“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future”



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In the process of doing ‘research’ (well, googling) for my blog about innovations, elites, and flying cars, I stumbled on this wonderful project jointly produced by Gregory Benford and Popular Mechanics: The Future That Never Was: Pictures from the Past. Gregory Benford is an author working within the genre of hard science fiction (I had a very interesting conversation with him last May in Irvine, in which we discussed many things, including Cliodynamics).

What Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics did was go to the past issues of the magazine and look at how fared the predictions that were made on its pages between 1902 and 1969. The title of the project, The Future That Never Was, suggests that most, if not all, predictions failed, thus echoing one of the Yogiisms, which provides the title of this post. But actually only some of the predictions failed spectacularly. There were others that succeeded in an equally spectacular fashion. And a lot in between.

To start with a failed prediction, which also fits the theme of Flying Cars:

9781588168221_a152-mdnPrediction 1951: Personal Helicopters. This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn. It has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.

Ha, this one was a complete flop. But it sounded quite reasonable back in the 1950s! Well, I am not so old as to know what people thought in the 50s, but when I grew up during the 1960s (I was an avid consumer of science fiction even then), I was convinced that we would have flying personal transportation real soon now. Little did I know that the reality would be quite different – scrunched in a too narrow seat on a commercial airplane, and hobbling on bad knees for days afterward.

The next one is a success story:

microwave-oven-mdnPrediction 1937: Microwave Cooking. Cooking a ham sandwich in high-frequency radio waves. This method may be common in the home of the future.

Now this one must have looked completely ridiculous back in 1937. Note how tentative the language is. Yet this prediction succeeded spectacularly. (I wonder, though, what happened to the hand of the scientist/engineer in the photo – how did he avoid getting it cooked together with the sandwich?)

This one is the one that I thought was the funniest one:


Prediction 1950: Housekeeping of the Future. When the housewife of 2000 cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors—all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) she turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. She throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but she has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.

And finally:

9781588168221_a141-mdn Prediction 1950: Vacuum Tube Powered Trains. Imagine a tunnel with one end beneath New York City’s Times Square. You enter a car at this end, stow your suitcase in the rack overhead and settle down comfortably with a magazine. You have been reading scarcely an hour when the vehicle stops. An escalator carries you back to the street level and you greet the light of day once more—in San Francisco! Sounds like something out of pseudo-science fiction, doesn’t it? Yet it’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, General Electric’s noted physicist, Dr. Irving Langmuir. “There is no fundamental reason,” says Doctor Langmuir, “why we could not travel at a speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.”

Well, perhaps traveling at thousands of miles per hour is still science fiction, but, as I wrote in the previous blog, other countries have superfast trains that travel, or will soon travel, at 300 miles per hour. We don’t. So this prediction is, perhaps, the saddest one. The country that 60 years ago was technologically well ahead of the rest of the world, today has fallen well behind the leaders.




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Dave Pinsen

Interesting, though I don’t fault us for not having 300mph trains. There are only a few routes in the US where trains even that fast would be preferable to planes, and the obstacles there aren’t technological but legal and political.

bob sykes

Actually, the only real obstacle is cost. Every high speed train in the world (actually every passenger train) loses lots of money and is heavily subsidized. TVG an its ilk are Ruling Class perks.

Peter Turchin

Ruling class fly helicopters and personal jets. They don’t need fast trains. They never use public transportation.


Yep, not for the ruling class, though it’s true that most high speed train lines lose money (not all though: http://reason.org/files/high_speed_rail_lessons.pdf: “From a financial standpoint, only two HSR lines in the world are profitable: Paris-Lyon in France
and Tokyo-Osaka in Japan. A third line, Hakata-Osaka in Japan, breaks even.”)

However, HSR lines have positive externalities (while carbon-burning transport have negative externalities). That’s something that has to be factored in. HSR has made China’s economy quite a bit more efficient.


It must be pointed out that the analysis that Richard quotes is a rather high bar for high-speed trains by the standards of other transport infrastructure. At least in the US, flat roads and aviation infrastructure are heavily subsidized with general-fund money. I can hunt down numbers for anyone who’s interested.

A common argument against US HSR is that the US’s population density is not very suited for high-speed trains. But that’s an argument from *average* density. High-speed trains do best between big cities that are something like 300 – 500 km apart, and some parts of the US fit that criterion very well, like the Northeast Corridor.

Then there is the US’s size. A NYC-LA high-speed line would be folly, because there is a big stretch of it with very low population density along it. However, from NYC to Kansas City, there are several big cities along the way at reasonable separations for HSR. Likewise, LA and Las Vegas are reasonably separated for HSR. But in between, there’s only Denver and Salt Lake City, separations approaching 1000 km, and a *lot* of mountains.

There are long high-speed lines elsewhere in the world, but they all have several big cities on them. In Europe, there is almost continuous high-speed trackage between Amsterdam and Malaga, Spain, extending about 2800 km. But it was built in segments starting from Paris and Madrid to nearby cities and then to farther cities.

Peter Turchin

I leave in the Boston-Washington corridor. I’d much rather use a fast train to go to DC. Much less hastle and need for intrusive security.


Actually, if one uses a route like Paris-Lyon as a benchmark, one will find that there are several potentially good high-speed routes in the US, though they are clustered in the more dense areas.

As to politics, high-speed rail has become yet another partisan political battleground, with Democrats lining up for it and Republicans lining up against it. The Republicans have a halfway good reason: their constituents tend to live in areas less dense than where Democrats prefer to live. They also have some bad reasons. One of them is dislike of things that Democrats like, even if it is things that they had earlier liked, such as Heritagecare / Chafeecare / Romneycare / Obamacare, to use the names of various supporters of it. Another is support by the Koch brothers and the like. They want to make life difficult for anything that would undermine their fossil-fuel business, like renewable-energy development.

