February 29, 2012
The February 8, 1952 Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS) ran a piece from Henry C. Nicholas titled “Cheer Up! World Will Be Wonderful Fifty Years From Now!” Nicholas reports on the International Congress of Astronautics in London and the convention of the American Chemical Society in New York, saying that the predictions described in the article are not those of imaginative writers of science fiction, but rather the “sober conclusions of our greatest scientists, including many of our most famous Nobel laureates.”
This style of laying out fantastical advances of the future and proclaiming that they represent the conservative opinion of incredibly smart people is one of the most popular formulas of non-fiction futurism writing, dating back at least to John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. and his article for the December, 1900 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” And this 1952 article is a terrific example of the techno-utopian thinking that so many people today consider the Golden Age of Futurism.
There will not be another world war during this century. The next 50 years will witness an amazing increase in wealth and prosperity, with a continuous rise in the world standard of living. The threat of world overpopulation will disappear with ample space for everyone, thus removing one of the long existing causes for wars and revolutions.
By the year 2000 cures for most of the diseases of man will have been discovered. The average age will be about 100 years. Journeys through space in rocket ships will be an established form of transportation, with regularly scheduled trips to the various planets. A number of man-made moons will be circling around the earth.
The article quotes Dr. James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University, about the future of atomic war. Interestingly, the article claims that atomic energy will have proved a failure, making way for solar energy as an “inexhaustible source of new power.” This hope for the future of solar power actually wasn’t a new idea, as similar predictions were made during WWII about the prevalence of solar power after the war (should the world continue to exist at all).
An atomic world war was averted in the 1950s, though by the “narrowest of margins,” according to Dr. James Bryant Conant, world famous chemist and president of Harvard.
The Communist world and its opponents, which then controlled most of the world, became somewhat mellowed by “time and local conditions” and the startling new revelations of the mysteries of the universe.
Atomic energy had been a disappointment, both as a destructive weapon of war and its constructive peacetime development. In the 1970s atomic energy was replaced by solar energy as an inexhaustible source of new power.
With this development, which was fully established by 1985, the world at last realized its age-old dream of lifting most of its labor from the backs of man.
Dr. Adolph Butenandt of Germany and other Nobel laureates from Sweden, Finland, England, France and America, were in agreement with Dr. Conant that solar energy would revolutionize the world through supplying man with an inexhaustible and previously largely untapped source of cheap power.
The amount of such cheap power available to the world in the year 2000 will be beyond comprehension. The amount of sunshine energy, which yearly falls on only a few acres of land, when converted into man-made power was sufficient to supply enough electricity for a city of a million inhabitants.
The article also quotes Artturi Virtanen, a 1945 Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry. According to the piece, in the year 2000 the sea will be explored and exploited for its untapped resources, and the world’s food supply will increase 50 times over.
Fifty years from now the world will be able to increase its food supply 50 times over. This increased production will come largely from enhancing the efficiency with which plants use sunlight to make sugar from water and carbon dioxide.
Fishing will not be the only crop obtained from the sea. There is more wealth in any square mile of the sea than there is in any square mile of land.
With the abundant and almost costless power of solar energy it will be possible to mine the minerals and harvest the green growth that teems in the ocean. Fresh water will be obtained from the ocean and great deserts that are near the sea, like the Sahara in Africa, will become garden spots.
Birth control is seen as the answer to the world’s population crisis, as the article predicts that religious leaders will become more comfortable with the idea of birth control.
There will be no danger of world overpopulation. The size of families and nations will be regulated at will. The world population will controlled through improved birth control methods, with cheap, harmless and temporarily effective anti-fertility compounds added as one saw fit to the diet. This will remove one of the greatest dangers to world peace since the dawn of civilization.
The attitude of religious leaders regarding birth control, say these scientists, will slowly change “without any diminution of religious feeling.”
There was general agreement among the scientist gazing into their crystal balls that space travel will be an established means of transportation well before the year 2000.
Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was the chief developer of the V-2 rocket for Hitler and who is now working on guided missiles for the United States, said that most of the problems of space navigation will have been solved during the 1950s.
The first step toward true space navigation were earth moons — man-made satellites high in the earth’s atmosphere. Persons stationed on these earth moons continuously circulating around the world, will be able to observe and report any unusual activity that threatens peace on earth.
Supported against the earth’s gravitational pull by the centrifugal force of its rapid motion, only moderate power will be needed to launch space ships from these satellites which possess no atmosphere.
While the world will be changed beyond recognition in the year 2000, say these scientists, man will remain much the strange and unpredictable creature he is today. There will still be many bemoaning the passing of the “good old days.”
(The 1955 illustration above by Frank R. Paul was found in the wonderful book Driving Through Futures Past by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, CA.)
