Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

Popular Mechanics has been making predictions of technological innovations since it first started publishing in 1903. Greg Benford, a science fiction author, has collated some of them in a short book called The Wonderful Future that Never Was. They’re predictions on the future of cities, of transportation, of home life, and more, presented in short blurbs set with hand-drawn futurist art.

These predictions were made in magazine issues published up to 1970. It’s fun not just to see what they were and which came true. Studying them is informative for anyone curious to see how science enthusiasts talked about the future. The confident tone is as much a pleasure to read as any of the bold predictions. These types of matter-of-fact declarations are common: “scientists assure us that startling breakthroughs are only a decade away…” or “these remarkable advances are expected to come to the home in a short matter of time.”

I’ll share a some of these predictions, followed by a few general observations in the next section.

Predictions

My favorite entry is a 1951 prediction of personal helicopters, accompanied with an illustration of a man pushing one into a garage: “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.” It’s not so much that I want a helicopter. Instead I love that the promise of ease is made with such earnestness.

There are lots of entries here on efforts to prolong life, for example with radiation, heavy water, and artificial organs. Scientists then talked of treating old age as a disease with a cure.

Self-driving cars, sort of, predicted in 1965: “Out on the highway, a new era is about to embark: the automated trip. GM’s proposed ‘Autoline’ is a complete speed and directional control system for vehicles, using remote-control electronic signals. Its main components are the inevitable computer, a control cable beneath the automated highway lane, and sensing devices and servo-mechanisms in automobiles that can actuate their controls. When perfected, Autoline will let drivers ‘phase’ into an automated expressway lane with their cars completely in command of the auto-line controls. Cars can thus speed along, virtually bumper to bumper, at 50 mph.”

Here’s a quote from a 1950 entry: “It’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, Dr. Irving Langmuir. ‘There is no fundamental reason,’ says Doctor Langmuir, ‘why we could not travel at the speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.’” Isn’t that the Hyperloop?

Frozen meals (1947) were one of many attempts to industrialize food, but it’s about the only one to be broadly commercialized. In 1926, scientists talked of making food from coal and extracting fats from petroleum. Chemists made a serious effort in 1940 to make grass digestible, so that it can be powdered and sprinkled on bread for the vitamins. Cellulose in the form of sawdust flour was predicted in 1962 to gain wide usage, for example as cookie dough.

Reading these food predictions made me blanch. They are far too grim, even for a Soylent enthusiast such as myself. See this, from the scientist who wanted to derive butter from petroleum: “Prof. Norris declared that food supply will never become an acute problem, so long as we have chemists.” I went to look up the process of making Soylent after reading that.

An IBM computer was used to translate Russian in 1954. It could process six basic rules of grammar, had a vocabulary of 250 words, and operated by punchcards. Here are some other computer-related predictions that we’re familiar with: video calling (predicted in 1940), virtual doctor diagnosis (1957), mapless driving (1967), and “downloadable” digital reading (1938). The last item involved radio delivery of newspapers every morning to a machine at home. From that entry: “Only perfection of certain technical details stand in its way, according to radio experts.”

This isn’t exactly a technological prediction, but it’s the one I’m most glad to not be realized. 1950: “In the year 2000, any marked departure from what your fellow citizens wear and eat and how they amuse themselves will arouse comment. If old Mrs. Underwood, who was born in 1920, insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is light as a thistle-down, she must expect people to talk about her ‘queerness.’ It is astonishing how easily the great majority of us fall into step with our neighbors.” No, what’s astonishing is how smug someone can sound when they want to enforce social conformity, on the preferences of blankets no less.

I spent a long time looking at an illustration of a “city of the future.” It’s long, so I’ve put it at the bottom of the post.

Now some general observations:

At this point I should disclaim that this is a picture book, filled with whimsy and not systematic rigor. Still, a few thoughts.

  1. How many of these predictions came true? I think it’s possible to summarize these in a fairly simple way: “Most predictions made before 1950 were realized; most made afterwards were not, with the exception of anything involving communications.” It’s not just that the engineering was difficult: scientists overestimated the enthusiasm for certain products (see: petroleum fat, sawdust cookies) and many ideas probably wouldn’t survive scrutiny of today’s regulators. On the other hand, people didn’t see cellphones, the internet, or software as we know it coming. The most ambitious communications technology portrayed here is the “television phone,” an expensive, awkward precursor to Skype.
  1. Now a question: What would the world look like if just one more field resembled communications, which succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most futurists? Communications technologies are significant in themselves, but they also impact many other areas. What if another technology improved so much that it could have discernibly broad and deep effects on other fields? There are many to wonder about, pick your favorite: medicine, rocketry, transportation, and so on.
  1. Improvements in energy could have even broader effects than communications. A lot of the failed predictions would stand a chance of working out if energy were super cheap, as a lot of people in the ‘50s thought would be the case when the country fully adopted nuclear energy. So to what extent is the failure of these predictions really a failure of the nuclear dream, in which we’d get clean energy that’s too cheap to meter? “Nuclear is eating the world” brings up entirely the wrong kind of image, but still we can wonder. On the other hand if Noah Smith is to be believed, maybe the hope isn’t dead, and lies in solar instead.
  1. A related point to #2: “High-tech” now refers almost exclusively to communications technologies, and the “tech industry” has become shorthand for software businesses centered around Silicon Valley. Isn’t that linguistic evolution a concession that the other fields have stagnated? Peter Thiel has made this point, and he tells us that “technology” in the ‘30s was understood as many things, including airplanes, the movie industry, secondary oil recovery, plastics, chemicals, and more. “Tech” today doesn’t have that broad connotation, and I wonder if that implicitly puts limits on our imagination.
  1. Let’s say you want to make these big predictions come true. How do you go about it, and I mean this in a general way? Are you supposed to pursue a PhD in the sciences? Which company do you aspire to join? And what do you do if you’re non-technical but want to work anyway on developing the technological future? It doesn’t seem like there are any obvious answers, and I wonder if that’s part of the problem. I’ll confess that I’m pretty removed from the world of science and engineering, but from a distance, it seems that being an academic scientist is no guarantee that you’ll get to work on world-changing projects. Are there modern equivalents of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC? Or are they just more fragmented, out of the public eye but not hard to find if you’re an insider?

Thanks to Michael Gibson (@william_blake) for recommending the book. I like how it ends: “The enormous challenge demands new approaches, fueled by visions of futures that are utopian, even if we don’t get quite all the way there. The magazines of the twentieth century show us how to dream, with constraints. Our great problems all involve new technologies. But no one can achieve anything that he or she does not first imagine.”

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As promised, my favorite illustration of the book, which features the city of the future, though I don’t think it’s very practical. It’s not original to the book, I believe that it comes from the sketchbook of the architect Harvey Wiley Corbett.

harvey-corbett-city

4 thoughts on “Technological predictions: 1903 – 1970

  1. If you’ve never read the short story, “A Logic Named Joe”, you should.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Logic_Named_Joe

    http://www.baen.com/chapters/w200506/0743499107___2.htm

    This is probably the most prescient science fiction story ever. I read it in the late 1980s and thought, “Wow! This guy predicted personal computers!”. I read it again in the 1990s and thought, “Wow, this guy understood networking!”. And again in the 2000s and thought, “Wow – this guy predicted the Google – and Siri, only better.”

    I do hope he was able to make money off of being able to see the future so clearly!

    -Joel-

  2. “My favorite entry is a 1951 prediction of personal helicopters”

    Actually, we are not far from something better than a personal people are likely to have personal drones following them around, peaking around the corner for traffic, taking selfies, and just looking out for you.

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