November 30, 2011
George Gallup Jr., the son of Gallup Poll founder George Gallup died of liver cancer last week at the age of 81. Gallup Jr. wrote a book with William Proctor in 1984 titled Forecast 2000 that contained numerous predictions about the future of the United States. Gallup Jr., coming from a tradition of opinion polls, naturally hoped that there might be a methodical and scientific way to forecast future events. “In this book, my goal has been to minimize as far as possible idle speculation about the future and to substitute what I believe constitutes the most reliable and comprehensive predictive approach now available.”
The first chapter of the book focuses on war and terrorism. Gallup Jr. sets a scene in New York City in 1997 wherein terrorists — armed with a nuclear device — storm the Empire State Building’s observation deck. It’s interesting to see a scenario focused on nuclear terrorism which, in 1980, was a threat not often discussed by mainstream media outlets.
As we saw with the “panic-proof test” in a 1953 issue of Collier’s, New York is a popular target of fictional destruction. But why New York? Max Page notes in his book The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, “To destroy New York is to strike symbolically at the heart of the United States. No city has been more often destroyed on paper, film, or canvas than New York’s.”
Gallup Jr., looking 13 years into the future, offers his take on the symbolic resonance of New York City:
It’s a warm, sunny spring afternoon. Office workers are just cleaning up cups and papers from their lunches in Central Park, Bryant Park, and other favorite outdoor spots.
But then the unusual big-city tranquility is shattered by news reports that begin to come through on portable radios scattered around the grassy patches. A terrorist group of some sort has take over the observation deck on top of the Empire State Building. The terrorists claim they have set up and armed a nuclear device. It’s quite a big bomb, they say — more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski.
As pedestrians gather in steadily growing clusters around the available radios, more information pours in: The terrorists are connected with some extreme anti-Israel faction. They have chosen New York City as their target because it has a larger Jewish population than any other city in the world — and also because much Zionist activity is centered there.
Gallup Jr. goes on to explain the demands of his fictional terrorists:
Their demands are nothing short of staggering: a $1 billion extortion payment… freedom for scores of named terrorists in prisons around the world… a guarantee of the political division of Jerusalem and the establishment of a sizable chunk of Israeli territory as a Palestinian homeland… their group is to be given absolute control over the designated portion of Israel…
The demands go on and on, and they’re topped off by a seemingly impossible deadline: The requirements must all be met by high noon the following day. Otherwise, the device will be exploded, and all of Manhattan Island and much of the surrounding area will be seared to the ground. Moreover, radiation will make the land for hundreds of miles around the explosion site uninhabitable indefinitely.
It’s a bit chilling for readers who remember the attacks of September 11, 2001 to read Gallup Jr.’s predictions about how shock, panic and a sense of helplessness encompass the city:
As the news of this threat spreads around the city, the reactions are varied. Most people stand or sit around just listening to the news. Some think the whole thing must be another Orson Welles joke — a phony broadcast designed to simulate reality. After all, there have been many other such dramatic programs in the past, and this is certainly just another to draw in a wide listening audience.
Others accept it as a real event, but they’re sure the terrorists are bluffing about the bomb. Still others are optimistic for other reasons: For example, they’re certain that one of the government’s antiterrorist teams will either overpower the offenders or negotiate a settlement of some sort.
A number of people are too stunned to move. A few panic, and either break down in tears or start running to their apartments to gather their valuables together with the idea of getting out of the city.
As the day wears on and night falls on the city, it becomes apparent that the broadcasts are no joke. Growing numbers of people — many more than the commuter lines to upstate New York and New Jersey can handle — try to get out of the city. Huge traffic jams build up, and there seem to be an unusual number of auto breakdowns and flat tires — more terrorist activity? people wonder.
As the night wears on, the terrorists hold firm to their demands, and the sense of panic rises. What if they’re serious? What if they really plan to explode that bomb? Increasing numbers of usually relaxed citizens begin to decide that perhaps they’d better waste no more time getting out of the city. But many don’t have cars — a necessity in most cities, but not in Manhattan because of the extensive public transportation system. And those who do have cars find they can’t even get close to the tunnels and bridges that lead out of the city. The one exception is Long Island — but who wants to get stuck out there if a nuclear bomb goes off in Manhattan?
