Friday, February 03, 2006UPDATE: I just discovered an interesting essay on the same 1950 Popular Mechanics article at Analog SF Online: "One Crystal Ball, Slightly Used."
Sometime this weekend, take a moment and mosey on over to a cool site I recently discovered, HepcatWilly's. It's one of a few sites I'd like to tell you about in the near future that are jam-packed with retro treasures, like out of print Space-Age exotica and obscure jazz albums. It's the kind of website that represents one of the most endearing aspects of the Internet: amateur preservation (in the sheer "for the love of it" sense) of the past for fellow aficionados. If not for fans like these the music, memories, and images of yesteryear would soon be relegated to trash heaps, antique shops, dusty attics and online auctions.
I wanted to specially note one item at HepcatWilly's that caught my eye. It's a scanned 1950 Popular Mechanics article by New York Times science editor Waldemar Kaempffert, "Miracles You'll See In The Next 50 Years." Essentially, it's one of those futurist pieces that combines then-current scientific breakthroughs with popular trends and tries to extrapolate them into a vision of the future - usually with mixed results more shaped by wishful thinking and current social presumptions than the true unknown. After all, we're only human.
Although the predictions aren't all the overblown "hovercraft in every garage" variety, the article illustrates clearly that even if technology did develop in unimaginable directions, mainstream 1950's America had little clue of globalization and the international trends that would shape our lives even more profoundly than industrial miracles.
Practical concerns of that age differed from our own, as well. Save for some mention of solar and nuclear power, and alcohol-powered automobiles, scarcity of resources and the global need for conservation didn't seem to be an issue. In 1950, meltable plastic dishes you could flush down the drain with superheated water seemed an ideal solution for harried housewives. Today, we'd balk at the energy needed both to make the plastic and heat the boiling water, and the need for fresh water - not to mention wariness regarding food coming in contact with plasticizers needed to make low-melting-point resins. Today's better solution might be biodegradable dishes you'd toss in a compost heap.
The Popular Mechanics article augurs:
- Disposable plastic dishware; but incorrectly predicts they would be made of fusible vegetable waste we'd flush down the drain with superheated water. The problem is, as soon as the melted mass cooled to room temperature you'd have one helluva of a clog. That's where the robot plumbers come in, I suppose. Why not just make compostable plates?
- Fresh food will be a thing of the past, and most edibles will be stored as frozen bricks, or synthesized from waste like sawdust and recycled plastics.
- Instead of dusting and vacuuming, the author predicts in the year 2000 housewives will don rubber suits to hose down their homes from floor to ceiling - because everything, yes, everything - will be made of waterproof materials. Note that it's still the housewives doing the hosing. You'd think if technology advanced this far, we'd be capable of building cleaning hoses right into the walls and ceilings, like live-in dishwashers? But noooooo....instead of equal-opportunity push-button convenience, we still need housewives in rubber to do the dirty work.
- There's a cheery illustration of a man eating "processed sawdust cake." Perhaps sawdust cake is fitting wifely revenge (served dry) for being relegated to house-hosing duty. On the other hand, today's "carb-lite" breads often contain added cellulose from wood pulp to add filling indigestible bulk, so Kaempffert wasn't that far off the mark.
- Kaempffert says in the future "discarded table linens and used rayon underwear [will be] bought by chemical factories to be made into candy." Good grief! Those liquorice twists you're eating? Last week, they were Uncle Bill's tighty-whiteys!"
- In the future American "women will outnumber men by a 'glorious million' for the first time in history," 70-year-olds will "look 40," wrinkles, sagging cheeks and signs of aging will be "curiosities or signs of neglect," and the average lifespan will rise to 85.
- "Superantibiotics" synthesized in the laboratory that would kill all dangerous microbes and cure the common cold - but PM couldn't have foreseen today's superbugs that have learned to resist them, nor new forms of deadly disease like AIDS. Interestingly, the article says cancer "will not be cured by 2000, but we will be a few years away from a cure." Haven't we been saying exactly the same thing for over 50 years now?
- The article describes rudimentary forms of videoconferencing and "shopping by television," the microwave oven, even electric screwdrivers and wrenches.
"If old Mrs. Underwood, who lives around the corner...insists on sleeping under an old fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket full of glass...she must expect people to talk about her 'queerness.'"Of course, her rubber suit has nothing to do with it whatsoever. Some things never change.