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The future according to Popular Mechanics

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Dresses made of asbestos, nuclear-powered airplanes, personal jetpacks and houses that use artificial light so it’s always a bright summer day: These are some of the ways people of the past envisioned the world of the future.

These images come from the now-musty pages of Popular Mechanics magazine issues from 1903 to 1969. Science-fiction writer Gregory Benford, who teaches physics and astronomy at UC Irvine, has edited a new book, “The Wonderful Future That Never Was,” in which his essays accompany the original art and the predictions themselves. (“Clothing made of aluminum,” says one from 1929, “will be in vogue within the near future, a German metallurgist predicts.”)

The book is both goofy fun and a telling sociological document. Benford found he could read American history in code through the dreams of the past. “The miracles of the future, in the early century, were about transportation,” he says. “It was a metaphor for leaving the farm and going to the city.”

By mid-century, fantasies of the future concerned personal and family spaces — huge bathrooms with pools and wet bars, cocooning and private communication; American society had turned inward. “When the housewife of 2000 cleans house,” a prediction from 1950 tells us, “she simply turns the hose on everything.”

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Benford concedes that it’s hard not to read about the world we were supposed to get — gadgets, leisure time, long weekends on the moon — and not feel let down. “But more than a nostalgia for the dreams of the past,” he says, “I was struck by the tone shift. In the worst of times — the 1930s — Popular Mechanics and science fiction were optimistic.” But as the ‘60s end, so does the rosy way we looked at the future. (Benford and PM’s editors chose to end the book with 1969’s predictions.)

The illustrations are part of the fun here. “Fashions seem especially static in that past future,” Benford writes. “Women fly in jets wearing ankle-length skirts with bustles, and seated men keep on their hats.”

How often was Popular Mechanics prescient? Almost 50% of the time, Benford says: The magazine predicted seemingly outlandish things like frozen dinners, mail delivered by airplane and people living routinely to the ripe age of 70. “What’s striking is how quickly we adapt a new technology and it becomes commonplace,” he says as he surveys the inventions of the last 100 years. “We come to be dependent on yesterday’s breakthroughs.”

calendar@latimes.com


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