March 22, 2013
During World War II, many Americans had high hopes for what life would be like in the future. Sometimes this was fueled by advertisers who promised that great things were just around the corner. Sacrifice for your country now they said, and all of your wildest high-tech dreams would come true after the war. As we’ve seen before, this attitude was sometimes tempered by skeptics who warned that while there may indeed be great things ahead, Americans should keep their shirts on.
Once the war ended in 1945 inventors, corporations and advertisers kicked into high gear, scrambling to perhaps make good on some of the promises they’d made during the war. But that also didn’t stop the unrelenting torrent of predictions about the leisurely society of tomorrow.
One popular area of prognostication was about how people would be traveling in the near future. The average American would soon be taking to the skies, in hyper-futuristic airplanes with all the luxuries of a swanky dinner club. One of these skyward-gazing predictions appeared in a 1948 short film called The Northrop Flying Wing, produced for the Popular Science series of films. Designed by Jack Northrop, Northrop’s sleek design screamed “airplane of the future.”
The film explained that this airplane of the future would seat 80 people and provide gorgeous views of the countryside below through large plexiglass windows:
Now a preview of the flying wing transport of tomorrow. The mid-section provides ample room for 80 passengers. Spaciousness keynotes the luxurious main lounge, extending 53 feet inside the wing. And future air travelers will really see something. Through the plexiglass windows of the front wing edge, passengers have an unimpaired view of the earth unrolling thousands of feet below. Coast-to-coast flights in four hours may not be far away.
This high-tech flyer had its roots in the military, the film tells viewers, but much like other advancements of WWII, the Northrop-built planes held tremendous promise for peacetime uses:
Wing controls are like those of a conventional plane, except for elevons, combining functions of elevator and aileron. Today a potent defense weapon, it may revolutionize commercial flying. The dorsal tip of the plane provides an excellent vantage point to see the world go by. Snug as bugs in their magic carpet, air travelers can look down on mere earthlings as the double-quartet of mighty turbo jets whistle them through space.
This flying wing bomber is the twelfth type to be designed by John K. Northrop since 1939 — the latest edition to a family of planes that may some day may rule the air.
The world of air travel in the future will be one of luxury and efficiency, with plenty of booze for good measure:
Surprisingly enough, the luxurious wing is simpler to build than other planes. Being a single unit with a structure extending from tip to tip. The sleek air leviathan carries more cargo farther, faster with less fuel than any comparable plane.
And the bar will raise the spirits who don’t feel high enough in the stratosphere. The flying wing has the stability of a fine club and refreshments can safely be wheeled in. This new device is an electromagnetic table holder.
By the end of the short film the narrator has adopted a strangely paternalistic tone about technology. We’re told that the American public “quickly accepts” the fantastic miracles bestowed upon them by science:
The public quickly accepts all the miracles that science provides. Even skyliners like this will become commonplace. But the giant flying wing is more than a super-streamlined airplane. It is the fulfillment of scientific vision, and symbolizes the practical dreams of science for our world of tomorrow.
Viewers of the late 1940s are told that thanks to science, the world of tomorrow will be the fulfillment of a glorious vision — whether they like it or not.
October 4, 2012
Hugo “Awards” Gernsback was many different things to different people. To his fans, he was a visionary who started some of the most influential (not to mention the first) science fiction magazines of the early 20th century. Ray Bradbury was quoted as saying, “Gernsback made us fall in love with the future.” To his detractors, he was “Hugo the Rat,” known to men like H. P. Lovecraft for being a crooked publisher who sometimes stiffed his writers when payment was due. But above all else, he was a tireless self-promoter.
In 1904, Gernsback emigrated from Luxembourg to the U.S. at the age of 20. Not long thereafter he began selling radio kits to hobbyists, sometimes importing parts from Europe. His radio business and the catalogues he used to promote his wares evolved into a technology-focused magazine empire. Gernsback published over 50 different magazine titles in the course of his life, most of which were hobbyist magazines related to science, technology and the genre he helped popularize for so many in the 1920s: science fiction.
Gernsback’s name was always prominently displayed on the cover and inside each of his magazines. And each issue featured an editorial by Gernsback himself in the first few pages. Gernsback would often use this platform to give an update on a field of research relevant to the publication — be it TV, radio or even sex. But sometimes he would make wild predictions for the future.