Daybreak reveals many strained, haggard faces on the city sidewalks and in the jammed-up autos on New York City thoroughfares. There seems to be no escape from this dilemma. One attempt to overpower the terrorists has failed, with several attack helicopters shot down.
In his final paragraphs painting the scene, Gallup Jr. decides the city’s ultimate fate:
Finally, high noon arrives. New Yorkers sit glued to their radios and TV sets, waiting with bated breath. The negotiations have broken off, but there’s still hope that the terrorists will make some sort of counteroffer. That’s the way this sort of game is played, and most people believe there has to be a solution. After all, what’s the point in a bunch of terrorists blowing up an entire city when they’re in a position to get something, even if it’s not everything they asked for?
The lull continues through four minutes after twelve, then five minutes. A growing number of listeners and viewers begin to relax. Something good must be happening.
Then, the blinding light flashes into every dim corner of the city, and the roar follows almost simultaneously. But no one has heard the roar because the searing heat has destroyed all life.
November 23, 2011
Many Americans celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow will have a meal centered around Ben Franklin’s favorite bird — the turkey. But if this cartoon from the September 19, 1926 Ogden Standard-Examiner had proven prescient, the Thanksgiving meal of the 21st century would’ve been entirely pill-based.
The turn of the 20th century brought a whole host of predictions about the future of meat consumption and food chemistry in the United States. Whether borne of a Malthusian fear that the earth simply could not support a growing population, or a repulsion at the conditions of both slaughterhouses and the average American kitchen, the future of food was envisioned by many prognosticators as entirely meatless and often synthetic.
In an 1894 McClure’s magazine piece called “Foods in the Year 2000″ Professor Marcelin Berthelot predicted that chemistry would completely replace agriculture in providing humans the sustenance they need:
Wheat fields and corn fields are to disappear from the face of the earth, because flour and meal will no longer be grown, but made. Herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and droves of swine will cease to be bred, because beef and mutton and pork will be manufactured direct from their elements. Fruit and flowers will doubtless continue to be grown as cheap decorative luxuries, but no longer as necessities of food or ornament. There will be in the great air trains of the future no grain or cattle or coal cars, because the fundamental food elements will exist everywhere and require no transportation. Coal will no longer be dug, except perhaps with the object of transforming it into bread or meat. The engines of the great food factories will be driven, not by artificial combustion, but by the underlying heat of the globe.
Likewise, the March 29, 1895 newspaper Homestead (Des Moines, IA) wrote that, “a so purely practical man as Edison has indulged in prophesies of a time to come when agriculture shall be no more, and when the beefsteak of the future shall be the product of the chemist instead of that of the feeder and live-stock grower.”
Synthetic food was also seen as a possible liberator of women from the kitchen. In 1893 feminist Mary E. Lease, a vegetarian, advocated that food be synthesized in laboratories for both the benefit of woman and animal. She predicted that by 1993 the slaughterhouses would be converted into “conservatories and beds of bloom.”
A January 11, 1914 article in the Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) was titled “How Things Will Be in the Twenty-First Century” and assumed that the era would be entirely meat-free.
Cooking, perhaps, will not be done at any large scale at home… and cooking will be a much less disgusting process than it is now. We shall not do most of our cooking by such a wasteful and unwholesome method as boiling, whereby the important soluble salts of nearly all food are thrown away. As animal food will have been wholly abandoned before the end of this century, the debris of the kitchen will be much more manageable than at present.
Interestingly, that last line appears to have been plagiarized from Baron Russell. The March 17, 1907 Washington Post published an article from the Chicago Tribune titled “How Our Progeny Will Live One Hundred Years Hence.” The piece takes predictions from Russell, who wrote a book in 1905 titled A Hundred Years Hence. Russell imagines a world of air purifiers, automatic dishwashers, zero crime, and vegetarians.
While envisioning the kitchens of the future, Russell also notes that city buildings will be so high that there won’t be sufficient sunlight for people and vegetation below. The solution? Artificial electric light which is capable of sustaining life.
