Today, we go fifty years into the future. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I often mention the
futility of trying to predict any future. Nothing
makes that point better than old predictions do. A
listener recently sent me a 1950 Popular
Mechanics article by the New York Times
science editor. It invents an Ohio town in the year
2000. We can learn a lot from what he sees going on
in this imagined future.
The town center is an airport. Triple-decker highways
radiate outward from it -- express traffic on top,
local traffic in the center, and business vehicles
below. The automobiles burn alcohol. The family
helicopter pad is on top of the garage. To travel,
you can fly by rocket or jet plane. Supersonic rocket
trips are expensive, so most of us use jets. Ocean
liners are still in use, but now they use atomic
power. Transportation is a huge fixation.
The second great theme in the article is the
home. Men shave with chemical cremes. To clean
your living room you simply take a hose to it --
everything's waterproof. Dishes are disposable.
Microwave ovens have replaced conventional ones, and
you buy most food precooked. Many foods are made
synthetically from sawdust. The new TV sets are now
in everyone's home, and they double as video
telephones. The author skips briefly over solar and
atomic power. He sees them competing with one
But he's uncomfortable with energy issues, so he
races on to the new use of antibiotics in medicine.
While he fails to see how microorganisms
will evolve to protect themselves from the miracle
drugs, he does correctly guess that cancer
will still be around.
Why was a well-informed author wrong so much more
than he was right? Why do technological predictions
always go wrong? Another prediction in this article
hints at the answer. He sees only one use for the
new computers. They'll give accurate predictions of
the weather by solving the equations for the
movement of air.
Ten years later, meteorologist Edward Lorenz tried to do just
that. When he failed, he realized it was
because he could never specify the initial weather
accurately enough. All future predictions depend
absolutely on miniscule differences in our
descriptions of the present moment. If I so much as
change my mind and eat pasta instead of stew at
lunch, I literally alter human history.
Who, in 1950, knew that Jack Kilby would create a
circuit eight years later, or that only three
years later, the discovery of DNA would begin to alter both
medicine and human self-perception? Xerox machines were just about to
reach the marketplace in 1950. Who can yet diagnose
their impact upon us?
Any prediction is an extrapolation that cannot take
account of inventive intervention. Invention that
does not send us off in new directions is no
invention at all.
So stop and think what a terrible thing it would be
if we could predict the future. The only way we
could do so would be to live without the wonderful
wildcard of human creativity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kaempffert, W., Miracles You'll See in the Next Fifty
Years. Popular Mechanics, February 1950, pp.
113-118, 364, 266, 270, 272.
My thanks to Engines listener John Girard
for sending me a copy of the fifty-year-old
Popular Mechanics prediction.
A 19th-century image of the future of flight.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.