The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past

The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past

By: Gregory Benford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics
Publisher: Hearst Books
Publication Date: October 2010
ISBN: 978-1588168221
Reviewed by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: January 2011

This book is not science fiction. The novels of Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaFrom the Earth to the Moon, etc.) are sci-fi. Movies like Forbidden Planet (1956), with Robby the Robot, the Krell, and the id monster, are sci-fi. The Jetsons, the space-age family with their wonderful, labor-free house, is sci-fi. But Popular Mechanics is the real deal. It’s filled with real predictions by people who knew what they were talking about. What we need to understand, says Gregory Benford, is that predictions we find humorous in 2011, “grasped at least a portion of the future. … In the year 1900 everyone knew that technology drove their world and would drive the future even harder” (pg. 9). What we need to remember is the context of the predictions—the war years (both world wars) when inventions (and dreams) were vital to survival, the thirties and the fifties when optimism filled the air. In 1932, for example, the editors wrote this about progress:

There are those who feel our present difficulties are due to the problems which rapid progress has raised, but such developments are the sign posts of advancing civilization. From the laboratory will come the technical solutions to the problems that technology has created; achievement will find the way, and education will light the road to further progress. Will man continue to be fit to live in the new universe his brain is creating, or will he be crushed by his Frankenstein? It is self-evident that our souls must grow with science or die by science. We think and hope that man, who has been made by his tools, will continue to be their master (pg. 8).

And there you have it. Many people didn’t have indoor bathrooms or telephones or radios in 1932. Cars and airplanes were primitive by today’s standards. There was no email, no iPhones, no cable TV, no freeways in 1932. (And no one toppled into a pool in a mall while texting in 1932.) But they had confidence in the future. They realized that we could invent useful, practical new things that would make our lives easier. They didn’t predict precisely what we have today, but they saw the beginnings.

This is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking books you’ll read this year. The illustrations alone are worth the price—a bright red motor-sleigh that travels at 60 mph (1912), the most amazing foldable house you ever saw, with rooms that combine and a “swinging lounge” (1922), children sitting around an artificial sun absorbing ultraviolet rays to prevent their getting rickets (1925), a house whose air conditioning comes from a pool on the roof (1928), a magnificent multi-level city (1928), scientists wearing gas masks as they test the air (1932), bicycles encased in strong plastic to protect not just the cyclist’s head but his whole body (1933), a video telephone (1940), a woman hosing down the living room sofa (1950), tooth transplants (1966), and the works inside a wrist-watch that is also a total communication center (1968). And that’s not all. We used to see drawings in this style on the funny pages. It was imitated (and called Pop Art) by Roy Lichtenstein in the sixties. The illustrations in this book are beautiful and hilarious at the same time.

What did they say we could expect? The end of steel. Plastics stronger than glass. (Remember The Graduate?) Dining tables with place settings and flowers on them that fold into tea carts. Frozen dinners at home and frozen foods in the grocery store. The microwave, the air ambulance, domed stadiums, jet engines, television, “plug-in plastic organs,” and personal helicopters. And we have some of those things today, right? Well, they don’t look like the ones in the book, but the future is indeed here every day, and this book shows what else may come. And how it will work. And there’s a bonus: inside the dust jacket is a nifty poster.

Quill says: Guys in garages and kids in dorm rooms didn’t invent inventing. But they’re all carrying on the spirit of optimism that has driven American science for more than a century.

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