In Your Flying Car Awaits, author Paul Milo discusses "robot butlers, lunar vacations and other dead-wrong predictions of the 20th Century." Here are 10 calamitous tech failures. Even the ones that did make it aren't anything like their original visions.
The architect and all-around visionary R. Buckminster Fuller believed that one day, cities in cold-weather regions cold be encased under temperature-controlled geodesic domes. Although it might sound loopy, Fuller argued back in the '60s that such a dome over New York City would pay for itself in 10 years, as there would be no more need for snow removal. In addition to temperature control, the domes were also supposed to contain germ filters that would have prevented us from getting sick too.
In the 1950s and '60s, when experts thought that conventional food production could not possibly keep up with baby production, some believed we would have to resort to factory-made capsules replete with all our daily nutrients; work on a true food pill, as opposed to a vitamin supplement, began about 100 years ago. Or, we might have to chow down on the most basic foodstuff of all: algae and plankton. One scientist believed we might all have algae tanks on our rooftops today. Another thought we could send out robotic "whales" to harvest kelp from the seas.
For futurists, this one's an oldie but a goodie. By 1909, forecasters believed that soon, someone would combine, like peanut butter and jelly, the newfangled airplane to the equally cutting-edge automobile. For a century the flying car has been one of those perennially just-around-the-corner innovations, and while work continues on a viable prototype, don't expect to see your Honda become airborne anytime soon. Although NASA has done some work on creating a "sky highway," an electronic corridor in the sky to be used by pilots of small craft, the effort is still at a very preliminary stage.
Scientists at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s trained worms to avoid an electric shock, then noticed that other, untrained worms suddenly possessed this skill too after eating their learned cousins. It was thought that acquired skills were kept in RNA, a chemical similar to DNA that performs the genetic functions in cells. This led some to speculate that knowledge is stored in our bodies in edible form and to conclude that one day, learning Spanish would be as easy as popping a caplet or dos.
In the 1950s, when nuclear weapons were still novel, there was a movement to find so-called "peaceable uses for the atom"—including using atomic bombs as excavation equipment for titanic construction projects. The effort was known as "Project Plowshare" (as in what swords get beaten into) and was intended to show the world that America, then as now the preeminent nuclear power, was not hell-bent on global destruction.
In the late 1960s there were plans to damn up the Amazon River and carve out some reservoirs (possibly using nukes such as the ones described above) to create an inland ocean that would have covered a huge chunk of South America. The project reached a fairly advanced planning stage before it was abandoned by the leaders of the nations that would have been affected. Among the many problems with this plan: a French engineer calculated that placing so much additional water near the Equator could actually slow the earth's rotation.
By the 1960s, engineers had figured out how to economically harvest the oil and other mineral wealth of the deep seas. Some thought that this would inevitably lead to the creation of underwater Gold Rush towns, communities that would at first house miners and, eventually, their families. A proposed, corollary innovation was the creation of artificial gills that would have enabled residents of these aquatic metropolises to breathe underwater without bulky gear. In 1964, at the second World's Fair held in New York City, General Motors sponsored an exhibit depicting these undersea homes which, of course, had "sea cars" parked in their underwater driveways.
By now we were all supposed to be able to take our hands off the wheel and let our cars do the driving. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, one exhibit depicted future expressways filled with autos controlled by radio from a central tower. Sixty years later, near San Diego, engineers built a demonstration "smart roadway" that used sensors and computers to keep the traffic flowing. With the advent of GPS, advanced collision-avoidance technology and cars that can even parallel park without human assistance, this is one innovation we might actually be seeing pretty soon.
A combination telephone-television, engineers had been working on this one since the late 1920s, and actually built prototypes in New York City and Washington. But for a very long time costs were prohibitive: even after they figured out how to make it work, Bell Telephone offered the service 35 years ago for a hefty $90 a month (this was in mid-70s money, remember). Another problem: Bell's own market research, dating from the late 1950s, revealed that people don't always want to be seen as they chat on the phone.
When the US Surgeon General officially declared, in the early 1960s, that cigarettes cause cancer, tobacco companies responded by trying to come up with a truly safe smoke. Company scientists tried a variety of methods, including attempting to identify and filter out the harmful chemicals and even experimenting with smokable lettuce, but the effort proved a bust, and was finally abandoned following the successful cigarette company lawsuits of the 1990s.
Veteran newspaper reporter Paul Milo is now a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News, Beliefnet and Editor and Publisher. You can grab a copy of his enjoyable book Your Flying Car Awaits for around $10 at Amazon or find it anywhere else that books are sold.