The Future That Didn’t Happen

“The future ain’t what it used to be — and what’s more, it never was.”

Even the great folk singer-songwriter Lee Hayes may not have fully appreciated the true wisdom of his bon mot — at least where predicting the future is concerned. And, now that we’re saying good-bye and good riddance to 2020, we can safely conclude, as we look ahead, that most of the predictions we might venture to make about life in our future are not likely to come true (although you might stand a better chance if your family name is Nostradamus). Indeed, many books, web sites, and film documentaries have chronicled the countless inaccurate and even silly pronouncements from wise, celebrated, and accomplished individuals throughout history, about what their distant future might bring.

The age-old pastime of predicting future culture, fashions, technology, medicine, transportation, and other aspects of our everyday lives seems to be ingrained in us humans. We just can’t resist allowing our imaginations to run wild with notions of how people will be living in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now (assuming we, as well as the planet Earth, will still be here).

Einstein has shown us that all things regarding time and space are relative, so, relatively speaking, we are living not only in the present, but also in the future (while the more relentless nostalgics among us can be accused of living in the past). For instance, from the perspective of someone in 1950 who wondered about what the world might look like in the year 2000, we are indeed living in the “future,” since we’ve passed that particular milestone year by two decades.

Here’s a look at some predictions that did — and didn’t — see fruition in the years during which they were supposed to have become reality. But rather than dwell on the low-hanging fruit of naysayers who foresaw failure in inventions that later proved successful (“If man were meant to fly, he’d have wings!”), let’s focus instead on those soothsayers who aimed high, and perhaps fell short, but who also occasionally hit pretty close to the mark.

In January of 1970, within the firsts few weeks of a new decade, TV Guide devoted a lengthy feature story to what experts at the time determined was in store for television and related technologies in the 1970s.

At that time, there were 3.6 million cable TV subscribers in the U.S., served by 2,300 cable systems. It was predicted then that ten years forward, in 1980, the U.S. would have a total of 30 million cable households served by 7,500 systems. Actually, the number achieved by 1980 was considerably less — 16 million households, and 28 cable networks. However, by the end of the 1980s, the number had exploded to 52 million households and 79 cable networks.

Numbers aside, Comsat executive Dan Karasik predicted that, at some point in the coming decade, “…I can’t think of an event of any importance that won’t be on television world-wide. We’ll see a world broadcasting union with operating centers going twenty-four hours a day, planning and sharing programs…Maybe we’ll see a daily or twice-daily world-news round-up, with live reports from many parts of the globe — wherever news is happening. The world will be one big mixing pot. And culturally, we’ll all be much richer people because of it.”

CNN’s first day on the air.

Karasik’s prediction proved to be remarkably accurate. Later that same year, a successful and flamboyant business tycoon named Ted Turner — president of an Atlanta area billboard company — purchased WRJR-TV, a small UHF station in the city. A decade later, On June 1, 1980, Turner launched his Cable News Network.

Other predictions of innovative future uses for cable TV were also being bandied about in 1970, such as channels “handling the family’s varied needs via special hook-ups with stores, banks, airlines and post offices; plugging into college credit courses for home study; reading the day’s newspapers off the face of the tube and receiving automatic printout copies, tapping the almost infinite resources of computer-fed storage banks for data on every imaginable subject.” These were just a few of many scenarios envisioned for the latter 20th century that just narrowly missed predicting the Internet itself. One idea in particular, however, came even closer to its specific mark.

Television, claimed the TV Guide writers, “surely will become a two-in-one combination with the telephone or with a special talk-back circuit in the cable-connected TV set itself. You’ll be able to shop without leaving home because several channels will be devoted entirely to displaying the wares of local merchants, which may be ordered either by phone or by pushing the proper talk-back button on your set.” A bit of refinement of this idea eventually led to the creation of the Home Shopping Network and QVC — but without the involvement of local merchants, like the bakery downtown.

1939 World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow.”

In addition to educated guesswork regarding the future of television, another industry — the auto industry — has, since its earliest years, been fertile ground for intriguing ideas about how cars might continue to evolve. Of course, ever since the 1939 World’s Fair and its “World of Tomorrow” exhibit (as well as the 1964 Fair’s “Futurama”) one of most popular concept/fantasies has been that of the flying car — a sort of mini hovercraft or airplane that would negate the need for highways, traffic lights, and, presumably, traffic jams themselves — on the ground, anyway.

Luke Skywalker goes for a cruise.

As late as the mid-1960s, futurist Marshall McLuhan and others were predicting that “both the wheel and the highway will be obsolete, giving way to hovercraft that ride on air,” perhaps a la Luke Skywalker making his way around his home planet of Tatooine. The voice of reason has since quashed the nightmarish idea of millions of flying cars in the air, moving every which way at any one time, jockeying for position and causing unimaginable numbers of air collisions and deaths. But, even in 1963, when Newsweek magazine asked several auto industry visionaries to discuss the cars of 1983 — twenty years into their future — the ideas ranged from undesirable, to impractical, to preposterous:

The auto stylists from the major auto manufactures agreed on several points. “The sleek cars of twenty years from now will be built for speeds of 150 miles or more an hour, possibly for ‘controlled’ super-highway driving on suburban and intercity runs.” This would be possible through master control devices, relaying signals to a car through a copper wire running the length of the highway, presumably to eliminate driver mistakes that tend to cause the most accidents. Richard Teagues, then director of auto styling at American Motors, also predicted that engine design would lead to an engine not much bigger than a breadbox, virtually eliminating it as a factor during the design phase.

