'The Wonderful Future That Never Was'

In the city of tomorrow, men will walk to work and children will walk to school in total safety because they will never have to cross paths with a car.

Housewives will shop at a public market in a local park, buying produce from farmers who grow their crops in a green belt surrounding the city.

Aside from the outdated gender roles, that prediction about the future — made in 1939 — sounds remarkably similar to 2011 fantasies about what could be.

"The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute and other Predictions from the Past" contains hundreds of predictions published in the pages of Popular Mechanics from 1903 through 1970. Some resemble our own visions of the future, while others are wildly off base.

The text contains an unusually high number of typos but still makes for interesting reading. The best part is the full-color illustrations, which depict ideas about the future, but painted in styles from the past.

Most people have heard predictions that men would fly through the air wearing rocket backpacks, or that women would clean their living rooms by hosing off their plastic furniture, drapes and floors. Those predictions, and many others, are in this book. Some came true, others were — thankfully — forgotten, and still others could yet appear.

One of the fantasies that popped up decade after decade was that each family would have its own flying vehicle.

In 1928, an airplane designer built a car with a propeller, hoping that the family car could rise up into the air like a helicopter. In 1951, Popular Mechanics predicted the development of a "simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe" that would be small enough to land on your lawn. An illustration showed a man, dressed in his overcoat and fedora from work, pushing his personal helicopter into the garage of his ranch-style home. In 1957, the magazine predicted that aerial cars powered by fans would be sold in a decade and would cost the same as a good car.

For anyone who's ever hankered for widespread use of personal aircraft, consider the impact when it comes to urban sprawl. People predicted in 1931 that commuters traveling by air would live in suburbs 100 miles from their work. A 1950 prediction said that cities would meld into each other. The countryside would be gone, but people would have parks and green open spaces in the cities.

A scientist predicted in 1929 that women would wear "dresses of asbestos that will be as lustrous as silk and will give long wear, with ease in cleaning." In 1952, a radio pioneer said that homes and their occupants would be kept warm by high-frequency microwaves, and people would cook their food with low-frequency microwaves. He also said teachers and schools would be replaced by "a whole system of education in which all instruction is given over the radio..."

Popular Mechanics predicted in 1950 that women would be cooking on solar ranges in 2000, and they would shop for dresses by picture-phone.

A 1969 photo of a model bathroom of the future showed a wading pool where children could bathe and swim, a television, book shelves and a bar where mom could mix herself a drink while keeping an eye on the kids.

A 1950 prediction said that world population growth would require people to use sawdust, wood pulp and recycled napkins as food ingredients, or else starve to death.

Futurists said in 1950 that people who still clung to old ways of doing things in 2000 would be ridiculed. A person who insisted on sleeping under a comforter rather than a lightweight "aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air" would become the subject of gossip.

But the futurists noted that conformity would be a small price to pay for food fit for a Roman emperor, luxurious modern homes and our own helicopters.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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