It’s often hilarious to look back at how past generations envisioned the future. We live in that future, and it’s far different from what people in the mid- or even late 20th-century expected. I don’t know anyone who gets to work via a jet-propelled backpack, or who has a robot housekeeper. On the other hand, we take miracle drugs to combat disease, read and send our mail electronically in a matter of seconds and have 700-some TV channels (and nothing’s on worth watching).
Yet sometimes those future predictions made many years ago have come to pass. Here are 10 future technology predictions that were right.
The cellphone, like many other technologies we now take for granted, traces its earliest development to military applications during World War II. The first cellphone call using a handheld device was made in 1973 in New York City. However, commercial cellphone providers didn’t begin major marketing campaigns until the late 1980s. Here’s a 1989 commercial from a forgotten cellphone provider, foreshadowing the future of cellphone calls. Note: The man, apparently distracted by his conversation, drives a heavy vehicle onto a rickety boat dock, inviting disaster. Hey, at least he can call for a rescue.
9. Weather Radar
Long before local TV stations used their weather personnel as a marketing tool with melodramatic slogans such as “The Storm Team,” there was Gil Whitney, a weatherman at WHIO Channel 7 in Dayton, Ohio. Whitney was on duty April 3-4, 1974, when almost 150 tornadoes erupted in 13 Midwestern and Eastern states. Known as the Super Outbreak, it is regarded as one of the worst tornado outbreaks in the country’s history, claiming more than 300 lives.
That toll could have been higher if not for the efforts of Whitney. Weather radar, especially at local TV affiliates, was in its infancy in that era, but Whitney correctly identified the hook echo of a thunderstorm, warning viewers of the potential tornado. He later correctly pinpointed the path of the storm down to the neighborhood level, giving residents additional warning. The resulting tornado was the day’s deadliest twister, leveling Xenia, Ohio and killing 34 residents. It was classified as an F5 tornado, and is widely regarded as one of the most powerful tornadoes to hit the United States. Since that tragic day, weather radar has saved an untold number of lives thanks to storm warnings.
8. Internet News
The Internet traces its origins to the 1960s, when United States officials concerned about the possibility of nuclear war began developing a system to link computers between defense installations such as the Pentagon and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. The first such network, known as ARPANET, began operation in 1969. A commercial-based service known as Telenet was founded in the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s, some consumers began exploring this new technology. Of course, it sounded ridiculous at the time to many people – using a computer to read the news? That’s what newspapers are for! These people were on the cutting edge of the computer revolution in 1981.
This 1945 film developed for servicemen returning from World War II explains changes in civilian life. A communications industry official in the opening tells veterans that a new technology, television, “is most certainly here to stay.” At a time when only a tiny fraction of American homes had television sets, this film predicted the rise of remote TV news trucks, “large TVs” measuring 16 inches by 22 inches, and a booming labor market for TV assembly workers, salesmen and repairmen. True in the 1940s through the 1960s, maybe, not so true today. Fortunately, the narrator didn’t foresee the rise of cheesy reality shows. He might have burst into tears.
6. GPS Navigation
Imagine getting into your car and having a computer display guide you to your destination. Wait, you did that today? We now take GPS navigation for granted, but it’s a relatively recent development. Although such technology was first tested in military applications in 1960, commercial uses for satellite navigation didn’t become a reality until the 1990s. This AT&T ad from 1993 foreshadows everyday GPS use for consumers. This clip also displays the use of mobile internet applications, ebooks and a tablet-type computer, all in development at the time, but still years away from the mass market.
5. Microwave Ovens
Skip forward to the 4:45 mark on this 1971 video about the new technology of microwave cooking. To demonstrate how microwaves were a “space age” technology, the video shows NASA chefs microwaving frozen foods for the astronauts. One would suspect astronauts today are encouraged to eat meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. Microwave popcorn is probably OK. As the video predicted, microwaves are a part of every home today, but their use was exaggerated. It’s feasible to use a microwave to cook lobster tails, chicken breasts and short ribs, but most people today still use more traditional cooking methods.
4. Clothing and Cellphones
Here’s a comical look at what “famous” 1930s fashion designers predicted would be the fashion trends for the year 2000. The result? Something out of a Madonna video from the 1990s. Later in the film, fashion designers predicted men’s clothing would have no pockets, but his costume would include space for a “telephone, radio and containers for coins, keys and candy for cuties.”
3. Computer Graphics
Anyone who makes their living in graphic arts or website design will get a chuckle out of this 1972 video about the history of computer graphics. What was cutting-edge technology in that era, performed only by highly trained professionals on computers costing thousands of dollars, can be accomplished today by a preschooler using free software.
2. Interstate Highways
The next time you get on an interstate highway, accelerate to 70 mph or so and start digging around for a CD to play, remember to thank President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway System with his signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, culminating a decades-long personal dream for him. As a young Army officer in 1919, he participated in a cross-country convoy designed to test the U.S. military’s ability to respond to threats. According to Dan McNichol’s book, The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System, given the poor shape of roads in that era, the convoy averaged only 58 miles per day on its 3,000-mile journey to the West Coast. As an Army general during World War II, Eisenhower saw first-hand the importance good highways played in national defense. Today, Eisenhower’s interstate system covers more than 46,000 miles in the U.S., and is regarded as the largest public works project in world history.
1. On-Line Shopping and Email
This video clip from 1967 displays incredible foresight about the future of on-line shopping and email on home computers. It’s easy to laugh at the primitive credit/debit displays on the home computer screens, but remember this video was made almost 20 years before the term “internet” became commonplace. And most consumers didn’t become comfortable with online shopping until 2000 or later (and some people are still reluctant to shop online).
The husband’s subtle disapproval when he reviews his wife’s purchases is almost comical. At least the man had something to look forward to. As he sat down at his computer, the announcer notes that “also at his disposal is an electronic correspondence machine, or a home post office, which allows for instant written communication between individuals anywhere in the world.” Today we call that email. We can only wonder if the man received any special offers that day to make millions transferring funds for former Nigerian oil ministers.