A 1956 artist conception of a self-driving car.

General Motors president William Mitchell piped in with the prediction that interiors will be more roomy, because “you have to remember that people will be bigger in twenty years” (now there’s one prediction that seems to have come to fruition).

Teagues also saw cars in which passengers in the back seat would sit reversed, for both safety, and for ease in getting in and out of the car. They would also be able to watch television during the ride. Another idea was to have a knob on the console act as the steering device, replacing the time-honored steering wheel. Then there’s the car that would have aircraft-style controls, able to be driven from either the right or left seat. Pedals in front would continue to operate controls such as breaks and throttle, while safety belts would likely resemble the pull-down safety bars used on roller coasters.

Another concept for enhancing the driving experience was what we can now recognize as the forerunner of the GPS, then called the ERGS (Electronic Route Guidance System). While GM felt the system promising enough to advertise its potential in 1969, it would be another thirty years before the much more highly advanced and practical GPS would become a common navigation feature.

The year 2000, marking the dawn of the new millennium, was a highly anticipated year for several decades leading up to December 31st, 1999 (and, in Y2K circles, a somewhat dreaded date). One example of the mystique surrounding the turn of the 21st Century, and how we would be living in the year 2000, can be found in a Time magazine essay published in February of 1966. That piece presented predictions for the year 2000 by experts in nearly all aspects of modern life — technology, medicine, social structure, government — and the tone was strikingly confident, even brazen, in its assurance that the scenarios offered would in fact be reality by that milestone year.

While some estimates in the essay over-shot their targets (the predicted U.S. population in 2000: 330 million. Actual population that year: 281 million), others were spot on (world population in 2000: six billion). Additionally, “Nine out of ten Americans will be living in supercities or their suburbs.”

Marshall McLuhan redeemed himself for his prediction of flying cars when he spoke of “the possibility that many people will stay at home, doing their work via countrywide tele-communication,” something that would indeed become a reality, with the growth of the Internet and telecommuting.

For every reasonably accurate prediction, there are always several duds. The 1966 Time essay also told us that by the year 2000 “planes carrying 1,000 passengers and flying just under the speed of sound will of course be old hat. The new thing will be transport by ballistic rocket, capable of reaching any place on earth in 40 minutes.” An ambitious plan indeed. Even the giant double-decker Airbus falls short of a 1,000-passenger capacity, and, as for taking trips in ballistic rockets, perhaps something closer to reality can be found in the goals of Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s suborbital flight service founded in 2004 for adventuresome (and wealthy) space tourists.

Werner von Braun.

Speaking of reaching beyond the confines of Earth, Dr. Werner von Braun, father of the American space program (by way of fallen Nazi Germany), once estimated that by1980 space stations would be large enough to accommodate 50 astronauts working and living aboard them for months at a time. And, in the year following the Apollo 11 moon landing, it was said that “the future of the [lunar] program seems secure, at least through Apollo 20, by which time astronauts will be staying on the moon for days at a stretch, and chugging over the lunar surface in vehicles.”

The Apollo 15 lunar rover.

That was partly correct. The International Space Station has had inhabitants for months at a time (but fewer than a half-dozen at a time). Astronauts have driven vehicles on the moon. But in one study, over 80 scientists agreed that a permanent lunar base would have been established long before the year 2000, and that we would have also landed on Mars by then. Alas, there was no established base on the moon before 2000, and there was no Apollo 20; the manned lunar program was discontinued after Apollo 17 (unless you believe some interesting theories to the contrary).

Back on the ground, there was no shortage of predictions for how an array of medical advancements would alleviate practically all physical handicaps and diseases by the new millennium. “A pocket radar will scan a blind man’s surroundings, relay the information either through sounds or through vibrations. A comparable device will let the deaf ‘hear’…Nearly all experts agree that bacterial and viral diseases will have been virtually wiped out. Probably arteriosclerotic heart disease will also have been eliminated.”

We know different now. Optimism knows no bounds, but so does naivete. A virus has been plaguing the world for the past year, killing nearly two million. However, cochlear implants help the deaf hear, and special EnChroma glasses have allowed colorblind people to see the true colors of the world around them.

In the average home of 2000, according to that 1966 Time essay, kitchen conveniences would surely make cooking and cleaning much easier for the housewife, who would be able to “make out her menu for the week, put the necessary food into the proper storage spaces, and feed her program to a small computer” (It’s ironic how 1960s sensibilities regarding the woman’s “housewife” role in society failed to keep pace with the ambitious technological scenarios described for the house itself). Mechanical arms would retrieve, cook, and serve the pre-selected meals. Other household robots would be given such mundane chores as washing windows, and disposing the garbage onto a conveyer belt moving under the street to some conveniently unspecified destination. In all fairness, however, robots that vacuum carpets and cut the grass in the yard (a different robot for each task), are indeed on the market today.

In yet another allusion to what would become the Internet, it was predicted in ‘66 that one convenience people in 2000 “almost certainly will want is electronic ‘information retrieval’: the contents of libraries and other forms of information or education will be stored in a computer that will be instantly obtainable at home by dialing a code.” Replace the dial with a keyboard, and we can score that prediction a success.

Nostradamus.

So, how well did the prognosticators of the future fare with their predictions? Similar to that of Nostradamus when he recorded his own visions, the result is a mixed bag of pipe dreams and almost spookily accurate concepts that have indeed come true. It doesn’t take an expert or mystic seer to predict a new invention or way of life several decades into the future. Anyone can do it. But you might be better off not betting your money on it.

Happy New Year — past, present, and future.

Until next time…

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.