Cooking perhaps will not be done at all on any large scale at home. At any rate it will be a much less disgusting process than it is to-day. In no case will the domestic servant of a hundred years hence be called upon to stand by a roaring fire laid by herself and to be cleaned up by herself when done with in order to cook the family dinner. Every measure of heat will be furnished in electrically fitted receptacles with or without water jackets or steam jackets, and unquestionably all cooking will be done in hermetically closed vessels.
Animal food will have been wholly abandoned before the end of the century, the debris of the kitchen will be much more manageable than at present, and the kitchen sink will cease to be a place of unapproachable loathsomeness. Dishes and utensils will be dropped into an automatic receptacle for cleaning, swirled by clean water delivered with force and charged with nascent oxygen, dried by electric heat, and polished by electric force. And all that has come off the plates will drop through the scullery floor into the destructor beneath to be oxygenated and made away with.
All apartments in city houses will contain an oxygenator, which will furnish purer air than the air of the fresh countryside. And in bedrooms at least there will be a chemical apparatus which will absorb carbon dioxide and at the same time slowly give off a certain amount of oxygen — just enough to raise the oxygenation of the air to the standard of the best country places. Similar appliances will be at work in the streets, so that town air will be just as wholesome, just as tonic and invigorating as country air.
Since the high buildings of the future wil keep out the sunlight, electric light, carrying an all the ray activity of the sunlight and just as capable of fostering life and vegetation, will serve the street. Thus so far as hygiene goes, town life will be on a par with country life.
The absolutely fascinating 2006 book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food by Warren Belasco elaborates further on the hopes and fears of the era:
Similarly, in 1893 the first U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Jeremiah Rusk, predicted that improvements in conventional farming could increase production sixfold — perhaps enough to feed even a billion Americans by 1990.
Rusk’s assessment was part of a series of nationally syndicated newspaper columns designed to transmit the largely cornucopian spirit of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Most of the series’ seventy-four experts confidently assumed that modern technologies — ranging from conventional seed selection to that science fiction favorite, the meal-in-a-pill — could easily feed the 150 million Americans expected in 1993 (actual: 256 million).
November 18, 2011
The January 18, 1925, Zanesville Times Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) ran an article about a proposed 88 story skyscraper in New York. Titled “How We Will Live Tomorrow,” the article imagined how New Yorkers and other city-dwellers might eventually live in skyscrapers of the future. The article talks about the amazing height of the proposed structure, but also points out the various considerations one must make when living at a higher altitude.
The article mentions a 1,000 foot building, which even by today’s standards would be quite tall. The tallest building in New York City is currently the Empire State building at 1,250 feet. Until September 11, 2001, the North Tower of the World Trade Center stood as the tallest building in New York City at 1,368 feet tall. Interestingly, the year this article ran (in 1925) was the year that New York overtook London as the most populous city in the world.
The contemplated eighty-eight-story building, 1000 feet in height, which is to occupy an entire block on lower Broadway, may exceed in cubical contents the Pyramid of Cheops, hitherto the largest structure erected by human hands.
The Pyramid of Cheops was originally 481 feet high, and its base is a square measuring 756 feet on each side. The Woolworth Building is 792 feet in heigh, but covers a relatively small area of ground.
The proposed building, when it has been erected will offer to contemplation some rather remarkable phenomena. For instance, on the top floor an egg, to be properly boiled, will require two and a half seconds more time than would be needed at the street level.
That is because the air pressure will be less than at the street level by seventy pounds to the square foot, and water will boil at 209 degrees, instead of the ordinary 212. In a saucepan water cannot be heated beyond boiling point, and, being less hot at an altitude of 1000 feet, it will not cook an egg so quickly.
When one climbs a mountain one finds changes of climate corresponding to what would be found if one were to travel northward. Thus, according to the reckoning of the United States Weather Bureau, the climate on top of the contemplated eighty-eight-story building will correspond to that of the Southern Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The newspaper ran a series of illustrations to accompany the article that demonstrate the communal features of skyscraper living and new considerations (however ridiculous) of living at 1,000 feet. The skyscraper was imagined to feature billiard rooms, parlors for dancing and bowling alleys. One of the illustrations explains that “the housewife will be annoyed by no petty disputes with butcher and grocer over the accuracy of their accounts.” The latter is a reference to the fact that meals will no longer be prepared at home, but “bought at wholesale rates by a manger, or by a committee representing the families of the block, and the cooks and other servants employed to do the work tend to everything, relieving the housewives of all bother.”
