COMMENTARY: Guessing the future — tricky then, tricky now

Americans are a particularly inventive, innovative lot, and throughout the history of the United States, many of them, including famous Dayton inventors Charles Kettering and the Wright brothers, have had a keen interest in knowing what kind of new inventions might be right around the corner. What’s the competition up to?

One of the interesting ways of seeing what scientists, entrepreneurs, and bestselling authors have predicted during the last 100 years is to look at some of the futuristic inventions described in Popular Mechanics.

Since Popular Mechanics magazine launched in 1902, it has made many predictions that have ranged from curiously accurate to downright ridiculous.

Some of their future inventions were unworkable at the time, but can be traced to current products. For example, Popular Mechanics ran a story in1956 about how Bell Laboratories had developed an experimental “picture phone.” This ended up being a prototype for some of the smartphone technology that we take for granted these days.

A Popular Mechanics author predicted an early version of self-driving cars way back in 1932. A device on a car’s dashboard could sense the traffic flow and maneuver the car accordingly. This idea never came into fruition back then, but it was one of the inspirations behind the self-driving cars of today.

Teeth transplants were predicted in 1966, but never really worked out.

The idea was that some people with more teeth than they needed could donate their extras to a tooth bank that was made available to others who lost a tooth. Although this idea did not really work out, the modern practice of dental implants is not all that different from the transplant idea.

Fortunately, some of these futuristic ideas were never fully developed. For example, dresses made of asbestos were described in 1929 as luxurious, long lasting, and easy to clean. The article cited “evidence” of previous civilizations using asbestos. A few years later we discovered how dangerous asbestos fibers could be.

Diets high in sawdust, or wood cellulose, were predicted by Popular Mechanics in 1962. Two forms of digestible, non-fibrous cellulose had been developed by scientists at that time. The main advantage was that the cellulose could be molded and flavored to look delicious, and that it did not cause the eater to gain weight since there was no food value or calories. Thanks, but no thanks.

This reminds me of a “futures studies” course I took in college. We looked at many of the accurate and inaccurate ways of predicting the future that had been used in the past, along with more modern statistical approaches that were constantly being tested. Future studies tries to understand what is likely to continue and what could cause these trends to change, for better or worse. It is somewhere between an art and a science.

The world is moving at such a rapid pace that any credible efforts to make sense of the future problems and opportunities should be encouraged, and would surely be welcome.

Rick Sheridan, a retired communications professor, is one of our regular contributors.

Fortunately, some of these futuristic ideas were never fully developed. For example, dresses made of asbestos were described in 1929 as luxurious, long lasting, and easy to clean.