THE FUTURES OF THE PAST

ONLY A FEW HAVE PROVED CORRECT

DAVID MacDONALD September 11 1989

THE FUTURES OF THE PAST

ONLY A FEW HAVE PROVED CORRECT

DAVID MacDONALD September 11 1989

THE FUTURES OF THE PAST

COVER

ONLY A FEW HAVE PROVED CORRECT

The 20th century belongs to Canada.

—Sir Wilfrid Laurier, c. 1904

The famous remark was just right for its time—a bold prediction about a brand-new epoch. Then, Canada was only 37 years old, with a tiny population (5.4 million) but vast resources. Given the growth in 19th-century technology, with its development of steam engines, electricity, the telephone, telegraph and “horseless carriages,” many were apt to wonder: what next? What came was the chaotic age of Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa, of soup kitchens, superhighways, space shuttles and all-purpose computers, when Canadians created insulin as well as Trivial Pur suit. All the while, modern prophets kept turning up—in print and, later, on television—to tell us what life would be like in 25 or 50 years. A few were as sharp as Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells, the science-fiction pioneers whose long-range prophecies included radio and television, women’s rights and the atomic bomb. Other seers were wildly erratic. As the 21st century approaches, it is instruc-

tive to look at past visions of the future in the light of hindsight and Arthur C. Clarke’s wry dictum that “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

• In 1901, when Wilhelm Röntgen won the first Nobel Prize for physics, British physicist Lord Kelvin declared that the German’s discovery of X-rays was a “hoax.” Kelvin later maintained that radio was worthless, too.

• In 1902, Henry Ford was still planning his first ModelT automobile. After he devised an assembly line to build it, one Detroit newspaper warned that Ford would be “out of business in six months.”

• In 1903, Simon Newcomb, an American astronomer, born in Canada, denied that airplanes could ever fly—just a few weeks before the Wright brothers took

wing at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Other soothsayers proved more reliable. In a 1902 issue of Atlantic Monthly, one writer posited that North America’s first socialist government would rise in Saskatchewan—precisely where it surfaced in 1944. At Montreal’s McGill University, Prof. Ernest Rutherford persisted in his belief that tiny atoms of matter could somehow be split apart, releasing enormous amounts of energy—a theory that was grimly verified when the first atomic bombs were tested during the Second World War.

Genius: Few visionaries saw more than Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor who spent 32 summers at Baddeck, N.S. Among other things, Bell’s work anticipated the helicopter (by 40 years), jet propulsion, radium treatments for cancer and electrified surgical probes. After predicting as a child that man would fly, Bell built his Silver Dart, in which J. A.D. McCurdy made the British Empire’s first flight, at Baddeck in 1909—six years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, McCurdy approached Canada’s minister of militia and defence about starting an air force. “The aeroplane is an invention of the devil,” Sir Samuel (Sam) Hughes declared, “and will never play any part in . . . the defence of a nation.”

After the armistice, much of man’s inventive genius was concentrated on the development of air travel. In 1924, Popular Science magazine reported that a professor in Massachusetts was about to shoot a rocket to the moon—240,000 miles away. But the rocket did not work. Neither did the Foliowplane, a gigantic flying boat that was to be built in Cleveland after a few “details” were ironed out, as a writer in Popular Science magazine put it. From an artist’s drawing of the time, the Followplane would have resembled an elongated Pullman railway car with three propellers on each side and six sets of double wings. The shape of the future in 1924 looks ridiculous now.

Quirky: Some other projects were inherently quirky. When Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock learned about plans to concentrate a full day’s nutrition into a dime-sized tablet, he wrote about a small boy who gulped down one tiny pill—Christmas dinner for his whole family—and promptly exploded. As a forecaster, Leacock’s record was stunning. Writing for Maclean’s in 1916, the

McGill economist predicted the Roaring Twenties—when “bars in the best hotels will never close.” He also said that “near the close of 1929, a great unexpected thing will happen,” a forecast that seemed to fit the stock market crash of that year.

After that, as the world plunged into deep Depression, Winston Churchill deplored what he saw in the future: the mass-production of slavish human robots, genetically engineered to serve some godless Soviet state. “It would be much better to call a halt in material progress and discovery,” he wrote, “rather than to be mastered by our own apparatus and the forces which it directs.”

Hopes: In 1939, however, hopes rose with the New York World’s Fair.

