The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery By Parachute, and other Predictions From the Past

The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past - Editors of Popular Mechanics,  Gregory Benford

Growing up, there was one show my dad talked about that I had to see. This was Thunderbirds.



A 1960s Supermarionation puppet show from the U.K., the setting was in 2000s (I think the 2100s actually) with all the amazing vehicles, etc. that would go with that at the time. Monorails, nuclear powered movers of the Empire State Building, and the fantastic International Rescue machines themselves, cemented in me a love for this futuristic look at the future. Not to mention Star Trek TOS and other Science-Fiction books and shows.1


I expected a book full of pictures from old Popular Mechanics as well as quotes from the articles and snarky comments from the author. And while there is plenty of the first two in here, what really amazed me was the thought-provoking text in the book's introduction as well as at the beginning of each chapter. As a science-fiction author as well as a physics professor and a former adviser to NASA, Benford lends a unique perspective to the predictions; going beyond the science and looking at the social, economic, and out of the box thinking that caused many of these predictions to be false.


"... Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about these kinds of predictions is that people never thought so much information and service would be just given away.

Looking back on it all, it's useful to see how linear thinking can be outflanked by a wholly new idea. In the 1920s, contemplating that in the United States there might be as many as 50 million radio listeners, a pundit said, 'The best solution may be a system of radio relay stations 20 miles apart on the level plains, perhaps 60 miles apart on the mountain peaks.'

Instead, satellites took over. Arthur Clarke's geosynchronous satellites now orbit by the thousands in what's now called the Clarke Orbit, doing this job for radio, telephones, and countless communications - at an astonishingly low cost." (p. 78, 81)


Equally amazing was how close some of the predictions were, though more in a wider view then in specifics.


Radio Communication Engineers Shrink the Globe

"...Suppose you let them take you for an electronic ride into the future.

Seat yourself in an easy chair in the parlor, cross your carpet slippers, and settle back to read the evening newspaper reproduced page by page on your television set. A bell rings in a box at your elbow. Someone hurries into the room and says that it must be a letter from Johnny, so you flick a switch on the facsimile machine and put in a piece of paper..." (p. 95-96)

While the equipment and setting might be different, we have newspapers on our ebook readers or tablets, and our phones signal when someone emails us.


Supersonic jets2 , basically a blue-tooth set along with the new security system mobile apps3 , and many others were seen, though as Benford said:

"Such futures resurrected the past, allowing audiences to buy into technologies that followed well-trodden narrative paths. This helped sell technologies because if they changed only the material world--leaving social arrangements intact--these futures were easier to digest. So we saw megacities whose men wore bowler hats and attended genteel concerts with ladies whose skirts grazed the ground. Nobody foresaw rock-concerts amphitheaters with mosh pits filled by skimpily clad sybarites." (p. 21)

 Other predictions nearly made me green with envy. Monorails I've long wanted to see prevalent (see Thunderbirds above for the reason), but "dust magnets" that keep curtains clean for months4 , flying fans (compared to flying carpets) as a means of travel5, and airships6 also make my "why don't we have these!?" list. Though I could do without the asbestos dresses7!


The make up of this book was perfect. Brimming over with illustrations that come straight from old science-fiction or at least the minds of people who envisioned it, the book goes further by printing on yellowed-looking photo paper with even the inserts, prediction year banners, and more giving the book the feel as if you're looking through a classic book. The front-piece even reminds me of those x-ray glasses for sale, etc. from the backs of comics. However, I did find about three instances of print errors, such as m an-rocket, etc. I only mention because usually these completely escape my notice.


A great book for people who grew up reading these Popular Mechanics or for those who simply love to look at what might have been. I also suggest it for Science-Fiction lovers, as much of this will not only be familar but it might give you some food for thought.



1. [For those of you who haven't seen Thunderbirds and think it looks...stupid or funny because they're puppet, give it a go. The stories are quite good and even my husband (who once laughed at them) likes them now. 1]

2. [1950,Page 159]

3. [1956, Page 64]

4. [1938, Page 54]

5. [1957, Page 151,154]

6. [1929, 1938, Page 190]

7. [1929, Page 54]