January 25, 2012
As I noted last week, the term “wireless telephone” in the early 1920s didn’t necessarily mean a device that could both transmit and receive messages. In fact, most radio devices during this time were simply either a transmitter or a receiver. However, some inventors were having a lot of fun tinkering with what was essentially walkie-talkie technology, in that they were developing transceivers — devices that could both transmit and receive radio messages. An article in the March 21, 1920 Sandusky Register in Sandusky, Ohio retold the story of a man in Philadelphia named W. W. Macfarlane who was experimenting with his own “wireless telephone.” With a chauffeur driving him as he sat in the back seat of his moving car he amazed a reporter from The Electrical Experimenter magazine by talking to Mrs. Macfarlane, who sat in their garage 500 yards down the road.
A man with a box slung over his shoulder and holding in one hand three pieces of stove pipe placed side by side on a board climbed into an automobile on East Country Road, Elkins Park, Pa.
As he settled in the machine he picked up a telephone transmitter, set on a short handle, and said:
“We are going to run down the road. Can you hear me?”
Other passengers in the automobile, all wearing telephone receivers, heard a woman’s voice answering: “Yes, perfectly. Where are you?”
By this time the machine was several hundred yards down the road and the voice in the garage was distinctly heard.
This was one of the incidents in the first demonstration of the portable wireless telephone outfit invented by W. W. Macfarlane, of Philadelphia, as described by the Electrical Experimenter.
Mrs. Macfarlane, sitting in the garage back of the Macfarlane home, was talking through the wireless telephone to her husband, seated comfortably in a moving automobile 500 yards away.
The occupants of the car were a chauffeur, a reporter and a photographer. All wore the telephone receivers and could hear everything Mrs Macfarlane was saying. The chauffeur had no other apparatus than the receiver with the usual telephone cord attached to a metal clip to his steering wheel.
Lying beside Mr. Macfarlane was the foot-square box, the only “secret” in the whole demonstration. What is in the box is the inventor’s mystery. This box weighs about twelve pounds. The other machinery used consisted only of the usual telephone transmitter and receivers and the three pieces of stove pipe standing erect on a plain piece of board. This forms the aerial of the apparatus.
As the article notes, this story was first reported in an issue of Hugo Gernsback’s magazine The Electrical Experimenter. Gernsback was an important popular figure in the development of radio and in 1909 opened the world’s first store specializing in radios at 69 West Broadway in New York. The reporter from the Experimenter asked Macfarlane if his device, which he said cost about $15 to make (about $160 adjusted for inflation), had any practical uses in the future. Macfarlane instead looks backward and wonders how it might have shaped World War I, which ended less than two years before.
“If this could have been ready for us in the war, think of the value it would have had. A whole regiment equipped with the telephone receivers, with only their rifles as aerials, could advance a mile and each would be instantly in touch with the commanding officer. No runners would be needed. There could be no such thing as a ‘lost battallion.’”
December 5, 2011
On November 13, 1946 pilot Curtis Talbot, working for the General Electric Research Laboratory, climbed to an altitude of 14,000 feet about 30 miles east of Schenectady, New York. Talbot, along with scientist Dr. Vincent J. Schaefer, released three pounds of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) into the clouds. As they turned south, Dr. Schaefer noted, “I looked toward the rear and was thrilled to see long streamers of snow falling from the base of the cloud through which we had just passed. I shouted to Curt to swing around, and as we did so we passed through a mass of glistening snow crystals! Needless to say, we were quite excited.” They had created the world’s first human-made snowstorm.
After the experiments of G.E.’s Research Laboratory, there was a feeling that humanity might finally be able to control one of the greatest variables of life on earth. And, as Cold War tensions heightened, weather control was seen by the United States as a potential weapon that could be even more devastating than nuclear warfare.
In August of 1953 the United States formed the President’s Advisory Committee on Weather Control. Its stated purpose was to determine the effectiveness of weather modification procedures and the extent to which the government should engage in such activities. Methods that were envisioned by both American and Soviet scientists—and openly discussed in the media during the mid-1950s— included using colored pigments on the polar ice caps to melt them and unleash devastating floods, releasing large quantities of dust into the stratosphere creating precipitation on demand, and even building a dam fitted with thousands of nuclear powered pumps across the Bering Straits. This dam, envisioned by a Russian engineer named Arkady Borisovich Markin would redirect the waters of the Pacific Ocean, which would theoretically raise temperatures in cities like New York and London. Markin’s stated purpose was to “relieve the severe cold of the northern hemisphere” but American scientists worried about such weather control as a means to cause flooding.
The December 11, 1950 Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, WV) ran a short article quoting Dr. Irving Langmuir, who had worked with Dr. Vincent J. Schaefer during those early experiments conducted for the G.E. Research Laboratory:
“Rainmaking” or weather control can be as powerful a war weapon as the atom bomb, a Nobel prize winning physicist said today.