The $ 155-million “World of Tomorrow” exposition astonished visitors with displays of the wondrous consumer goods soon to be available: television, three-dimensional movies, stereophonic recordings, prefabricated ranch houses with recreation rooms, frozen dinners, sliced bread, synthetic textiles, “dream kitchens”—and the Westinghouse robot, Elektro, who greeted Canada’s Dionne quintuplets when they visited the fair by counting up to five.

Six years later, as the Second World War was about to end with two thermonuclear blasts over Japan, U.S. Admiral William Leahy predicted that “the bomb will never go off.” He advised President Harry Truman, “I speak as an expert in explosives.” In 1948, Science Digest weighed all the factors involved in landing a man on the moon and concluded that the task might take 200 years. In fact, it took 21.

Ruthless: When George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1948, the British writer’s chief purpose was to prevent the social nightmare he foresaw—a totalitarian state in which the tools of mass control were wielded by a ruthless Inner Party’s all-knowing Big Brother.

By alerting his readers to the danger signs of government abuse, Nineteen Eighty-Four probably helped some to save their civil liberties.

Meanwhile, the brave new world embarked on postwar projects and predictions of all kinds. When Maclean ’s marked its 50th anniversary in 1955, writer Fred Bodsworth peered ahead to the year 2005 and saw a scientific utopia where push-button factories largely ran themselves, most Canadians needed to work only 20 hours a week and small cities could enjoy eternal summer under plastic domes. In 1955, Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan wrote that he was appalled by Canadians’ craving for bigger homes, cars with more chrome and other material possessions, often at the cost of spiritual values. “Fifty years from now the

great moral issues will not spring from poverty and disease,” he wrote in Maclean’s Oct. 15, 1955, issue. “They will spring from wealth and long life. I pity the people of that time . . . profoundly.”

In any case, about six million of them will be those Canadians known as “baby boomers.” Bom between 1946 (when comic-strip detec-

tive Dick Tracy got his first two-way wristradio) and 1960 (when the Pill appeared), their generation, noted futurist Alvin Toffler, has already seen 50 times more changes in the world than any previous one. In that time, risking the disruption that Toffler calls “future shock,” the boomers have had to absorb new and often-confusing developments in almost every field of human endeavor.

When television came to Canada in 1952, the editor of Canadian Film Weekly dismissed it as “a passing blight.” Within three years, 200 movie theatres had closed and social commentators were calling TV a threat to newspapers,

magazines, education, family life, eyesight and organized religion. When the Grey Cup football telecast was first scheduled on a Sunday, in 1969, many churches rescheduled their services to avoid competing with the game. In Vemon, B.C., however, one Anglican rector put a color television in his parish hall, then drew a full house for the telecast—after a brief word from his sponsor.

One of the busiest forecasters of the 1960s was science-fiction author Isaac Asimov. By then, Asimov felt sure that many of us would be flying around with Buck Rogers motors on our backs, clad in polo pajamas like the crew members on Star Trek. Despite those errors, Asimov was dead right in his 1965 prediction that cigarette smokers would some day have to butt out in public places.

Seers: As for the track record of less modem seers, a 1976 survey by the General Electric Research and Development Center examined 1,556 predictions made between 1890 and 1940. According to the survey, by 1976, fewer than half of the predictions had come true—or seemed likely to in the near future—while onethird were total failures. Among Canadians, no forecaster approached the uncanny record of Henry W. Monk. A long-forgotten mystic from the Ottawa area, Monk became famous in Victorian London, where poet John Ruskin was his patron and Holman Hunt painted his portrait (now in Canada’s National Gallery). Although Monk was widely regarded as a crackpot, records show that he began building an airplane long before the Wright brothers, predicted both world wars, promoted the creation of Israel and the organization of a global government he called the United Nations.

Now, almost a century later, thousands of futurists are engaged in tracking trends and spotting social changes, largely for government, military and commercial clients. How well they will help their clients to manage the future is, at this stage, anyone’s guess. After all, futurism’s bible is The Year 2000, co-written in 1967 by the most famous futurist of all, Herman Kahn, the founder and principal thinker of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute. Yet that book’s 431 pages contain nothing at all about the environmental or energy crises that have gripped the planet in recent decades. In 1969, on the other hand, UN Secretary General U Thant warned member states that they had only 10 years to contain their warlike impulses—or else. And, because the UN won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, a spot of general optimism may still be in order. In Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s other famous phrase, “Faith is better than doubt.”

DAVID MacDONALD