December 5, 2012
Maybe you’ve heard the internet meme-ish question: would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses. Well, I’ve got a new one for you: would your rather own a kitty-cat sized-rhino or a rhino-sized kitty-cat? Because children of the 1980s were told that in the future they might just get such a choice.
The 1982 book The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog imagined what the world of genetic engineering might mean to the people, plants and animals of the 21st century. The book presented genetic engineering as a natural progression in the course of human history, pointing out that people have been messing with plants and animals for thousands of years in an effort to produce more disease-resistant crops and heartier livestock. The book explains that until relatively recently “it has been possible to cross only species that are very similar. For instance, a mare and a donkey can be crossbred to get a mule, but the reproductive cells of a horse and a dog will not unite.” But apparently some time in the near future (when scientists finally get their act together), humans will know the majesty that is a horse/dog hybrid.
In some ways, various aspects of this new genetically engineered future have arrived. However, the battle over whether this is a good thing is still being fought — and rather viciously at that. Anti-GMO activists argue that genetically modified crops are essentially setting up the public as guinea pigs for giant agribusiness companies which are peddling technologies that risk public safety, while pro-GMO scientists argue that there is broad consensus within the scientific community that genetically modified food is safe and entirely necessary in order to feed a planet where more and more mouths are arriving each day.
The book spelled out three different possible developments for our genetically engineered future: plant combos that increase farmland efficiency, plant/animal hybrids (apparently produced just because), and oil-eating bacteria which may be used to clean up oil spills:
• A Camato—a tomato plant with carrot roots. Plant combinations like this would make more efficient use of farmland.
• A Plantimal — a combination of plant and animal cells which might someday provide a new kind of food. Plantimals would grow by photosynthesis like plants, changing light and chemicals into food. But they would taste like meat.
• Oil-eating bacteria — tiny one-celled creatures which may someday help clean up oil spilled in the ocean. Other types of bacteria may extract valuable metals from mining wastes or from seawater. Still other “superbugs” may act as miniature factories, producing drugs, pesticides, and fertilizer.
The book goes on to say that in the future scientists may acquire new knowledge which will “enable them to design forms of life which are very different from any we know today.” Well, it’s the future… so where’s my mini-rhino?
November 1, 2012
There seems to be two occasions when people most enjoy making predictions: anniversaries (think the American Bicentennial, New Year’s, etc) and dates that include round numbers (any year ending in zero). Such was the case in 1950 when many people halfway through the 20th century enjoyed predicting what life would be like in the year 2000 — obviously the roundest numbered year of our modern age.
The January 1950 issue of Redbook magazine asked, “What will the world of 2000 A.D. be like? Will the machine replace man? How will our children and grandchildren spend their leisure? How, indeed, will they look?” The mag asked four experts — curiously all men, given that Redbook was and is a magazine aimed at women — about what the world may look like fifty years hence.
Aldous Huxley, author of the 1931 dystopian novel Brave New World, looked at working life in the year 2000. Specifically, how people might work in the home, in the laboratory, in the office, in the factory and on the farm.
Aldous Huxley began his article by describing the major challenges that would confront the world at the dawn of the 21st century. He predicted that the global population would swell to 3 billion people — a figure less than half of the 6.1 billion that would prove to be a reality by 2000.
During the next fifty years mankind will face three great problems: the problem of avoiding war; the problem of feeding and clothing a population of two and a quarter billions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three billions, and the problem of supplying these billions without ruining the planet’s irreplaceable resources.
Let us assume—and unhappily it is a large assumption—that the nations can agree to live in peace. In this event mankind will be free to devote all its energy and skill to the solution of its other major problems.
Huxley’s predictions for food production in the year 2000 are largely a call for the conservation of resources. He correctly points out that meat production can be far less efficient than using agricultural lands for crops. Moreover, he discusses the growing importance of synthetic materials (a reality we take for granted in so many ways today). His description of synthetics was incredibly prescient, if not very surprising, coming from a man whose most famous novel imagined a high-tech world built on mass production.
By 2000, let us hope, the peoples of the world will have adopted a program to increase the planet’s output of food and other necessities, while conserving its resources. Because all available land will be needed for food production, concerted efforts will be made to derive all the fibers used for textiles from inorganic materials or vegetable wastes. Food crops will be cultivated on the land now devoted to cotton, flax, hemp and jute, and, since wool will no longer be used, the huge flocks of sheep which now menace Australian and North American watersheds will be greatly diminished. Because of the need to give overworked soil a rest and to extract the greatest possible number of calories from every acre under cultivation, meat production, which is fantastically wasteful of land, will be cut down, and increasing attention will be given to the products, vegetable no less than animal, of the ocean. Landlocked inlets, lakes, ponds and swamps will be scientifically farmed.
