Back to the future, again

I’ve been reading an unusual best-selling book that is partly about the famous architect Daniel Burnham, who was the driving force behind the building of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893-The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen (Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2004).

Dec 1st, 2007
Th Jbairstow

Although an animated video shows an X-Hawk flying car gliding smoothly above the highways and between the skyscrapers of a city, the flying car has yet to drive or fly, and probably won’t do so until 2009 at the earliest.

By Jeff Bairstow

I’ve been reading an unusual best-selling book that is partly about the famous architect Daniel Burnham, who was the driving force behind the building of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893-The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen (Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2004). After reading this book, I casually started looking for visual artifacts of world’s fairs since the 1890s in an attempt to see if the builders and exhibitors were in any way successful in predicting the technology of the future. The results of my admittedly brief and limited research were disappointing, to say the least. Predictions may be easy but new products are much more difficult to make and sell.

That is to say that the results of my Internet search were disappointing until I came across a truly remarkable blog, paleo-future.blogspot.com, compiled by 24-year-old Mark Novak, of Minneapolis. This is an absolutely fascinating collection of articles, books, postcards, film clips, photos, videos, and other ephemera about predictions for the future. I wish I could show you some choice examples but the format of this column and the editors of Laser Focus World do not permit me the space here.

However, I would encourage you to bookmark the blog and delve into Novak’s impressive archives from time to time. Here are a few pieces from Paleo-Future’s archives that intrigued me.

Not surprisingly I could not find much about lasers in Paleo-Future’s archives, but I did come across some cartoon-like drawings of a “Laser-Holography Video Conferencing System.” The drawings came from a rather colorful and somewhat fanciful children’s book, Future Cities: Homes and Living Into the 21st Century (Usborne-Hayes, Philadelphia, PA, 1979). Although video conferencing is widely used today with conventional video cameras and TV monitors, holography has finally found other more practical applications in printing secure labeling with holograms, such as the reflective images on credit cards.

There is also a wonderful section of the blog entitled “The Paleo-Future Store,” an Amazon-based “store,” with an intriguing list of books and tapes (astore.amazon.com/paleo-future). Included are contemporary books about various world’s fairs, vintage movies, such as Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, and notable older TV series such as Back to the Future. Much of this material is hard to find at your local mall bookstore or even at specialty used book dealers.

Paleo-Future has many amazing concept videos, often submitted by viewers of the blog. Some early Apple videos are remarkably close in their predictions of the future technology and applications of the personal computer. Of course, despite Apple’s apparent success with the current crop of Macs and a user-friendly operating system (OSX and all its variants) the underlying software is still largely Unix-based and stable. Almost 30 years old, Unix has been described as the world’s most user-hostile system. But, with the now- stable Unix underpinnings, the Mac designers and maintainers of OSX updates have produced a user-manageable operating system.

Finally, I just have to mention the concept video on a “flying car” designed by Israeli aeronautical engineer Rafi Yoeli. Although the animated video, produced by Yoeli’s company, Urban Aeronautics, shows an X-Hawk flying car gliding smoothly above the highways and between the skyscrapers of a modern city, the flying car has yet to drive or fly, and probably won’t do so until 2009 at the earliest. And chances are that the flying car will probably neither fly nor drive adequately. And how will such air traffic be licensed, policed, and controlled?

Although we editors can easily make predictions about the future uses of technology, it is rare that a new product appears and is an instant hit with potential buyers. Apple’s iPod may be thought to be such an example, but it is in fact a replacement for the previously successful portable CD player, which, in turn, replaced the portable cassette player. In my view many products are new but few are innovations.

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
In-My-View@comcast.net

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