Predictions From The Father of Science Fiction
Hugo “Awards” Gernsback was many different things to different people. To his fans, he was a visionary who started some of the most influential (not to mention the first) science fiction magazines of the early 20th century. Ray Bradbury was quoted as saying, “Gernsback made us fall in love with the future.” To his detractors, he was “Hugo the Rat,” known to men like H. P. Lovecraft for being a crooked publisher who sometimes stiffed his writers when payment was due. But above all else, he was a tireless self-promoter.
In 1904, Gernsback emigrated from Luxembourg to the U.S. at the age of 20. Not long thereafter he began selling radio kits to hobbyists, sometimes importing parts from Europe. His radio business and the catalogues he used to promote his wares evolved into a technology-focused magazine empire. Gernsback published over 50 different magazine titles in the course of his life, most of which were hobbyist magazines related to science, technology and the genre he helped popularize for so many in the 1920s: science fiction.
Gernsback’s name was always prominently displayed on the cover and inside each of his magazines. And each issue featured an editorial by Gernsback himself in the first few pages. Gernsback would often use this platform to give an update on a field of research relevant to the publication — be it TV, radio or even sex. But sometimes he would make wild predictions for the future.
The September 1927 issue of Science and Invention included Gernsback’s predictions for “Twenty Years Hence” — the year 1947. Gernsback couldn’t foresee the calamities of the Great Depression that were just around the corner, nor the tremendous hardships of the Second World War, but his predictions from this time give us a look at the most radical of technological utopianism from the 1920s. Everything from wireless power to a cure for cancer is predicted, though there are many areas — like increased life expectancy, conquering childhood diseases and air conditioning — where Gernsback’s predictions are quite on the nose.
Nikola Tesla and his “wireless light” were featured on the cover of the February 1919 issue of Gernsback’s Electrical Experimenter magazine. Tesla’s ideas about wireless power no doubt inspired Gernsback’s view of the future in this area.
I believe that within twenty years it will be possible to actually send power wirelessly; that is, without the need of intervening pipes or wires. It will only be possible, at first, to send sufficient power to a land or air vehicle to light and heat it, the power being supplied entirely or in part from the ground.
Gernsback was a pioneer in the field of radio and made a number of predictions in his magazines about the future of its cousin: television. In 1927 television wasn’t yet a practical reality in American homes, and was still not imagined as a broadcast medium by many. As such, he envisioned TV as more of a point-to-point communications tool, though as early as 1922 he thought it might be used for broadcasting baseball games like in the illustration above.
In twenty years universal television will be an everyday affair. It will be possible to talk over the telephone to your friend a thousand miles away and see him at the selfsame time. The same thing will be true in radio, where you will see what is being broadcast at all times. Television still holds some great surprises for us, and the applications in television may well revolutionize our entire mode of living, just as the telephone has revolutionized it.
It is quite probable that within twenty years, two of man’s greatest scourges, tuberculosis and cancer, will have been done away with entirely, or else they will be controlled in such a manner as to no longer be called dangerous. These two diseases will be conquered just exactly as diabetes has already been conquered during the past few years.
Gernsback believed, like some others of the time, that applying electricity to the soil would allow crops to produce higher yields.
Electrification of crops will be an established fact twenty years hence. There is no reason why the ground can not yield twice as much produce, as has long been shown experimentally. The equipment to double and triple crops by using constant electric currents in the ground where the crops are planted, is not at all expensive, and is easy to tend and harness. As the population increases we must have more vegetable food-stuffs. Electrified crops is the answer to the problem. Incidentally, it will make farming highly profitable, for the reason that a small area will yield a triple or even a quadruple crop.
The average length of man’s life has been increased from about 40 to 60 years since the middle ages. Man can expect to live much longer as times goes on, due to better personal hygiene, better sanitation, and better understanding of the human machine. I confidently predict that the present average of 60 years will be raised at least five, and perhaps as much as ten years, by the end of the next twenty years.
On the other hand, infant mortality, which has been greatly reduced during the last fifty years, will be reduced still further. There is no reason at all for most infantile diseases. We are slowly conquering them, one by one, and I believe that most of them such as measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, rickets and others will probably have been done away with twenty years hence.
Last year we looked at weather control and its possible use as a Cold War weapon, but decades before this superpower struggle, Gernsback imagined that “universal weather control” would be as simple as the flip of a switch.
Twenty years hence, weather control will no longer be a theory. While it may take longer than this to actually have universal weather control, within twenty years it will be possible to at least cause rain, when required over cities and farm lands, by electrical means. But we shall not solve the problem of warding off or creating cold and heat in the open for many centuries.
In the December 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal writer John Elfreth Watkins Jr. predicted that the 20th century would see cold air “turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house.” Almost three decades later Gernsback made a similar prediction and, after World War II, those in hotter climates thankfully saw this vision for the future come true.
Within twenty years our private dwellings and office buildings will be artificially cooled, the same as they are heated in the winter time. There is no good engineering reason why we should have to swelter and cut down our production in the summer time, any more than we should freeze in the winter. The present hot water and steam piping systems will probably be used for the artificial cold circulation.
Within twenty years there will be far more airplanes in the air than we have cars on the ground now. There will be a great exodus from the city to the country, not a movement back to the farm, but, most likely, a movement back to the home. Inaccessible and practically valueless plots in the most out of the way places will bring high prices for house building sites, because hills and mountain tops will be more accessible than the valleys.
I do not see the airplane, as it is today, neither do I see the helicopter as the final solution for aircraft. As long as an airplane requires a landing field, or at least, a space for a runway of 100 yards, or more, to either alight or take off, airplanes will not come into universal use. The helicopter idea, to my mind, is not sound. The chances are that we shall have an airplane that will be able to land on rooftops, or even in streets, if necessary. I believe that airplanes will be articulated in such a way that the entire plane can be spun around practically within its own length, and kept on circling in this small space as long as necessary. This would be the equivalent of “standing still,” for an automobile. If a landing were to be made, the airplane could then spiral down by gradually losing altitude. It could rise the same way, always spiralling in a small circle, which need not exceed 50 feet in diameter, and perhaps even a great deal less for smaller machines.
I firmly believe that within twenty years air-liners of a special construction will make the trip from New York to Paris within ten to twelve hours at a maximum, flying through the upper strata of our atmosphere. The flying would be done at tremendously high altitudes, for the simple reason that here there is less air resistance, with a consequent increase in speed and safety. The entire hull for passengers and crew would be practically airtight, as the space would have to be supplied with air at proper pressure, and, due to the tremendous cold at high altitudes, the inside would have to be heated artifically as well, either from the exhaust of the engines, or electrically.
This article originally appeared at Smithsonian magazine.