The September 1927 issue of Science and Invention included Gernsback’s predictions for “Twenty Years Hence” — the year 1947. Gernsback couldn’t foresee the calamities of the Great Depression that were just around the corner, nor the tremendous hardships of the Second World War, but his predictions from this time give us a look at the most radical of technological utopianism from the 1920s. Everything from wireless power to a cure for cancer is predicted, though there are many areas — like increased life expectancy, conquering childhood diseases and air conditioning — where Gernsback’s predictions are quite on the nose.
Nikola Tesla and his “wireless light” were featured on the cover of the February 1919 issue of Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter magazine. Tesla’s ideas about wireless power no doubt inspired Gernsback’s view of the future in this area.
I believe that within twenty years it will be possible to actually send power wirelessly; that is, without the need of intervening pipes or wires. It will only be possible, at first, to send sufficient power to a land or air vehicle to light and heat it, the power being supplied entirely or in part from the ground.
Gernsback was a pioneer in the field of radio and made a number of predictions in his magazines about the future of its cousin: television. In 1927 television wasn’t yet a practical reality in American homes, and was still not imagined as a broadcast medium by many. As such, he envisioned TV as more of a point-to-point communications tool, though as early as 1922 he thought it might be used for broadcasting baseball games like in the illustration above.
In twenty years universal television will be an everyday affair. It will be possible to talk over the telephone to your friend a thousand miles away and see him at the selfsame [sic] time. The same thing will be true in radio, where you will see what is being broadcast at all times. Television still holds some great surprises for us, and the applications in television may well revolutionize our entire mode of living, just as the telephone has revolutionized it.
It is quite probable that within twenty years, two of man’s greatest scourges, tuberculosis and cancer, will have been done away with entirely, or else they will be controlled in such a manner as to no longer be called dangerous. These two diseases will be conquered just exactly as diabetes has already been conquered during the past few years.
Gernsback believed, like some others of the time, that applying electricity to the soil would allow crops to produce higher yields.
Electrification of crops will be an established fact twenty years hence. There is no reason why the ground can not yield twice as much produce, as has long been shown experimentally. The equipment to double and triple crops by using constant electric currents in the ground where the crops are planted, is not at all expensive, and is easy to tend and harness. As the population increases we must have more vegetable food-stuffs. Electrified crops is the answer to the problem. Incidentally, it will make farming highly profitable, for the reason that a small area will yield a triple or even a quadruple crop.
The average length of man’s life has been increased from about 40 to 60 years since the middle ages. Man can expect to live much longer as times goes on, due to better personal hygiene, better sanitation, and better understanding of the human machine. I confidently predict that the present average of 60 years will be raised at least five, and perhaps as much as ten years, by the end of the next twenty years.
On the other hand, infant mortality, which has been greatly reduced during the last fifty years, will be reduced still further. There is no reason at all for most infantile diseases. We are slowly conquering them, one by one, and I believe that most of them such as measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, rickets and others will probably have been done away with twenty years hence.
Last year we looked at weather control and its possible use as a Cold War weapon, but decades before this superpower struggle, Gernsback imagined that “universal weather control” would be as simple as the flip of a switch.
Twenty years hence, weather control will no longer be a theory. While it may take longer than this to actually have universal weather control, within twenty years it will be possible to at least cause rain, when required over cities and farm lands, by electrical means. But we shall not solve the problem of warding off or creating cold and heat in the open for many centuries.
In the December 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal writer John Elfreth Watkins Jr. predicted that the 20th century would see cold air “turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house.” Almost three decades later Gernsback made a similar prediction and, after World War II, those in hotter climates thankfully saw this vision for the future come true.
Within twenty years our private dwellings and office buildings will be artificially cooled, the same as they are heated in the winter time. There is no good engineering reason why we should have to swelter and cut down our production in the summer time, any more than we should freeze in the winter. The present hot water and steam piping systems will probably be used for the artificial cold circulation.
Within twenty years there will be far more airplanes in the air than we have cars on the ground now. There will be a great exodus from the city to the country, not a movement back to the farm, but, most likely, a movement back to the home. Inaccessible and practically valueless plots in the most out of the way places will bring high prices for house building sites, because hills and mountain tops will be more accessible than the valleys.
