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History Matters: Back to the Future
5/24/2010
Innovations and trends that shaped your ancestors’ lives. In this issue: the future.
This year marks the 50th birthday of the laser, one of the rare notions of science fiction writers that actually came true (though “death ray” would have been a much cooler name). Indeed, when inventor Theodore Maiman and his employer, Hughes Research Laboratories, unveiled the first laser at a 1960 press conference, what reporters really wanted to know was whether this beam of ruby-colored light could be used as a “death ray weapon.” Maiman said there was “no present indication” that his invention could be used that way, but noted that the laser’s heat exceeded that of the center of the sun. (Four years later, James Bond would narrowly escape being lasered in half in Goldfinger.)
 
Our ancestors’ visions of the future are more typically characterized by the lament in the name of a Scottish rock band, We Were Promised Jetpacks. History is littered with ideas of personal jetpacks, flying cars, robot butlers and space vacations. (The Paleo-Future Blog commemorates these humorous predictions at <www.paleofuture.com>.) Today, some seem quaint or silly, such as the 1932 prediction that animal parts, such as chicken breasts, would one day be grown individually, with no need to raise an entire animal. Other failed predictions proved more tragic, such as Marie Curie’s 1904 boast that radiation could prolong life; she died from overexposure in 1934.
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