History Matters: Back to the Future

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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 <>.) 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.
Naysayers have an equally embarrassing legacy. A Western Union internal memo in 1876 dismissed the telephone as having “too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”
“The radio craze will die out in time,” the great Thomas Edison proclaimed in 1922. “Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine,” Rex Lambert wrote in Radio Times in 1936.
But it’s the fantastical future that has excited human imagination since at least the second century, when Assyrian satirist Lucian penned his interplanetary travel tale True History. Escaping the bounds of Earth continued to be a popular theme in works such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World (1656) and Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752). Focusing instead on planet Earth, Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) imagined the Pharaoh Cheops resurrected in a future of political chaos and technological marvels, such as houses that moved on rails.
Jules Verne was the first to develop “scientific romance” into a genre with works such as From the Earth to the Moon (1865), which uncannily foreshadowed the actual Apollo program: A “space gun” launches three astronauts from Florida to the moon. In Verne’s lesser-known Paris in the 20th Century (written in 1863), he describes what might be interpreted as automobiles, air conditioning, television and even the internet. Other Verne works envision helicopters, jukeboxes and, of course, the submarine in 1869’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
But the future wasn’t just fodder for fiction: Popular magazines loved to weigh in (and still do). In a 1900 Ladies’ Home Journal article, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years,” author John Elfreth Watkins Jr. presciently wrote of “hot and cold air from spigots.” He predicted “wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world,” while “ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today.” Other forecasts were a little off: Airships would fail to compete successfully with cars and ships for passengers and freight, but would find use in warfare. Store purchases would be delivered, “perhaps for hundreds of miles,” via pneumatic tubes. Strawberries would grow as large as apples, peas as big as beets. The letters C, X and Q would vanish from the alphabet.
Soon, motion pictures—themselves once just a pipe dream of futurists—joined in depicting the marvels just around the corner. The French silent film A Trip to the Moon (1902) was the first science-fiction flick. The Art Deco aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) became an archetype for many futures yet to come.
Metropolis was also the first film to feature an android, an essential element of many imagined futures. In 1872’s Erewhon (“nowhere” semi-backwards), Samuel Butler wrote of mechanical men who developed consciousness and supplanted humanity. But it wasn’t until Czech playwright Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1921 that artificial humans had a name: robot, derived from a Czech word for “slave.”
Typical of the glossy futures popular in the 1920s was an article Hugo Gernsback, who later founded the seminal science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories, wrote in 1925. Gernsback boldly predicted what the world would be like in 1975. Some of his ideas hit close to the mark: “movies by radio,” insulated buildings that would be comfortable year-round, a personal transportation system similar to a Segway. Others we’re still waiting for, such as teleportation by radio, “electrified crops” and airports on top of tall buildings.
Gernsback’s view of tomorrow was epitomized by the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which had the theme “Building The World of Tomorrow.” The fair’s anthem promised a “Dawn of a New Day,” and its gleaming Trylon and Perisphere seemed to point the way out of the Depression. (The fair also hosted the first World Science Fiction Convention.)
Tomorrowland, which opened at Disneyland in California in 1955, embodied postwar futurism—especially after its 1967 “World on the Move” makeover. As park visitors toured the Carousel of Progress, took an Adventure Thru Inner Space and a Flight to the Moon, and rode the PeopleMover, it was easy to imagine a tomorrow that truly promised jetpacks.
In 1962, “The Jetsons” cartoon debuted on TV, projecting a typical 1960s family’s life 100 years into the future. But the more things change, “The Jetsons” warned, the more they stay the same: Although George worked “full time” nine hours a week, his boss was a temperamental tyrant. Daughter Judy was boy-crazy, wife Jane was a shopaholic, and dog Astro’s most common expression was “Ruh-roh.”
As the real future took off, more Americans began to echo the panicky cry made famous by George Jetson: “Jane! Get me off this crazy thing!” Science fiction blossoms with every new technological development, and the internet opened up a whole new world of possibilities. But if you fear waking up one day to discover you’re in the Matrix or a Terminator is chasing you down, it’s worth remembering that the future is never quite as futuristic as we imagine.
Futurists predicted these momentous occasions:
1973: Milo, first intelligent ape, is born (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, 1971)
1984: Thought Police arrest Winston Smith (1984, 1948)
circa 1994: Books are banned (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)
1997: Skynet becomes self-aware (Terminator, 1984)
2000: Humans marry robots (Washington Post, 1982)
2012: Mayan Calendar ends; so does the world (2012, 2009)
2062: The Jetsons move into the Skypad Apartments in Orbit City (“The Jetsons,” 1962)
2265: USS Enterprise begins mission to go where no man has gone before (“Star Trek,” 1966)
Fun Facts
  • In 1924, WWI pilot Eddie Rickenbacker predicted flying automobiles with folding wings would soon be in every driveway.
  • Henry Ford imagined a future where a man would press a button by his bed and find himself “automatically clad, fed, exercised, amused and put to bed again.”
  • A group of futurists in 1893 predicted America’s greatest city would be Chicago, although no city would be more “beautiful and extensive than Salt Lake City.”
  • Murray Leinster foreshadowed the internet in a 1946 short story, “A Logic Named Joe,” in which every home had a computer terminal called a “logic.”

From the August 2010 Family Tree Magazine