In the process of doing ‘research’ (well, googling) for my blog about innovations, elites, and flying cars, I stumbled on this wonderful project jointly produced by Gregory Benford and Popular Mechanics: The Future That Never Was: Pictures from the Past. Gregory Benford is an author working within the genre of hard science fiction (I had a very interesting conversation with him last May in Irvine, in which we discussed many things, including Cliodynamics).
What Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics did was go to the past issues of the magazine and look at how fared the predictions that were made on its pages between 1902 and 1969. The title of the project, The Future That Never Was, suggests that most, if not all, predictions failed, thus echoing one of the Yogiisms, which provides the title of this post. But actually only some of the predictions failed spectacularly. There were others that succeeded in an equally spectacular fashion. And a lot in between.
To start with a failed prediction, which also fits the theme of Flying Cars:
Prediction 1951: Personal Helicopters. This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn. It has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.
Ha, this one was a complete flop. But it sounded quite reasonable back in the 1950s! Well, I am not so old as to know what people thought in the 50s, but when I grew up during the 1960s (I was an avid consumer of science fiction even then), I was convinced that we would have flying personal transportation real soon now. Little did I know that the reality would be quite different – scrunched in a too narrow seat on a commercial airplane, and hobbling on bad knees for days afterward.
The next one is a success story:
Prediction 1937: Microwave Cooking. Cooking a ham sandwich in high-frequency radio waves. This method may be common in the home of the future.
Now this one must have looked completely ridiculous back in 1937. Note how tentative the language is. Yet this prediction succeeded spectacularly. (I wonder, though, what happened to the hand of the scientist/engineer in the photo – how did he avoid getting it cooked together with the sandwich?)
This one is the one that I thought was the funniest one:
Prediction 1950: Housekeeping of the Future. When the housewife of 2000 cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors—all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) she turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. She throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but she has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.
Prediction 1950: Vacuum Tube Powered Trains. Imagine a tunnel with one end beneath New York City’s Times Square. You enter a car at this end, stow your suitcase in the rack overhead and settle down comfortably with a magazine. You have been reading scarcely an hour when the vehicle stops. An escalator carries you back to the street level and you greet the light of day once more—in San Francisco! Sounds like something out of pseudo-science fiction, doesn’t it? Yet it’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, General Electric’s noted physicist, Dr. Irving Langmuir. “There is no fundamental reason,” says Doctor Langmuir, “why we could not travel at a speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.”
Well, perhaps traveling at thousands of miles per hour is still science fiction, but, as I wrote in the previous blog, other countries have superfast trains that travel, or will soon travel, at 300 miles per hour. We don’t. So this prediction is, perhaps, the saddest one. The country that 60 years ago was technologically well ahead of the rest of the world, today has fallen well behind the leaders.