Fast forward 40 or so years… we don’t quite have cities in space or robots that make your bed but we do have access to a multitude of technological advances that would’ve dropped many a scientist’s jaw back in the early and mid 20th century. For example, who would’ve dreamed that in the 21st century, people could, via online social networks, instantly let thousands of friends know what they had for lunch, what the person next to them on the subway smells like, or how many virtual pigs they need for their virtual farm!
“We cannot have a future that we do not first imagine. Historians often convey the impression that the past, since it is now fixed, was a neat, cut-and-dry time. This mistake makes the present seem messy. The past is a far country, but the distance should not confuse us about its turbulent nature. This book shows some of the brilliant projections and clear misses of the twentieth century. The twenty-first will be similarly confused…”
First, let’s start with some predictions that, amazingly, were spot on:
• From an issue of Popular Mechanics from way back in 1954—“General Electric scientists predict your TV-picture screen in 1964 may be so thin that it can be hung like a painting on the wall or mounted like a vanity mirror in a table model.” Can anyone say LCD?
• In 1967, it was predicted that the homes of the future would have computers that could control the temperature, set clocks, and tabulate home bills.
• In 1929, it was predicted that “soon slacks, dresses, and other apparel will be woven of fibers derived from the casein in America’s skim milk surplus”—and during WWII, the use of casein fibers in the production of clothing did indeed help to conserve wool during the war.
• Pocket calculators, which were first developed in 1970, were predicted in Popular Mechanics in 1962: “Businessmen may soon be able to carry computers around in their pockets to make lightning-fast calculations while away from their desks or offices.”
• In 1967, some genius, in essence, predicted GPS: “Mapless driving? Yep, and here’s how it would work: at the start of a trip a driver hops in his car and dials a code number representing his destination. The number is read by route guidance equipment inside his car. The equipment automatically transmits the code to key roadside equipment, which then transmits—either by voice or visual display in the car—routing instructions to the driver.”
And here are just a few of the many wildly visionary predictions that didn’t quite come to fruition:
• In 1935, famous futurist Robert W. Babson predicted that “within twenty years, more than half the population of the United States will be living in automobile trailers!”
• A great one from 1957—“In AD 2000, our comfort environment will be so well controlled that we will be able to keep the atmosphere at the ideal level for the happiest, most energetic, productive life. Houses will be kept so clean by electronic dust and dirt traps that housecleaning will never be necessary. Dining-room tables will quietly swallow dishes after a meal and transfer them to a dishwasher which will clean the dishes, dispose of garbage, stack and store eating utensils until the next mealtime.”
• And this one from 1940—“Ordinary grass gives promise of providing low-income families diets more abundant in vitamins than are now enjoyed by the wealthy. Housewives soon may add nourishing powdered grass to recipes.”
• One from way back in 1928—“In a few generations, almost all persons will have brown eyes, a London specialist predicts. He bases his theory on the fact that brown eyes are better adapted to strong lights than blue, and that nature will therefore produce a brown-colored iris in the eyes of people who habitually face the strong illumination of artificial lights.”
• From 1957—“A Honeywell engineer predicts that by AD 2000 roads and streets will be replaced by a network of pneumatic tubes. Family vehicles will need only a small amount of mobile power, since they will only have to get from the owner’s home to a nearby tube… pneumatic pockets will completely eliminate the possibility of crashes.”
• A prediction from 1959 stated that Russian astronauts would be the first to walk on the moon. “I am certain in my own mind that the first spaceship will land on the moon within five years. And the way things are going at present, the men who emerge to put the first footprints into the lunar dust will not be Americans.”
I can’t adequately put into words how much I love—and will cherish—this book. It’s literally a glimpse into the hopes and dreams of our parents and grandparents, and the unbridled optimism they had about their future. The beginning of a selected 1940 article says it all: “A better world than we have ever known can and will be built…”
Obviously, this book will not only appeal to the millions of people who subscribe to Popular Mechanics but also anyone remotely interested in the technological advancement of our civilization. Science fiction fans, in particular, should seek out this book. And if you’re wondering what to get that hard-to-shop-for senior citizen, keep this release in mind—I let my 75-year old father look through it a few days ago and I literally had to pull it from his hands. The articles features within were published when he was young so I think, for him, it was like an illustrated walk down memory lane…
After finishing The Wonderful Future That Never Was, I was reminded—yet again—just how important science fiction is to our society. It allows writers and readers to explore the limitless potentials of our future. It allows us to dream, and by dreaming, change our world. Benford’s statement in the book’s introduction is fitting: “We cannot have a future that we do not first imagine.”
So even though many of these predictions never came true—who cares?—I applaud all of those forward-thinkers who had the courage and the vision to imagine a possible future.
Bottom line: This book will enthrall all of those who pick it up. Steam powered jet-pack not included.
If you had to predict one specific innovation or scientific breakthrough say, for those living humans in 2050, what would it be?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.