Dr. Irving Langmuir, pioneer in “rainmaking,” said the government should seize on the phenomenon of weather control as it did on atomic energy when Albert Einstein told the late President Roosevelt in 1939 of the potential power of an atom-splitting weapon.
“In the amount of energy liberated, the effect of 30 milligrams of silver iodide [used to seed clouds] under optimum conditions equals that of one atomic bomb,” Langmuir said.
In 1953 Captain Howard T. Orville was chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Weather Control. Captain Orville was quoted widely in American newspapers and popular magazines about how the United States might use this control of the skies to its advantage. The May 28, 1954 cover of Collier’s magazine showed a man quite literally changing the seasons by a system of levers and push buttons. As the article noted, in an age of atomic weapons and supersonic flight, anything seemed possible for the latter half of the 20th century. The cover story was written by Captain Orville.
A weather station in southeast Texas spots a threatening cloud formation moving toward Waco on its radar screen; the shape of the cloud indicates a tornado may be building up. An urgent warning is sent to Weather Control Headquarters. Back comes an order for aircraft to dissipate the cloud. And less than an hour after the incipient tornado was first sighted, the aircraft radios back: Mission accomplished. The storm was broken up; there was no loss of life, no property damage.
This hypothetical destruction of a tornado in its infancy may sound fantastic today, but it could well become a reality within 40 years. In this age of the H-bomb and supersonic flight, it is quite possible that science will find ways not only to dissipate incipient tornadoes and hurricanes, but to influence all our weather to a degree that staggers the imagination.
Indeed, if investigation of weather control receives the public support and funds for research which its importance merits, we may be able eventually to make weather almost to order.
An Associated Press article by science reporter Frank Carey, which ran in the July 6, 1954 edition of Minnesota’s Brainerd Daily Dispatch, sought to explain why weather control would offer a unique strategic advantage to the United States:
It may someday be possible to cause torrents of rain over Russia by seeding clouds moving toward the Soviet Union.
Or it may be possible — if an opposite effect is desired — to cause destructive droughts which dry up food crops by “overseeding” those same clouds.
And fortunately for the United States, Russia could do little to retaliate because most weather moves from west to east.
Dr. Edward Teller, the “father of the H-bomb” testified in 1958 in front of the Senate Military Preparedness Subcommittee that he was “more confident of getting to the moon than changing the weather, but the latter is a possibility. I would not be surprised if [the Soviets] accomplished it in five years or failed to do it in the next 50.” In a January 1, 1958, article in the Pasadena Star-News Captain Orville warned that “if an unfriendly nation solves the problem of weather control and gets into the position to control the large-scale weather patterns before we can, the results could be even more disastrous than nuclear warfare.”
The May 25, 1958, issue of The American Weekly ran an article by Frances Leighton using information from Captain Howard T. Orville. The article, in no uncertain terms, described a race to see who would control the earth’s thermometers. The illustration that ran with the piece pictured an ominous looking satellite which could “focus sunlight to melt the ice in frozen harbors or thaw frosted crops — or scorch enemy cities.”
Behind the scenes, while statesmen argue policies and engineers build space satellites, other men are working day and night. They are quiet men, so little known to the public that the magnitude of their job, when you first hear of it, staggers the imagination. Their object is to control the weather and change the face of the world.
Some of these men are Americans. Others are Russians. The first skirmishes of an undeclared cold war between them already have been fought. Unless a peace is achieved the war’s end will determine whether Russia or the United States rules the earth’s thermometers.
Efforts to control the weather, however, would find skeptics in the U.S. National Research Council, which published a 1964 report:
We conclude that the initiation of large-scale operational weather modification programs would be premature. Many fundamental problems must be answered first….We believe that the patient investigation of atmospheric processes coupled with an exploration of the technical applications may eventually lead to useful weather modification, but we emphasize that the time-scale required for success may be measured in decades.
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 9, 2011
American futurism of the 1950s wasn’t filled with just flying cars and jetpacks. There was also an overwhelming fear that nuclear war could break out between the United States and the Soviet Union. The August 21, 1953 issue of Collier’s magazine included an article by U.S. Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson titled “Panic: The Ultimate Weapon?”
Blaring fake headlines—such as “A-BOMB DESTROYS DOWNTOWN BUFFALO 40,000 KILLED” and “203,000 KILLED AS A-BOMB HITS BRONX; COUNTY IS RUSHING AID” and “35,000 KILLED AS A-BOMB HITS CLINTON SQ.”—the article counsels readers that something catastrophic is bound to happen, but when it does you must keep your wits about you for the good of your country.
