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.
May 25, 2012
The October 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics looked at what technological advancements Americans might expect after WWII with an article titled, “Big Things Ahead — But Keep Your Shirt On,” by John Silence.
What makes this article so fascinating is that it looks at the advances of the future with optimism, but tempers that rosey outlook with realistic predictions. There were a number of stories in the early 1940s offering American readers a vision of the future after the war, but this is one of the few that asks people to keep their expectations in check. The article opens with the common assumptions of the day about the futuristic post-war world Americans would be living in:
Many of us have the idea that when Johnny comes marching home to his post-war world, he won’t know the old place. He’ll zing in on some contraption just short of the fourth dimension, and before he can zip himself out of his uniform and into his civvies, the walls of his pre-fabricated house will glow with electronic heat or his brow will be cooled by costless air conditioning.
The freezer in the basement will yield a perfect sirloin steak that the radio oven will broil to his favorite turn in something under 10 seconds, and while they’re bringing it in on an electric-plastic tray that keeps it hot, the dehydrated mush is being turned back into honest potatoes. And so on.
The piece then warns that you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much. It’s really one of the most sober and subdued pieces of futurism I’ve read from the last 100 years, but it gives us a fascinating look at the thinking of the time:
But don’t expect too much. And don’t expect it all at once. For many reasons, we aren’t going to turn things upside down as soon as the last shot is fired in this conflict. The people who risk their money to provide the things you buy are going to hold back to find out if you’ll take it before they plunge too deep. And all their research may be overruled on appeal.
The article says that frozen food will be the food of the future, with refrigerated trucks making regular deliveries to homes that have large freezers in their basements:
Foods—Quick freezing has pretty much passed its tests. People will buy frozen foods, and they’ll also store their own produce in rented lockers or home freezers. Which way will the cat jump? There are some folks who think the frozen food industry may eventually—get that “eventually”—work around to a system whereby you’ll keep a large frozen food locker in your basement, and make your purchases from a refrigerated delivery truck that comes around every week or so.
The article has a little fun with the idea that huge windows would be in fashion after the war, but may not be terribly practical:
Housing—It isn’t cricket to throw cold water on your ideas about letting the sun heat your home through huge plate glass windows. But please bear in mind that Mama is going to have something to say, too, and if your big windows open up the innards of your house to prying eyes 20 feet across the lot line, you may come in some fine sunny day to find the drapes drawn and the furnace pumping away.
The piece pointed out that advances in medicine would revolutionize our world, though they may not get as much attention as advances in consumer goods.
Medicine—Among all the scientific advances being made during the war, medicine and surgical methods probably will draw the least public attention, but they probably will influence your post-war life more than any other. The mold drugs give one example. Penicillin, the wonder mold derivative, already has been released, in controlled amounts, to the public.
And speaking of consumer goods, the writer acknowledges the sales pitches that were so common from peddlers of the era:
Household appliances—When the post-war planner regales you with stories about automatic washers, ironers, dish washers, garbage disposal machines, tell him to smile when he says it. You had all those things before the war, and you’ll have them again, if you’ve got what it takes—and that’s money and time to wait for more to be made.
In describing the community of tomorrow the writer makes reference to an illustration from 1895 that humorously imagined the future. The writer predicts that any changes in the community of the future really can’t be foreseen, but will likely be basic and simple.
Community Planning—A half century ago an artist did the same kind of thinking about his future that many people today are doing about ours. He came up with an idea of what the skyscraper of the future—say about now—would look like. [...] He reserved a large section of the building for a hay and feed store! He reckoned without the automobile, which was to change the whole complexion of things within 10 years and make his drawing appear fantastic. We can still count on a wonderful new world opening up before our eyes, but the man who promises you a preview of it just can’t deliver. The furbelows and fripperies that ease the life of the next generation are going to be governed largely on basic, probably simple, changes in our way of living that perhaps no one today can see.
The writer expects that tomorrow’s cars will be leaner and more efficient with engineers figuring out how to produce more with less. Curiously, he also holds out hope for a steam-powered car.
Motoring—On the basis of our wartime scare on the scarcity of petroleum products, it would almost seem safe to predict that the automobile of the future will be lighter and more efficient, getting as much as 50 or 100 miles to a gallon of the best grades of gasoline. The engineers probably will add strength while casting off weight. But who is to say that we won’t be extracting a fuel like gasoline from other products that will permit us to continue running our two-ton heaps because, if for no other reason, we like ‘em? And besides, although steam was tried and discarded once as an automobile power source, such improvements have been made in boilers and heating plants, as well as in the engines themselves, it is entirely possible someone will market, some day, a steam automobile that will go when you press your foot on the accelerator first thing in the morning. There are startling things afoot in both power and fuel developments. But they will be announced slowly and carefully. Watch also transmissions, especially in the hydraulics and electrical fields.
The writer predicts quite accurately that after the war the American public will see FM radio and television.
Radio—What can we look for may be these things:
- At first, a set just like we’ve always had, because the manufacturer will have all he can do at first just to fill the demand.
- Then, likely, FM, because it was about ready for the public when the conflict started, and the transmitters are already reaching a good portion of listeners.
- Television—later. Because of the short carrying qualities of television waves, it will come out first in heavily populated centers where there are transmitters.
The machine tools of war are seen as the most obvious advances that would be quickly converted for peacetime purposes.
Machine Tools—It’s most likely that the greatest advances are being made now, and not waiting until after victory is won. The stress and pressure for speedy production is bringing about advancement in the field of specialized machine tools that make our country the undisputed leader of the world’s industrial production. It may be this will prove our real victory in the war.