I do not see the airplane, as it is today, neither do I see the helicopter as the final solution for aircraft. As long as an airplane requires a landing field, or at least, a space for a runway of 100 yards, or more, to either alight or take off, airplanes will not come into universal use. The helicopter idea, to my mind, is not sound. The chances are that we shall have an airplane that will be able to land on rooftops, or even in streets, if necessary. I believe that airplanes will be articulated in such a way that the entire plane can be spun around practically within its own length, and kept on circling in this small space as long as necessary. This would be the equivalent of “standing still,” for an automobile. If a landing were to be made, the airplane could then spiral down by gradually losing altitude. It could rise the same way, always spiralling in a small circle, which need not exceed 50 feet in diameter, and perhaps even a great deal less for smaller machines.
I firmly believe that within twenty years air-liners of a special construction will make the trip from New York to Paris within ten to twelve hours at a maximum, flying through the upper strata of our atmosphere. The flying would be done at tremendously high altitudes, for the simple reason that here there is less air resistance, with a consequent increase in speed and safety. The entire hull for passengers and crew would be practically airtight, as the space would have to be supplied with air at proper pressure, and, due to the tremendous cold at high altitudes, the inside would have to be heated artifically as well, either from the exhaust of the engines, or electrically.
July 9, 2012
Ever dreamed of owning your own flying car… from the 1950s? If you happen to have $1.25 million lying around, you can make that happen!
It seems every year we see companies like Terrafugia and Moller promise that the flying car will soon be an everyday reality. But people often forget flying cars have been around for over half a century. Greg Herrick, an aircraft collector in Minneapolis, is selling his 1954 Taylor Aerocar N-101D with an asking price of $1.25 million. His flying car of the retro-future sports a yellow and black body and as you can see from the photo above, still works!
Herrick has over 40 aircraft in his private collection and the Aerocar was one of the first he ever purchased. He bought the flying car in the early 1990s from a man in Idaho and says he was drawn to the Aerocar just as many people in the latter half of the 20th century were. ”I was just at the tail end of that generation that kind of grew up with that dream of… well, I guess every generation has had that dream since the [invention of the] automobile — of a flying car,” Herrick told me.
The Aerocar was designed by Moulton Taylor in 1949 and only five were ever produced. In order to take flight the Aerocar must be converted into an aircraft with wings that fold forward. Though it looks cumbersome, the vehicle was marketed in the early 1950s as being so effortless that a woman could do it “without soiling her gloves.” The video below is a newsreel about the Aerocar from November 5, 1951.
Herrick’s Aerocar was first listed for sale in December 2011. His most recent listing includes some of the specs:
The AEROCAR features side-by-side seating for two. Advanced for its time, most of the fuselage skin is of composite material and the car is front wheel drive. In flight the wings are high and unobtrusive. Powered by a Lycoming O-320 Engine the propeller is mounted at the end of a long tail cone, the latter angled up for propeller clearance. Cruise speed is about 100 mph. Takeoff speed in 55 mph and the airplane is controlled by the same steering wheel as is used for driving.
But why sell it? ”I like rarity. I like unusual things,” Herrick tells me. “I like things that represent progress or tell a story. But as time passes your tastes start to become more refined. And no matter what it is you’re doing you can’t collect everything and you can’t be an expert in every area. So my interests began to migrate toward the golden age of aviation between the wars — in particular the aircraft that were almost lost to history. So this airplane is kind of superfulous to my needs.”
But if you’re thinking about buying this blast from the past don’t forget that you’ll need two kinds of insurance! “When I bought the thing, I was looking at the insurance and I had to have two different insurance policies: an aviation policy and then I had to get an auto policy,” Herrick said. Making sure you have two kinds of insurance is certainly one of those realities that The Jetsons never warned us about.
June 6, 2012
From the vantage point of 2012 we often associate flying cars with the slick, Jetsonian ideas of the 1950s and ’60s. But predictions of futuristic flying cars buzzing over major American cities are actually about as old as the automobile itself.
The May 1923 issue of Science and Invention featured a two-wheeled flying car that was supposed to be the answer to New York City’s congested streets. Called the “Helicar,” it was stabilized by gyroscopes and operated by a push-button control panel rather than an old-fashioned steering wheel. The Helicar is built of the “lightest materials” available and enclosed in an “unbreakable, unburnable, glasslike substance.” (Its streamlined design actually reminds me a bit of this futuristic auto from 1918.)
The Helicar was dreamt up by none other than the father of modern science fiction, Hugo Gernsback. In February 1904, at the tender age of 19, Gernsback moved to New York from Luxembourg and became intimately familiar with New York City’s busy streets. As cars got larger in the 1920s, Gernsback argued that there was no choice but to give tomorrow’s automobiles the option to soar above the city.
