lived in his vision of the future. He began its design in the mid-1970s and by the ’90s he was actually building it. As Fresco’s closest companion, Roxanne Meadows, explains, “In the society we envision, people would carry on with what they like to do, without the need to work 10 hours a day, because resources will be available to everybody.”
The facility was developed to get the national and international attention Fresco’s ideas needed to thrive. It is based on the concept of sharing resources, not exchanging money for services.
Not too many months ago, a large contingent of filmmakers showed up at my home in the Glendale area, not far from Fresco’s former laboratory all those years ago in Los Feliz that was demolished to make way for the freeway. They wanted me to supply memories of the great man in the earlier times, and I was happy to oblige.
Rob Shan Lone, a London baseball webographer and filmmaker, was their leader. The gang took over my living room as I talked my way crazy. The film is due out sometime next year. It’s called, simply enough, “Fresco.” Finally, I thought. I can’t wait to see it.
All I can say is this latest and perhaps most lasting tribute in this remarkable, newly minted centenarian’s storied life comes not a moment too soon.