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How well did yesterday's futurists predict today?

Old issues of Popular Science foresaw rotary engines, bubble cities and hovercraft, not the truly revolutionary inventions.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, December 6, 1998


Page: 9A

Civilization has survived another orbit around the Sun, and with the crossing of the starting line we seem to feel compelled to prognosticate on wonderful things to happen in the next cycle. From highly paid futurists to the neighborhood psychic comes forth all manner of predictions. How accurate are they?

To look for at least a sense of the answer, I spent a couple of afternoons at the library, poring over old issues of "Popular Science", a magazine that graced my family's coffee table during my youth. This journal, with its mix of science, technology, automotive and home articles, probably shaped my direction in life as much as any other influence.

Many of the covers made long-quiescent neurons fire in my brain. Other images in my mind I could not find on paper but I remember them well--cities enclosed by bubbles and cars flying in the air.

In my trip back to the future I was struck by how many of the technology forecasts missed the mark. At the same time, those developments that were to become important were merely documented in progress. Others were overlooked almost entirely.

Automotive technology offers perhaps the best examples. The March 1960 cover story revealed the great new rotary engine--predicted to be the end of pistons. The story reappeared over the years, with the same byline. It got even worse: other engines proposed included pistons but had the entire engine assembly rotating. These guys had apparently forgotten the fundamental tenet of engineering: the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

Thirty-eight years later there is only one, niche-market sports car that uses the rotary design. However, there have been many developments that have made substantial improvements in cars. Cheap microelectronics have allowed electronic fuel injection to virtually replace the notorious carburetor—a device that has never worked well in spite of a century of kluges to its basic design. Electronic ignition has replaced the equally unreliable ignition points. Front wheel drive, disc brakes, reliable automatic transmissions, and abundant creature comforts round out a list of developments made the inglorious way: by engineers going to work every day and doing their job. No flashy front page stuff. Just results.

In the 60's the hovercraft was developed and there were soon predictions of grassed highways with self-guided cars floating on air. Where are they? And where are personal jet backpacks other than on the Jetsons?

Another 1960 article touted ‘80 Minutes Coast-to-Coast'. The supersonic transport would revolutionize flying. Not a single mention of what would prevent overland flight: the sonic boom traveling behind the plane, intersecting the ground in a parabolic wave of damage and annoyance. Whoops.

And, as far as metrobubbles, if you think Charlotte's air quality suffers now, imagine it contained under glass. Flying cars? Many drivers have trouble in two dimensions, much less three (they could fail to signal turns up and down, too).

Now, think of the many other things that have improved the quality and comfort of life, and you will find a list of inventions largely unforeseen. Personal computers, VCR's, faxes, cell phones, microwave ovens, frost-free refrigerators (and icemakers!), CD's (no more hiss and crackle!), digital clocks (and battery backup!). Satellite and cable TV, E-mail and the Internet. Color TVs so long lived that they had to invent digital TV to make you shop again. Camcorders that allow parents to take better quality video of il-lit high school games than TV stations could do a decade ago. Timepieces on your wrist more accurate than those at the National Bureau of Standards only a few decades ago.

It's fun to guess what might may come to pass, and I would never suggest we limit our dreams by their unlikely outcomes. But we should realize that much of research and development follows chaos theory: small changes can make dramatic differences in the future. Engineering is like evolution--slow and steady progress punctuated by important and quick developments.

In November, "Parade" magazine listed "Seven Products That Will Change The Way We Live". I doubt it. Handheld electronic organizers? I'll keep my DayTimer. Smart TVs? An oxymoron. Wireless services that deliver information? You're holding one now.

So, what is truly exciting about the New Year is that we don't know what it will bring. But after looking back, I think the one simple, sure prediction I can make is that there will be some neat things to come.

And, neither you nor I know what they'll be. Enjoy!

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