The automobile, as it is built now, tends to become larger and larger. The car of today is fully three times as large as the car of 25 years ago. In our large cities overcrowding, due to the tremendous number of automobiles, has now reached the saturation point. New York City is about to enact a law to eliminate a certain number of taxicabs, which now crowd the streets to such an extent that it is impossible to make any time at all in certain sections of the city. If you really wish to move rapidly, you have to take the subway or the elevated railway. This condition exists in most large cities. It has been proposed to build viaducts over the house tops, but due to the high cost it is doubtful if such a plan will ever become a fact, even in a time remote from now.
The article included a photograph of a Rolls-Royce from 1923, giving retro-futurists of the 2010s a handy perspective on what the top-of-the-line car looked like 90 years ago.
Gernsback believed that the only “practical solution” to New York’s traffic problem was the Helicar, which he predicted to to be in use by 1973. What’s somewhat astounding is that by 1923 the helicopter hadn’t even proven itself as a practical reality yet!
The only practical solution is to combine the automobile with an airplane and this no doubt will happen during the next few decades. The Helicopter Automobile or, for short, the helicar, will not take up very much more room than the present large 7-passenger automobile, nor will it weigh much more than our present-day car, but instead of rolling down the avenue, you will go straight up in the air, and follow the air traffic lines, then descend at any place you wish. This descent can be made in the middle of the street, if necessary. The car may roll through the street, and may rise in an open place, or square, of which there will be many in the future.
While it will be possible for a car to alight on the ground in a narrow street, traffic regulations may prohibit this, and the aerial ascent and descent will be made from these public squares or parks. The Helicar will be particularly useful for suburbanites to fly to and from work, and for pleasure. Even today our roads, whether they be suburban or country, are so clogged with traffic that it is impossible to get anywhere on time.
Later, Gernsback makes note of the helicopter’s questionable success in the early 1920s:
The important part is the propelling mechanism to drive the car in the air. There have been many helicopters designed so far, but up to date nothing really trustworthy has been evolved. It may be quite possible that the helicopter of the future will look entirely different from what we have pictured in our illustration. It is quite possible that no blades will be used, but rather a form of an open drum, similar to the turbine. We have been satisfied to show in our illustration the usual propellor, which is collapsible, so that when the car runs as an automobile, it will not obstruct traffic, nor will it catch the air.
The other peculiar element to the car—having two wheels, instead of four—is explained by Gernsback as making sense for a number of different reasons. Perhaps, the least compelling of which is that bicycles have just two wheels!
It will be noted that only two wheels are used. Two wheels are more economical than four. There is less trouble with gears and shafts, and this construction decreases the weight of the car as well. A gyroscope keeps the car in an upright position at all times, and makes riding on two wheels perfectly safe.
Two-wheel vehicles are not new, as witness the bicycle. The famous Englishman, Brennan, has already tried them out, and there will be no reason for using four wheels in the future.
In 1909, Gernsback opened the world’s first store specializing in radio at 69 West Broadway and pretty much all of his futuristic inventions from the 1910s and ’20s included some role for radio. Number 8 on the diagram below is described as a radio for transmitting and receiving messages. You may recall that in the early 1920s radio was still in its infancy as a broadcast medium, so it’s unlikely those passengers are listening to something like the 1923 hit song, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
Perhaps the most depressing element of this article for those of us in the year 2012 (who are still largely driving cars that run on fossil fuels), is that Gernsback believed that we’d probably be off gasoline by the year 1973.
In our illustration we have shown a gasoline engine as the driving agent for the Helicar. There is no reason why a gasoline engine should be employed. Perhaps by that time we will be extracting electricity from the air, and merely use an electric motor to run the car, or we may even approach the point where the wireless transmission of energy will be a proven fact.
The article included an illustration of the flying Helicar in action (above). I’ve added my own yellow numbers, because the original letters are a bit hard to read at this size.
(1) — Push button power control board before driver, which also switches power to helicopter drive shaft (3), and blades (9), when it is desired to fly.
(2) — Steering wheel.
(3) — Helicopter drive shaft.
(4) — Gyroscope for stabilizing car on two wheels.
(5) — Twelve cylinder gasoline engine driving large dynamo (6), which supplies electric current to motor within rear wheel, (13).
(6) — Dynamo (electrical generator).
