Arthur C. Clarke predicted wireless: What the ’60s got right (and wrong) about today’s tech

Isaac Asimov isn't the only science fiction writer of yesteryear whose theories and writings have proven prescient

Topics: Scientific American, arthur c clarke, science-fiction, 2001: a space odyssey, Isaac Asimov, , , ,

Arthur C. Clarke predicted wireless: What the '60s got right (and wrong) about today's tech
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American
In 1964—exactly 50 years ago—sci-fi author Isaac Asimov wrote up his predictions about what life today would be like. He had a lot of hits and a lot of misses, as I wrote in my Scientific American column this month.

But Asimov wasn’t the only person to look into the technological crystal ball. Fifty and 60 years ago gee-whiz films depicting life today were a staple—a sure way to wow audiences. Today these fanciful visions of the future live on, on YouTube. Let them be a warning to anyone today who’s inclined to make a prediction about life in 2064.

Disney: This YouTube video from 1957 lets you relive Disney’s “House of Tomorrow,” brought to you by Monsanto. (Monsanto was then a plastics company, which explains the bizarre emphasis on plastic as the material of the future. “Is everything made of plastic?” asks the narrator. “Almost! Dishes, cups, countertops, walls, floors, ceiling, tabletops, shelves and cabinets. Plastics in all their colorful, functional and beautiful versatility!”)

In the Disneyficated future you never unload your (ultrasonic) dishwasher; your dishes just stay there until you’re ready to use them. Your thermostat controls let you dial up not just heat or cooling but even “the scent of roses or salty sea air!”

As it turns out, though, there’s more technological progress predicted than social progress. The woman’s place in that “futureland” is still by the (microwave) oven. “Imagine how wonderful it would be to live in a house like this!” says the housewife, putting on her apron. “Just imagine—I’d be getting dinner in this kitchen!

The BBC: In this “Britain of the Future” video, depicting life in the year 2000, the tendency (as often happens) is to overstate the speed and reach of change. “We should assume a peaceful world, and plan on that basis,” intones our anchorman. “We will be able to choose the sex of our children.” (Well, right—we can, but few do.) And in that future we can even select offspring with superior mathematical abilities.

Give the sages credit, though: they correctly foresee improvements in software and in home-entertainment systems. “On the television itself,” one gentlemen explains, “we can expect the screen to get bigger, but the set to get much slimmer—in fact, it’s sometimes said now that it might be possible to make the television set so slim that it could be hung on the wall.”

The GE Kitchen: This one, from 1956, is a subtle plug for Frigidaire appliances. Our hero, a housewife, dances and twirls through her futuristic kitchen as narration describes the magnificence of her life—in rhyme. “Tick-tock, tick-tock, I’m free to have fun around the clock!”—thanks to the automated oven that alerts her with a chime when the food is finished.

You’ll note that her refrigerator is glass-doored so that she can see what’s inside. That’s not a bad idea, actually; might be nice to see it catch on in more current models.

Bell Systems: In this corporate video made for the 1964–65 World’s Fair Bell Systems showed off systems it was then developing.

First, what we now know (or, rather, remember) as the pager. “Keeping in touch by means of the amazing new Bellboy is the Bell System’s answer today for doctors, salesmen, delivery men or anyone who must be available at all times in the fast-paced world of Century 21!” the narrator says. “When you hear the signal on your Bellboy, you can go to a phone to call your office or home and get the message.”

Bell also showed off touch-tone dialing, which it would introduce the following year.

Finally, there was the Automatic Dialer, which never did catch on. “Just listen for dial tone, insert a number card and press the start bar; the Bell System Automatic Dialer dials for you more quickly and easily than you can do it yourself.” (And with Direct Distance Dialing, “Most calls go through in 20 seconds or less!”)

Arthur C. Clarke: Isaac Asimov wasn’t the only sci-fi writer making predictions in 1964. In this video author Arthur C. Clarke nails almost all of his predictions for the year 2014, including wireless communications: “We can be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be… It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.”

Clarke also insists that he’s “perfectly serious” when he says that “we may have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand.” He’s right again. Robotic remote surgery is already becoming more common.

He whiffs on only one guess: that, thanks to wireless global communications, cities as business hubs will no longer be necessary. “Men will no longer commute; they will communicate…. They will travel only for pleasure,” he says.

What he does best in this video, though, is to comment on the very nature of making high-tech predictions. “Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation because the prophet invariably falls between two stools. If his predictions sound at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that within 20 or at most 50 years the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative.

“On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everybody would laugh him to scorn.”

We hear you, Arthur.

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