The article looked to history for perspective on what wonders the next hundred years of skyscraper living may bring:
Compare the New York of today with what it was a century ago. May one not suppose that a century from now it will have undergone a transformation equally remarkable? Already the architects are planning, in a tentative way, buildings of sixty or seventy stories that are to occupy entire blocks, providing for all sorts of shops and other commercial enterprises, while affording space for the comfortable housing of thousands of families. Such a building will be in effect a whole town under one roof. The New York of today has great numbers of apartment houses. It has multitudes of family dwellings. The whole system must before long undergo a radical change. A block system of construction will replace it, achieving an economy of space which is an inexorable necessity. It is the only system under which the utmost possible utilization of ground area can be obtained.
Predictions of communal kitchens in the future were quite popular in utopian novels of the late 19th century, like Edward Bellamy’s 1888 tome “Looking Backward.” But this 1925 vision of tomorrow’s kitchen shifts focus to the kind of ordering out that we may be more familiar with today. The illustration contends that “all the housewife of tomorrow will have to do is select the kind of meal she wishes and order it, just as she now phones the butcher for a roast or fowl.”
Interestingly, the pneumatic tube still rears its head in this vision of urban living in the future. The Boston Globe article from 1900 that we looked at a few weeks ago included predictions of the pneumatic tube system Boston would employ by the year 2000. Delivery of everything from parcels to newspapers to food by pneumatic tube was a promise of the early 20th century that would nearly die during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
On a recent occasion the possibilities of the pneumatic tube for the transportation of eatables was satisfactorily demonstrated by the Philadelphia Post-office, which sent by this means a hot dinner of several courses a distance of two miles. For the community block a trolley arrangement might be preferred, with a covered chut and properly insulated receptacles, lined with felt, will keep foods at a piping temperature for a dozen hours.
November 16, 2011
The September, 1968 issue of Boys’ Life magazine ran an article by Samuel Moffat about the computerized school of tomorrow. Boys’ Life is a monthly magazine started by the Boy Scouts of America in 1911 and is still published today. Titled “Computerized School House,” the piece explores things like how the computer terminal of the future would be operated (the “electronic typewriter” finally gets its due), how students of the future may be assessed in classrooms, and how computers in schools from all over the United States might be connected:
Picture yourself in front of a television screen that has an electronic typewriter built in below it. You put on a set of headphones, and school begins.
“Good morning, John,” a voice says. “Today you’re going to study the verbs ‘sit’ and ‘set.’ Fill in the blank in each sentence with the proper word — ‘sit,’ sat’ or ‘set.’ Are you ready to go?”
“YES,” you peck out on the typewriter, and class gets under way.
The machine clicks away in front of you. “WHO HAS ____ THE BABY IN THE MUD?” it writes.
You type “SAT.” The machine comes right back: “SET.” You know you’re wrong, and the score confirms it: “SCORE: 00.”
The article goes on like this for some time, listing other possible questions that a computer might ask a schoolboy of the future. The piece continues by describing just how far-reaching advancements in computer technology may be once the ball starts rolling:
A generation or so from now a truly modern school will have a room, or maybe several rooms, filled with equipment of the type shown on the cover of this issue. Even kindergarten children may be able to work some of the machines—machines such as automatically loading film and slide projectors, stereo tape recorders and record players, and electric typewriters or TV devices tied into a computer.
Customizable instruction seems to be the largest benefit touted by the article when it comes to every child having their own computer terminal:
The major advantage of the computer is that it helps solve the teacher’s biggest problem—individual instruction for every student. In a large class the teacher has to aim at the average level of knowledge and skill, but a computer can work with each child on the concepts and problems with which he needs the most help. A teacher can do this, too, but she often lacks the time required.
It goes on to say that kids can work at their own pace:
Computers combined with other teaching aids will provide schools with new flexibility in teaching. Students will be able to work at their own speeds in several subjects over a period of time. A boy might work all day on a science project, for instance, and complete his unit in that subject before some other children in his class had even begun. But they would be working on other subjects at their own speeds.