(7) — Storage battery for engine and radio receiving and transmitting set, (8).
(8) — Radio set.
(9) — Collapsible helicopter blades. (Note: Engine driven.)
(10) — Powerful electric lamps and reflectors for flying purposes.
(11) — Elevating wings controlled by driver, used in ascending or descending, as well as tail, (12).
(12) — Helicopter tail.
(13) — Electric motor wheel, which drives the car along the road when not in the air.
(14) — Motor driven spur wheels which can be lowered to assist in propelling the car out of icy spots.
(15) — Collapsible steps.
(16) — Fender.
(17) — Electric headlight used when running on road.
May 31, 2012
Today, new futuristic-looking technologies often attract investors hoping to make gobs of money. And airships of the past were no different. In the first few decades of the 20th century people scrambled to figure out how they might cash in on these exciting new inventions, which were slowly beginning to prove themselves technologically reliable.
But not everyone thought that commercial flight was a good investment. The January 2, 1909, issue of Literary Digest re-published portions of a December 10, 1908 editorial in Engineering News under the headline, “A Warning to Air-Ship Investors.” The article spells out the various ways people of the era thought there may be money in flight — transporting freight, passenger travel, warfare — but the author remains extremely skeptical that any of those applications would pay off financially anytime soon.
Literary Digest explains that “companies to build, sell, and operate new types of flying-machines will before long be seeking stock subscriptions in every city in the country. How shall we distinguish the false from the true? The advice of the [Engineering News] is to keep clear of the whole business.”
From the December 10, 1908 Engineering News:
So far as the possibilities of freight transportation are concerned, it may be passed with a word. Wherever ordinary methods of transportation on land are available, it will be absurd to carry goods of any sort through the air. The cost of such transport would be measured not in mills per ton mile, as in rail or water carriage, or cents per ton mile, as in wagon haulage, but in dollars or hundreds of dollars per ton.
It is true that for exploration in difficult country, as over the Arctic ice or in rough mountain regions, there are possibilities in the air-ship. But such use, of course, is rather scientific than commercial.
The article continues by laying out the impracticality of passenger air travel, seeing it as more of an amusement that might be useful at fairs, rather than as a practical means of transportation. Interestingly, the author also calls out the high-speed automobile as a toy of the rich which allows them to “vent their surplus energies.”
For the carriage of passengers, the necessary risks attendant upon flight through the air, either with the dirigible balloon or the aeroplane, are certain to limit passenger traffic to the field of sport and amusement. This is, of course, a much more considerable field than is often realized. The public is willing to pay very high prices for mere amusement, and it is altogether probable that a few years hence aeroplane flights will be a drawing card at county fairs and other public occasions, just as ordinary balloon ascensions have been for a century past. The experience of the high-speed automobile, too, has proved the existence of a very large leisure class of wealthy men who find vent for their surplus energies in undertaking all sorts of risky exploits. Flight through the air may very likely become as popular a fad a few years hence as automobile racing is to-day; but it will have just as little relation to the serious, practical, every-day business of carrying freight and passengers for the great workaday world as have the hundred-horsepower automobiles that break speed records in France or America.
Warfare of the future isn’t even seen as a possible use for airships. As Engineering News explains, flying machines are far too vulnerable to bullets from the ground.
It is said that the leading military nations are vying with each other at the present time in the development of military air-ships, but this does not prove that these structures can be made practically useful in the serious business of actual warfare… Of all the apparatus ever proposed for use on the battle-field, a flying-machine is beyond all question the most vulnerable. It offers an ideal mark to the bullets of the enemy. Its limitations of weight forbid its protection by any sort of armor. Had the flying-machine been developed forty or fifty years ago, when projectiles were limited to small velocities and short ranges, it might have performed some service in observing the enemy’s forces; but with modern infantry rifles discharging projectiles with an initial velocity of 2,700 feet per second, and with light artillery fitted to discharge a perfect hail-storm of bullets having equal velocity and range, the rise of an air-ship at any point within several miles of a hostile army would be merely the signal for its immediate destruction.
Engineering News was correct that military airships were being developed. These planes would advance considerably in the lead up to the First World War, where they were not only used for reconnaissance, but also mounted with machine guns and used for strategic bombing. In 1909, on July 27, the Wright Brothers tested a military airplane in Fort Meyer, Virginia. Film from the National Archives of the Wright Brothers testing that plane is embedded below.