In many parts of the world forests are being recklessly destroyed. To conserve them we shall have to develop new types of synthetic building materials and new sources for paper. That the production of a comic supplement should entail the death of thousands of magnificent trees is a scandal which cannot much longer be tolerated.
How will individuals be affected by all this? For many farmers the changes will mean a shift from one kind of production to another. For many others they will entail a transfer to the chemical industry. For the chemical industry is bound to grow more important as world erosion compels us, for the sake of the land, to rely increasingly on synthetics derived from practically inexhaustible inorganic materials.
The world of 2000 A.D. was seen by many to be one of increased leisure. But Huxley sees that potential for better working conditions and increased standards of living as obtainable only through a sustained peace. These same predictions of a leisure-oriented society, by Huxley and others living mid-century, would inspire the push-button cliche later parodied in the 1962 TV show “The Jetsons.”
Perhaps Huxley’s most inaccurate prediction is his assumption that an increase in productivity will mean an increase in wages for the average worker. As we’ve seen over the last half a century, increased worker productivity has not led to a dramatic increase in wages.
That enormous technological advances will be recorded during the next fifty years is certain. But to the worker as a worker, such advances will not necessarily be of great significance. It makes very little difference to the textile worker whether the stuff he handles is the product of a worm, a plant, a mammal or a chemical laboratory. Work is work, and what matters to the worker is neither the product nor the technical process, but the pay, the hours, the attitude of the boss, the physical environment. To most office and factory workers in 2000 the application of nuclear fission to industry will mean very little. What they will care about is what their fathers and mothers care about today—improvement in the conditions of labor. Given peace, it should be possible, within the next fifty years, to improve working conditions very considerably. Better equipped, workers will produce more and therefore earn more. Meanwhile most of the hideous relics of the industrial Middle Ages will have been replaced by new factories, offices and homes. More and more factories and offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today. Decentralization may help to check that march toward the asylum, which is a threat to our civilization hardly less grave than that of erosion and A-bomb.
Huxley rightly predicts that the world would have to face the challenges that go along with having an aging population. Huxley himself would only live to see the year 1963, but he acknowledged what life would be like for young people reading his article.
If the finished product means little to the worker, it means much to the housewife. New synthetic building materials will be easier to keep clean. New solar heating systems will be cheaper and less messy. Electronics in the kitchen will greatly simplify the task of the cook. In a word, by 2000 the business of living should have become decidedly less arduous than it is at present. But, though less arduous, it will last on the average a good deal longer. In 2000 there will be more elderly people in the world than at any previous time. In many countries the citizens of sixty-five and over will outnumber the boys and girls of fifteen and under. Pensions and a pointless leisure offer no solution to the problems of an aging population. In 2000 the younger readers of this article, who will then be in their seventies, will probably be inhabiting a world in which the old are provided with opportunities for using their experience and remaining strength in ways satisfactory to themselves, and valuable to the community.
All in all, I’d say that Huxley’s predictions were fairly accurate in spirit. Like so many prominent people of mid-century, he fails to predict or consider the dramatic social changes that would occur which had a direct impact on the 21st century workforce. But his idea that “work is work” and people simply want to find the best work they can with the best conditions and pay seems to be a timeless observation.
What do you say? I’m by no means an expert on Huxley and would welcome the opinion of others who may be able to read between the lines and offer insight into his vision of the year 2000.
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 2, 2012
The March 1931 issue of The Country Gentleman magazine included this advertisement for Timken bearings. With the bold headline “100 YEARS AHEAD” the ad promises that the farmer of the future may be unrecognizable — thanks to Timken bearings, of course. Our farmer of tomorrow wears a suit to work and sits at a desk that looks oddly familiar to those of us here in the year 2012. We’ve looked at many different visions of early television, but this flat panel widescreen display really stands out as exceptionally visionary. Rather than toil in the field himself, the farmer of the future uses television (something more akin to CCTV than broadcast TV) and remote controls to direct his farm equipment.
