August 6th, 2011

krazy koati

The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades

OK, I have to talk about my Current Reading a moment, The Wonderful Future That Never Was, showing the many, many, many hilariously wrong stories about how You Will Live In The Future from the pages of Popular Mechanics. Never mind the faintly threatening tint behind many predictions (``a man will be loyal to his employer because he makes this [ Democra-City] possible''; ``is the standardization of life to be deplored if we can have a standardized helicopter, luxurious standardized household appointments, and food that was out of the reach of any Roman Emperor?'') or whether the people making them believed the predictions for a second, or the ones that maybe wouldn't have been laughable if something had broken differently (eg, rocket-mail might have had an application equivalent to balloon mail from the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, at least). Some of these the question is, did the writers even read their own copy? Here, from 1952:

The time is coming when mankind will have to reconstruct the solar system. Fred Zwicky, professor of astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, says that we may have to rearrange the planets and in some cases rebuild them to fulfill our future requirements for living in space.

Not even Mars could be colonized on a large scale at present because it lacks a suitable atmosphere. It may pay to send Mars off on a tangent past some other planet to draw off atmosphere and then return the red planet to its present orbit.

To make one of the large outer planets habitable would be an even more tremendous task. The planet would have to be broken apart or shrunk to about the size of earth to provide a comfortable surface gravity. It would have to be endowed with a useful atmosphere. Finally, it would have to be moved closer to the sun, at about earth's orbit, where it could absorb enough solar radiation for our needs.

These are fantastic ideas, but are they absurd? Not necessarily, Professor Zwicky believes. He points out that [My note: Wait for it...] unlimited power will be available when nuclear fusion is achieved and that no fundamental principle seems to stand in the way of using nuclear fusion on a large scale.

UN-altered reproduction and dissemination of this IMPORTANT information, I venture to say, is ENCOURAGED.

I know it can be hard calling the hopelessly ridiculous ideas from the salvageable ones ahead of time, eg, the 1966 prediction of computers performing medical diagnoses (they are, at least in experimental runs, at least as good as experts in diagnosing heart attacks from electrocardiograms), or building a seabed-level airport off Chicago by building levees to keep Lake Michigan out (is that fundamentally more ridiculous than Schiphol?), or using microwave ovens to cook instead of just warm stuff up; but, I mean, housewives who clean by taking a garden hose to the house because everything in it is waterproof and there's a drain in the floor? It's a living room, not an abattoir. And (back to Democra-City) ``There will only be a small fire-fighting force because our city will be fireproof and because you will be able to extinguish flames by pushing a button that controls an acid-shooting apparatus''? Are you trying to send popcorn shooting out the Noses of Tomorrow? Honestly, even if fire-retardant foam is acidic --- I dunno, maybe it is --- nobody using it is interested in its pH. Why would its acidity even come up?

I'm just picturing the scene now in the 1989 Of Tomorrow: ``Look, Vernon! Alvin! There's a trash fire! Swiftly, press the button controlling a small acid-shooting apparatus!''

Trivia: To celebrate the 1858 completion of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph Chicago fired a hundred guns; Portland, Maine, rang bells; and Cincinnati temporarily suspended all business on the mercantile exchange. Source: Wondrous Contrivances: Technology At The Threshold, Merritt Ierley. [ Yes, that's the cable that never worked well and failed entirely a month later. ]

Currently Reading: The Wonderful Future That Never Was, Gregory Benford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics, who are happy in this month's issue to explain how ordinary people will be buying spaceflights to the Moon by 2015.