Seems like a case of warring elites. Compare to half a century earlier, when both Democrats and Republicans agreed on the value of the Interstate highways, even though they were proposed by a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. At least some of the US’s larger airports also got built to more or less their present form by then.

Chris Kavanagh

The housekeeping one sounds simultaneously insane and intriguing. I can just imagine power hosing all of my furniture and having the resultant flood drain down a hidden plug hole (into the apartment below), before whipping out my industrial strength furnace fan to instantly dry(/scorch) everything around me. Of course, everything would be destroyed and I’d possibly be severely burnt but still no more housework…

Peter Turchin

Either that, or everything in your apartment needs to be made of heavy-duty plastic that could withstand such rigorous cleaning. I can imagine how comfortable it would be to sit on a plastic sofa, or sleep under paper sheets (not even talking about the casual disregard for environmental issues). And a personal incinerator in your home! What a boon for murderers…

Ross David H

Research idea: evaluate each idea according to which existing industries it would threaten, then see if there are trends on which incumbent industries are best at squelching potential threats. I’m guessing that the automobile industry has more political clout than the oven industry, for example.

There was a personal helicopter, the RotorWway Scorpion. Problem was the cost and the FAA license requirements. I suppose that this is the same position that the automobile was in before the Model A.

These predictions are useful. Not all of us have the imagination needed to where to go next.

Oops, Model T. Sorry.


I think that a big spur to mass-market computer development since the late 1970’s has been video gaming. Many people like that form of entertainment, enough to create big markets for game consoles: computer hardware designed for video-game duty. Desktop and laptop computer hardware has also been pushed ahead by many people using their machines for video gaming. In the late 1970’s, video-game displays were crudely pixelated in only a few colors, but by the late 1990’s, video cards capable of rendering 3-dimensional scenes had become common.

So we now have a bizarre economic paradox. One can get a top-of-the-line desktop computer for much less than one has to pay for a house or an education. That computer can easily outperform even the biggest supercomputers of half a century ago, and do so while running a much nicer user interface. Supercomputers that would easily have cost several million dollars of money back then.

Also, some sorts of technology have turned out to be much more difficult than expected. Space travel and artificial intelligence, for instance.

Instead of astronauts flying all over the Solar System, the farthest that most of the 500-odd space travelers have gone is low Earth orbit, and the 24 exceptions only flew as far as the Moon. Space stations are not those big spinning wheels of half a century ago but more like piles of tin cans and scrap metal. However, remote-controlled spacecraft have been sent to every other planet and to several smaller objects.

Artificial intelligence has been a big let-down. It’s progressed *much* slower than the optimists of half a century ago had expected. Every chatbot I’ve ever tried miserably flunks the Turing Test, for instance.

Peter Turchin

But note that the United States has lost interest in investing in space technology. The International Space Station is languishing, and the Russians are talking about going alone. There are lots of science out there that could be used to advance space exploration, but Americans are not interested in investing in it. Most likely, the next big breakthrough will be made by the Chinese.

Gregory Benford

“Americans are not interested in investing in it.”

Huh? SpaceX? Blue Horizon? etc…

A.B. Prosper

Space X is highly overrated.

Anyway federal funding of space exploration is a budgetary issue as only rich nations can afford to do wasteful things like manned space flight.

Wages measured as percentage GDP which is IMO most accurate available measure are down by half since 1974. This means average Americans are half as wealthy as they once were. This has real effects on the availability of resources. The US is now far from rich

Also the US is fairly tax phobic, the Laffer curve point of diminishing returns seems to be about 20% GDP at the federal level , its typically called Hauser’s Law.

Now the US does snot collect this much in taxes however any and all mandates such as the affordable care act or increased fees or anything else count against the revenue base.

No matter what rates are in place all we will ever get is 3.5 trillion and this number might be shrinking as the legitimacy of the state declines

This means the US culturally cannot at this current times tax enough to pay for the size of our military, meet our retirement entitlements and manage to run a stable society.

we’ve been borrowing the difference for some time and putting off important infrastructural repair s as well. This leaves us unable to actually do harder things.

As you know the US has changed quiet radically culturally, economically and demographically since the 1960’s. Largely young people today do not have a fraction of the skills base previous generations had or many of the skills in the myriad areas required for manned space flight . In truth few people really should go into it as unless you are working on military projects you won’t have stable employment anyway.

As you note predicting the future is hard but I’d suggest if current trends are followed the US will almost certainly have considerable economic decline . I’ll pass on predictions of strife or unrest but unless changes are wrought and fast, future USA probably will be a second tier power indefinitely. We’ll have a space program, might even manage a few cool things but again so does India and Brazil, the later of which will probably be our model.

As for economic fixes, I can’t tell you. I’d suggest whoever is in charge of policy needs to have basic understanding the old economy and deep understanding of the new one> Automation whether its as low tech as a digger or as high tech as computers, renders good paying jobs for the common folks scare.

No jobs, no economy. No economy. No space awesomeness,

William Graves

Imagine a train. It goes 600 mph, just below the speed of sound. If the train in front of it breaks down, it can just pass the incident. It doesn’t require tracks, levitating on a cushion of air. You can put the stations wherever you like, without right of way issues.


Gregory Benford

Oops, I meant Blue Origin


I suggested to Jeff Blue Horizon and it stuck in memory…

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