Television technology wasn’t yet a practical reality in 1931, even though inventors had been making a go of it since 1880. But this high-tech vision of the future is even more astounding when you consider that when this advertisement ran the vast majority of farms didn’t even have electricity. In 1930, just 10.4 percent of the 6 million farms in the U.S. had electricity.
The ad tries not to position America’s agricultural advancements as merely things to come. This being Great Depression era advertising — where messages of reassurance are common — the ad copy makes sure to explain that American farmers are more technologically advanced than those of any other country in the world. But, of course, Timken bearings are the economical way to catapult you into a bold new agricultural future.
From the 1931 advertisement:
With science making such astonishing progress in all of its advanced branches, the above pictorial prediction may not be so far afield of the manner in which farming operations will actually be conducted 100 years hence… Operation of farm implements by means of television and remote electrical controls may then be more than merely an imaginary illustration… But even today, measured in terms of human progress, the American farmer is at least 100 years ahead of the rest of the world… In no other country under the sun will you find anywhere near 5,000,000 automobiles helping the farmer to a bigger and better life as you do in America… Over $2,500,000,000.00 worth of farm machinery — and radio valued at millions of dollars, are but a few of other factors that make American farm life profitable and pleasurable…Timken has both a direct and indirect bearing on practically everything you use or enjoy. For in the making of almost every important article, Timken Bearings play their part in keeping down costs… Your automobile, your telephone, your radios, your farm machinery are in countless cases fabricated with Timken Bearing equipped machinery… And after being economically manufactured with the aid of Timken, much of your power equipment, and an overwhelming majority of your automobiles and trucks have Timken Bearings. This is done so that your equipment will last longer — give more satisfactory service… Among the most important mechanical contributions of the last century are Timken Tapered Roller Bearings… With this advanced product all types of machinery enjoy friction freedom, which to you, the user, means longer life, lessened upkeep and reduced costs. If you would favor your pocketbook see that every piece of farm machinery that you purchase is Timken Bearing Equipped… The Timken Roller Bearing Company, Canton, Ohio.
If I hadn’t found it myself, I’d be extremely skeptical that this illustration was actually from 1931. That flat panel display is just too spot-on. For the sake of comparison, this was the American farmer of 1930:
March 9, 2012
We often associate food futurism with the concept of meal pills. But another popular prediction from the “freaky science” file of retro-futurism involved gigantic fruits and vegetables. (And not just Great Pumpkins, such as the ones that competitive growers are creating today.)
The December, 1900 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal featured a fascinating article titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. in which he predicts that super-sized crops would find their way to American dinner tables in the year 2000.
Strawberries as Large as Apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large. One will suffice for the fruit course of each person. Strawberries and cranberries will be grown upon tall bushes. Cranberries, gooseberries and currants will be as large as oranges. One cantaloup will supply an entire family. Melons, cherries, grapes, plums, apples, pears, peaches and all berries will be seedless. Figs will be cultivated over the entire United States.
Peas as Large as Beets. Peas and beans will be as larges as beets are today. Sugar cane will produce twice as much sugar as the sugar beet now does. Cane will once more be the chief source of our sugar supply.
Arthur Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” predicted gigantic food a few times during its run from 1958 until 1963.
The April 9, 1961 edition of “Closer Than We Think” envisioned a highly automated factory farm of the future and showed a laboratory technician hard at work injecting enormous tomatoes with what we can only guess is a synthetic growth hormone.
The January 28, 1962 edition of Radebaugh’s strip showed off the farm of the future with incredibly large ears of corn being loaded onto the back of a tractor (see image at top of page). I’m not even sure how one would go about eating corn on the cob that appears to be 8 feet long.
COLOSSAL CROPS — In addition to dire threats of destruction, the atomic age has also produced many brighter horizons for mankind’s future. One such happy prospect is the use of radiation to create more uniform and dependable crops that will end famine everywhere in the world.
Gamma ray fields now operating on the east coast point to a day when crops will grow to giant size, vastly enlarging yield per acre. These super-plants will be disease and insect resistant — more tender and tasty — and controllable as to ripening time. Seasonal vegetables like corn will be available fresh nearly everywhere for most of the year instead of only a month or so.
It’s interesting to note that opening line, “In addition to dire threats of destruction,” before the strip explains the wondrous advances in food technology that are in store. Too often we can romanticize past visions of the future, believing that people of a certain era were of one mind. It’s important to remember that even during the Golden Age of American Futurism, there was always the looming threat of nuclear war.