With a heavy focus on the problems presented by widespread panic, Peterson’s article is a horrifying glimpse at a futuristic world of death and destruction; inescapable, even from Main Street, U.S.A.:
You have just lived through the most terrifying experience of your life. An enemy A-bomb has burst 2,000 feet above Main Street. Everything around you that was familiar has vanished or changed. The heart of your community is a smoke-filled desolation rimmed by fires. Your own street is a clutter of rubble and collapsed buildings. Trapped in the ruins are the dead and wounded — people you know, people close to you. Around you, other survivors are gathering, dazed, grief-stricken, frantic, bewildered.
What will you do — not later, but right then and there? On your actions may depend not only your life and the lives of countless others, but your country’s victory or defeat, and the survival of everything you hold dear.
Ninety per cent of all emergency measures after an atomic blast will depend on the prevention of panic among the survivors in the first 90 seconds. Like the A-bomb, panic is fissionable. It can produce a chain reaction more deeply destructive than any explosive known.
If there is an ultimate weapon, it may well be mass panic. Mass panic — not the A-bomb — may well be the easiest way to win a battle, the cheapest way to win a war. That’s why military leaders so strongly emphasize individual and group discipline. At the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., a small force of Athenians routed the powerful Persian army — after it panicked. In our own Civil War many battles were decided when inexperienced troops suddenly broke and fled. Hitler, in 1938, created a special staff to cope with this invisible but ever-threatening sixth column. In 1940, the shock wave of panic caused by Nazi Panzer blows and fifth column activities hastened the collapse of France.
War is no longer confined to the battlefield. Every city is a potential battleground, every citizen a target. There are no safe areas. Panic on Main Street can be as decisive as panic in the front lines. Just as a single match can burn a dry forest, so a trivial incident can set off a monstrous disaster when the confusion and uneasiness of the population have reached tinder point.
“Every city is a potential battleground, every citizen a target. There are no safe areas.” There’s something about reading the bleak assessment of a government official charged with protecting the United States against nuclear attack that helps put all of the fear and paranoia of the Cold War into context. It’s hard not to think that the world is going to end when the government is quite literally telling you that you’re a target and nowhere is safe.
The piece even offers a more geographically specific, “Preview of Disaster in Manhattan.” It was surprisingly common for Collier’s to imagine the destruction of New York City in the early 1950s. Just three years before this article was published, famed illustrator Chesley Bonestell did a cover for the August 5, 1950 issue of Collier’s with a gigantic mushroom cloud over Manhattan — the words, “HIROSHIMA, U.S.A.: Can Anything Be Done About It?” asking readers to consider the complete destruction of America’s largest city. Peterson’s 1953 article even makes comparisons to Hiroshima and how such a scenario might play out in New York City. For the October 27 1951 issue of Collier’s, Bonestell again illustrated what a hydrogen bomb would look like over lower Manhattan. This time, however, he included bombs over Moscow and Washington, D.C.— but decimated New York was certainly a perennial favorite of Collier’s.
Peterson offers a vivid description of what might happen if a post-atomic bomb panic were to strike New York City :
Most strategic targets in the United States lie in heavily populated areas. The industrial and business centers of such cities are crowded by day and in some metropolitan areas only staggered lunch hours and working periods permit the orderly evacuation of buildings. If all the office buildings in the downtown financial district of Manhattan were emptied suddenly, as in a panic, some people estimate the narrow streets would be several feet deep in humanity.
Suppose such an emergency were compounded by enemy-inspired rumors. Word of possible safety in Battery Park could bring such a concentration of people to the tip of Manhattan Island that thousands would be pushed into the harbor to drown. At Hiroshima, 1,600 died when they took refuge in a park along the river and were forced into the water by new thousands crowding into the area.
The consequences of an uncontrolled mass stampede from such a population center as Manhattan are almost incalculable. Even if the four underwater traffic tunnels and the six major bridges leading from the island were left undamaged by an attack, disorganized traffic could soon bottle many of the avenues of escape. Those who did succeed in fleeing the island would pour into adjacent areas to become a hungry, pillaging mob — disrupting disaster relief, overwhelming local police and spreading panic in a widening arc. True, New York City presents a civil defense problem of unusual dimensions, but similar hazards face every city in the land under possible attack.
The article included a huge self test to determine how “panic-proof” you are. On a scale of “I’m not bothered” to “I blow up” the test asked things like how you feel when you’re alone and your doorbell and telephone ring simultaneously or how you feel when you see a picture of bodies after a fatal accident.
This test reads like it was designed by an insane guidance counselor. Question four says to “set an alarm clock ringing continuously on a table near you. Then count the crosses in the circle (right) without using a pencil to assist you.”
The piece also included a handy guide called “Panic Stoppers: How to keep from being a victim of panic.” Citizens are encouraged to buy a battery-powered AM radio, keep a three-day emergency supply of food and water, and even build a home bomb shelter. It’s quite interesting that one of the first tips is encouraging people to insulate themselves against panic by learning about “the enemy’s weapons – A-bombs, germ and gas warfare, sabotage and rumor war.”