Social Imagineering

Despite what you’ve heard, the word “imagineering” is not unique to Disney. In fact, it’s a phrase that was first used in World War II corporate propaganda.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: When I write the word “imagineering,” what does it mean to you? Does it make you think of a certain company or concept? Is that company or concept perhaps something related to a cartoon or a theme park? Yes, yes, I get it, the primary company that uses this phrase is culturally dominant—but what if I told you that Disney, despite using the word “imagineering” in an aggressive way for decades to describe its approach to innovation, didn’t actually come up with this term, and that other companies used it for years before Disney got around to trademarking the phrase? That’s imagineering for you. And today’s Tedium looks back at a term that one of the world’s largest companies has long claimed to have coined, even in the face of years of prior art. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“We’re always exploring and experimenting. At WED, we call it Imagineering—the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.”

— Walt Disney, explaining the way that his company’s R&D firm, WED Enterprises, later known as Walt Disney Imagineering, came across the term that is very closely associated with the Disney brand today. The company, which was founded to oversee the creation of Disneyland, remains one of the key parts of the Disney empire.

Imagineering Alcoa Ad

One of Alcoa’s many ads promoting “imagineering,” a concept it embraced nearly two decades before Disney did. Some of the ads took a feel much closer to propaganda. (Internet Archive)

Imagineering started as a wartime slogan for the aluminum industry to promote itself, with no Disney in sight

During the third week of November, 1942, a full-page ad, published by the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), was published in a number of big-city newspapers in an effort to encourage the purchase of war bonds by the public.

The ad, which I will not reprint in full because it includes a clear racist caricature, features an editorial cartoon of a solder firing a large mounted weapon at Hitler and a Japanese soldier. The weapon’s rounds are being fed into the gun in the form of war bonds. And the soldier, in a facial expression that implies screaming at the top of his lungs, says, in large, chunky block script letters, “PRAISE THE LORD AND PASS THE AMMUNITION!”

This editorial cartoon takes up half the page. But below the text is a discussion about buying war bonds, as well as what aluminum is good for, along with a discussion about why imagineering matters:

How To Buy Your Tomorrow Today

Far-sighted people who buy War Bonds today will have the money tomorrow with which to buy the products of industry’s Imagineering*: the revolutionary new automobiles; the new comfortable homes; the labor-saving household appliances; the new and improved aluminum cooking utensils; the television radios and all the flood of other things that war-sharpened inventiveness will throw open to us.

Right now Alcoa’s Imagineering is devoted to producing aluminum that will help American planes fly faster, farther and higher than anything the enemy possesses … but the marvelous production of aluminum for war (nearly 7 times that of peacetime America) and the four war-time price reductions on aluminum, arc among the things which are helping de-signers, architects, engineers to do the Imagineering that will make many of these things possible.

The pent-up demand for all these things will create the post-war market that will make jobs for our boys when they come home. The money which you and millions of other Americans are putting into War Bonds will then become the cash-in-pocket with which to buy the things everyone will want in peace. War Savings Bonds are backed by the U. S. Government. They are the safest place you can put your money. A War Bond is a Government Savings Account that pays you interest. Buy War Bonds regularly to save for the things you will want tomorrow. Buy Your Tomorrow Today.

Below this text is this definition of imagineering, a term Alcoa is clearly proud of:

Imagineering: a word coined by Alcoa from imagination and engineering; the art of planning today the things you will want tomorrow.

And to be clear, this was not like a small marketing term for this company. It was the center of a major campaign by the aluminum industry to ensure that the American people knew that aluminum, despite being hard to come by during the war effort, aluminum was there, doing important work for the American public.

Imagineering Sky Hook

Imagineering: a kind of sky hook. (Internet Archive)

This word wasn’t a minor discussion point for the aluminum industry: It was literally at the center of their entire wartime marketing campaign. In the months before the word appeared in major newspapers with racially tinged wartime propaganda, it appeared in ads for industry publications like Manufacturers Record, Forbes, and The Cornell Engineer. An ad in the latter makes it clear that this term was a Eureka moment for the company.