Connections not unlike the Internet were also envisioned in the article. Moffatt envisions a time when people from all around the United States would be connected through television and telephone wires. To put the timeline of networked computing into context, it would be another full year before the very first node-to-node message would be sent from UCLA to Stanford on October 29, 1969:
The electronic age also makes it possible to have the latest teaching materials immediately available even in outlying school districts. Television transmission and telephone cables bring pictures and computer programs from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Schools in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, for example, are serviced by computers in California. The students are linked to their “teachers” by long-distance telephone lines.
The piece ends with some prognostication by unnamed publications and “computer specialists”:
Computers are expensive for teaching, and they will not become a major force in education for some time. But apparently they are here to stay. One educational publication predicted that “another generation may well bring many parents who cannot recall classwork without them.” And a computer specialist went even farther. He said, “… I predict that computers will soon play as significant and universal a role in schools as books do today.”
November 14, 2011
Last week I had two friends from the Bay Area over to my apartment in Los Angeles. They recently moved to San Francisco from Oakland and I asked how they liked their new digs. ”We love it. But I wish there was a way to get between Oakland and San Francisco easier.”
They explained that the BART trains stop running at around 12:30 at night, which makes going to see friends for drinks and such rather impractical if you can’t find your way home. But, if inventor Fletcher E. Felts had gotten his way, not only would my friends be able to hop from San Francisco to Oakland in just five minutes, they would’ve been able to zip down to visit me in Los Angeles in just four hours, without having to deal with the fuss of flying or driving a car.
The April 17, 1910 San Francisco Call ran an article titled, ”From Call Building to Oakland City Hall in 5 Minutes.” The Call Building in San Francisco is now known as Central Tower. Felts lived in Los Angeles but had once lived in San Francisco and imagined a system of suspended auto motor railways that would “revolutionize railroading the world over.”
3 p. m. — “All aboard for Oak-land!”
3:05p. m. — “Oak-land, Oak-land. All off!”
That’s what you’ll be hearing some day when the “Suspended Auto Motor Railway” is in operation.
It will be a case of “on again, off again,” for you will have scarcely made yourself comfortable in your seat when, b-r-r, buzz-z-z, buz-z-z, and you are flying across the bay in midair with the speed of a gun projectile, and almost before you can say “Jack Robinson” you have landed in the Athens of the Pacific.
Now, that’s rather a startling statement, isn’t it? But Fletcher E. Felts, who has looked into the future, says we are going to have such a railway.
“Oh, pshaw!” you say contemptuously, it’s only a dream.” But, you know, some dreams come true. Who ever thought men would be able to sail through under the waters of the ocean in safety? They have done so in submarines. Or, whoever thought that men would ever be able to sail through the air at dizzy heights with ease? They are doing so in flying machines. Well, now that these supposed to be impossible feats have been accomplished, why be skeptical about anything?
The San Francisco Call included Felts’ design for the railway cars:
Felts explained the design of his “bullet car” and the aerial railway:
“The car, which is bullet shaped, lays in surcingles which terminate in springs and plungers. The operator sits in a conning tower in the top of the car. Levers run back over his head to the engine. In place of the trucks beneath the car there are steel carriages above. These steel carriages will encircle the eyebeam tracks and all the wheels and rollers will be slotted at their tops, wide enough only to permit the passing of the drop arms. Should the wheels and rollers be removed by any cause, the carriages would clutch the track, preventing the car from falling, or, if any portion of the track should be taken away and the cars running at full speed the front carriage only would leave the track, causing the rear carriage to clutch the track before travelling the length of the car. This would prevent the car from plunging into space.
Felts clearly had a bigger vision for his railway system than just Oakland to San Francisco, explaining that a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco could take just under four hours:
“My suspended auto motor railway, at the rate of 100 miles per hour, would make the same distance of 471 miles in 5 hours, including five stops of five minutes each,” said Felts. “This distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles could be shortened to 400 miles with the suspended auto motor railway, and the speed easily increased to 150 miles per hour, making the time between San Francisco and Los Angeles 3 hours and 39 minutes. The stops would be San Jose, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
High speed rail has been a hot button political topic in California, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority claiming that such a system today could link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains taking just 2 hours and 40 minutes. California voters approved $9.95 billion in funding for high speed rail in 2008 but the project has many hurdles before it becomes a reality.