Futurists of the 1940s had a particular interest in helicopters, predicting that there would be a flying machine in every garage after the war. But the writer of this article is quick to explain the hurdles to such a helicopter-centric society.
Aircraft—A helicopter in your back yard? The picture is bright. You go out behind the apple tree, give the rotors a whirl, and whizz!—you’re on the office roof. At the end of the day, whizz!—and you’re back in Suburbia, tending your delphiniums. Beautiful picture, isn’t it? But you’ll probably have to keep your machine in perfect condition, to be passed on by some safety agency, and it won’t be the perfunctory windshield wiper and horn test, either. The neighbors may not care if you crack your own skull, but they won’t want you doing it on their sun porches. So for some years after the war is over, the first helicopters, and other airplanes for that matter, will be flown by people who can scrape together enough money to insure: (1) a machine in perfect condition; (2) maintenance that will keep it that way; (3) expert training in the operation of the machine. The designers say helicopters are harder to fly than airplanes.
May 22, 2012
Remember paper maps? They used to be the only game in town. But the 2000s (the aughts? have we named that decade yet?) saw a radical shift in the way that befuddled drivers could figure out how to get from point A to point B. Suddenly, global positioning systems (GPS) became affordable enough that the average consumer could buy stand-alone units for their cars and GPS technology began showing up in smartphones (though often early smartphones were simply using cell tower triangulation). It wasn’t very long ago that consumer GPS devices were super-futuristic technology.
The 1989 book Future Stuff by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein looked at the various technologies that people might see in the 1990s and beyond. The book assigned an estimated year, an estimated price and gave the odds as to whether we’d see this technology at all. One of the technologies was “car video” navigation, as well as satellite navigation. The “video navigation system” relied on a rather primitive design—a “casette-tape data source” that allowed you to input an “electronic road map” on a video monitor mounted on your dashboard. The satellite navigation described in the book is much closer to what we actually see today:
The video navigation system, which we’ll see introduced early in the decade, should be passe by the end of the decade. It will be replaced by satellite navigation, an amazing system that will be able to pinpoint your car’s location anyplace in the world, alert you to an upcoming traffic jam and show you all alternate routes, warn you of approaching bad weather, and so on. Your car will be bouncing signals off satellites in space just like the most advanced communications systems.
Japan’s Nissan Motor Company is spearheading the technology with its Satellite Drive Information device. Your location will be shown on your car’s computer display screen, using Nissan’s Global Positioning System. Forget video road maps and memory banks. The picture on your screen will be the real thing transmitted via satellite. The display screen will even tell you where to make turns and also measure distances (to the next intersection or to your final destination).
Satellite navigation is going to make it difficult for someone even with the worst sense of direction to get lost.
So when did they think this technology would finally arrive? The authors predicted that it had a 70% chance of becoming a reality by 1998 and early models would cost $2,500 (about $4,340 adjusted for inflation). That prediction turned out to be fairly accurate. In 2000, a simple portable GPS device—which could indicate your current location—sold for $699. But the top-of-the-line portable GPS devices, which could provide driving directions, cost $2,799.
April 10, 2012
The Roaring Twenties brought Americans a new era of mass-produced goods and, with it, an emerging middle class clamoring for newly affordable automobiles. In 1925 you could buy a Ford Model T for just $290 (about $3,700 adjusted for inflation). That same car would cost you $850 when it was first introduced in 1908 (about $20,400 adjusted for inflation). This steep drop in the price of cars — coupled with a national fascination with flight — had every “small f” futurist dreaming up the flying car of tomorrow.
The June, 1927 issue of Science and Invention magazine looked at one possible flying car of the future — specifically, a flying ambulance . The magazine included pictures from a scale model display, dreamt up by a French inventor who is unfortunately left unnamed by the article. The ambulance would be completely independent of the plane and simply drive into position to be swept away to the nearest hospital. The inventor imagines that patients would be riding in much more comfort because the ambulance could be sailing through the air rather than traversing over rough roads.
The Ne Plus Ultra of comfort can be found in this conception of a French inventor, permitting automobiles to go into the air as flying machines. It surely would be a great convenience if travelers, without leaving their automobiles, could embark in an airplane by driving their car into its fuselage. This particular invention was developed by a high-speed ambulance service, and allowing patients to be transported without shock or discomfort, such as might be experienced of the automobile [if it] were driven over bad roads. The machine is fastened into the fuselage of the plane.
This machine is reminiscent of the aero-limousine which was exhibited at the Aviation Show in New York some years ago. This arrangement possesses the added advantage that the automobile may be driven out of the fuselage used separately from the plane in any way desired. The perfection of this invention should prove of military use.
Local governments across the country were scrambling to figure out how keep pace with (or often restrict) the burgeoning car culture that was erupting. It’s sometimes hard to imagine what the world looked like before the development of our modern highway system. In the year 1919, future President Eisenhower (then just a lieutenant colonel) participated in a drive across the United States from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco called the Transcontinental Motor Convoy. This caravan of 80 vehicles by the U.S. Army had the goal of demonstrating how vital a modern transportation infrastructure was to U.S. forces in the event of any future war. The journey took 62 days and Eisenhower would later describe the roads they used as ranging from “average to non-existent.”
Eisenhower, of course, would be instrumental in developing America’s modern highway system in the mid-1950s. But long before these highways would crisscross the United States some people found hope in the aerial technologies which might make transportation that much easier.