“For a long time we’ve sought a word to describe what we all work at hard here at Alcoa,” the ad states, before further adding: “Imagineering is the word.”

(And there’s even evidence that imagineering predates the Alcoa ad campaign; a 1920 humor column in the Automobile Trade Journal refers to an “Imagineer” as “the man who thought he knew more than the car designer.”)

It’s strange that a term that appears to have been very strongly associated with the aluminum industry seems to have been co-opted so completely by an entertainment company, especially given the fact that there are signs that it had gained currency as an inventive phrase not long after Alcoa pushed it out into the world.

“Thus we have come to realize that upon imagination, civilization has developed. It is the eye of faith, and the essence of personality,” wrote Lee S. Trimble, an executive officer with the Macon, Georgia, chamber of commerce, in a 1943 op-ed. “Please allow the new word imagineering, as descriptive of the method by which worthy methods are made practical and serviceable.”

Trimble got his wish. But he might be surprised to know that said wish was commandeered primarily by a single company.

Imagineering Book

You, too, can imagineer creativity from the comfort of your own home! (Internet Archive)

Five books on the Internet Archive about imagineering that have nothing to do with Disney

I think that a key way to highlight that Disney’s heavy use of this word isn’t unique to them is to highlight the fact that people have written books driven in large part by the phrase, which each having a unique twist to how they think of the word—in some ways, very different to how Disney uses it internally.

So, with that in mind, here’s the list.

  1. The 1980 educational reference book Imagineering the Reading Process: A Complete Multisensory Approach to Reading, by Michele Borba and Dan Ungaro, dives into a style of teaching reading that emphasizes associating words with experiences, say using actual mud to teach the word mud.
  2. The 1981 self-help book Imagineering for Health, by Serge King, makes the case that utilizing your imagination is an effective way to deal with mental health issues, something the author says he has based on 30 years of research.
  3. The 1986 self-help book Imagineering: How to Profit from Your Creative Powers, by Michael LeBoeuf, goes out of its way to extend Alcoa’s ideas to any sort of creative ingenuity. In case you need a creative spark that only a book that predates the internet can offer, this might be your ticket.
  4. The 1996 urban renewal book Imagineering Atlanta: The Politics of Place in the City of Dreams, by Charles Rutheiser, makes a strong case for reimagining the future of the South’s cultural center.
  5. The 1998 library science book Information Imagineering, published by the American Library Association, focuses on the role of digital research in finding information.

“Some passages in Imagineering sound like Mao: ‘We realize in order for our dreams to come true, change must be welcomed.’”

New York magazine writer Walter Kirn, reviewing Walt Disney Imagineering, a behind-the-scenes coffee table book that focuses on Disney’s approach to creation. Kirn portrays the book as discussing a corporate religion. “The whole thing provokes in many a deep hostility—particularly in what used to be called leftist intellectuals,” Kirn continued. “And no wonder. Imagineering makes it plain that what Stalin only promised, Disney (at least in miniature) delivered.”

7191830786 9774dcb9d0 c

Walt Disney hangs heavily over this discussion. Wonder if this statue was made of Alcoa aluminum. (Steven Miller/Flickr)

How Walt Disney’s R&D arm embraced and co-opted the imagineering buzzword

Over Disney’s history, the company has been quite good at documenting itself and its approach to creativity, in a way that many other companies are not. The use of documentary footage, in many ways, has likely helped to create a sort of aura around the decisions the company makes in a way that I’d probably compare most to Apple.

In 2019, for example, director Leslie Iwerks (granddaughter of Disney legend Ub Iwerks) directed a film for the company about its Imagineering practice, which is currently available on Disney+. It suggests imagineering is a massive cultural force that drives forward its theme filmmaking and theme park efforts, that there is something truly special and unique about someone who can cut it as an Imagineer.

But it’s perhaps an earlier film that hangs deeper over the Disney influence on the imagineering concept.

The film, discussing Disney’s “Florida Project” that was part aspiration, part Disney World, highlights the way that the company’s research and development arm, WED, had shaped its approach to theme park design and overall creativity.

Filmed in 1966, the documentary is one of the last films Walt Disney ever made, and in it, the company’s approach to imagineering is emphasized. At one point, the narrator says this:

What WED does is called Imagineering—the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how. The talents of WED have gone to work outside Disneyland, too. At the New York World’s Fair, four of the most popular attractions where Disney shows and corporate exhibits that skillfully welcomed and entertained more than 150,000 people every day.

Lots of companies have R&D departments, which help them find new ways to innovate. What Disney did that helped it stand apart was to turn it into a proprietary artform, something that no other company can quite perfect.

The idea, implied by the unique language, is that nobody can do imagineering quite like Disney. Anything else is mimicry. And perhaps it is. But despite Disney owning a trademark on the term, which it registered in the late 1980s, the prior art is strong for this specific phrase.

The whimsy and power of imagineering clearly existed in the aluminum industry at least 20 years before the term was first used in the press—the first reference I can find of Disney, specifically, using it is 1963, when an associate said this of the Disney approach to creativity:

“Walt Disney is involved in every operation of every show,” an associate reports.

“He approves the ideas, the scripts, and everything else. You can’t call this a one-man operation—hardly, with 900 employees working here in the studio.

“But we’re all guided by Walt’s ideas and vision: good taste, imagination, and creativity. A man who worked for him years ago summed it up perfectly. He made up a word.

“He called it imagineering, and it’s applicable.”

Did the unknown person see the ads by the aluminum industry, published during wartime as the industry looked to maintain is presence in the business discussion even as its product was being used elsewhere? Or was it, as posited by author Richard Snow, brought into WED’s culture by Union Carbide in the 1950s?

Is imagineering Disney’s way of holding onto the spirit of Walt in some small way, even 55 years after his death? Perhaps it is. Perhaps that’s why it has remained as a part of the company’s culture decades after the term found its way into an article about the cult of Disney.

But one thing it is not is a concept unique to Disney.

Even today, imagineering, while heavily associated with Disney, isn’t owned solely by them. Not even close.

For example, a company called Imagineering, Inc., a manufactures printed circuit boards, while another legacy company called Imagineering from the ’80s and early ’90s—when the imagineering language really kicked off at Disney—developed video games for various platforms of the era, as a subsidiary of Absolute Entertainment. Another video game developer, named Imagineer, has been active in Japan since 1986.

A British foundation called Imagineering teaches about STEM, while a company named Imagineer Systems, for years, sold visual effects software, basically creating a deep overlap on Disney’s home turf before it was sold off around 2014. Another company Called Intergraph sold CAD software under the Imagineer name during the early ’90s.

And, on top of all that, a Scottish indie rock band with no discernible Disney influence called The Imagineers has been going strong since 2010. They even have a song called Imagineer, in case you think this post needs a soundtrack.

I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that, for some reason, we have let a megacorp dominate what is effectively a buzzword, a fancy way of saying “brainstorm,” for decades, for no reason other than a corporate belief that Disney coined or deeply embraced it, and it defines a way that the company thinks about the process of creation.

Polar Express

Imagineering involving a popular animated property that has nothing to do with Disney. (via Lionel)

And despite its domination of this phrase, it has essentially failed to prevent others from using it, leading to fun situations such as the model train company Lionel making a Polar Express set under its Imagineering brand of toy trains, despite the fact that The Polar Express is a Warner Bros. IP.

As I’ve said in the past, Disney has had some questionable stances on the role of ownership and intellectual property in a modern society, which is why, in my view, it’s fair to critique things like this. Here is a term that was used for at least two decades by another company, and then Disney came in and slowly turned it into a key part of their corporate culture, to the point that it dominates search terms for the phrase.

Sure, you can have your corporate culture, but let’s be clear here—there’s no reason Disney needed to imagineer its way into dominating the way we talk about imagineering. Big aluminum was there way earlier.

I wonder if it grinds Disney’s gears that there are so many other examples of imagineering out there.


Find this one an interesting read? Imagineer this link to your friends—and see you next week!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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