Every day we are helped through life with products from some inventor’s imagination. Most of these products are so ingrained in our everyday lives that we rarely think of them as inventions. We use electricity, combustion engines, shoes and pasteurisation without giving them a second thought.
In a similar fashion, our modern disease-resistant grain varieties are the result of centuries of research and development, without which half the world’s population would starve to death. In other words, we are surrounded by inventions. Every artefact you can see from where you are, from the paper on your desk to the processor in your computer, was once nothing more than an idea. They are unlikely to all have the same history of development, but they all began with an inventor asking: wouldn’t it be amazing if…?
If we look through old scientific journals it quickly becomes clear that we have far more ideas than products. Obviously, not all ideas are mature enough to be implemented. For example, we have been ten years away from nuclear fusion for the last fifty years, but while there are good reasons for the lack of fusion energy, there are other ideas that, dein spite lots of enthusiasm, came to nothing – either because they were ahead of their time or because they simply never did have their time. As the title suggests, I have patiently waited all my life for the flying car (more than patiently, I would even say).
The dream of flying cars is likely almost as old as the car itself, but the idea didn’t really take off until the future-optimistic 1950s. At this time, most people already had an ordinary car, and it didn’t seem unrealistic that the next generation of cars would also fly. Manned space travel was just around the corner, and flying cars seemed the least you could expect. In spite of several prototypes and a big stack of concept drawings, well, the optimistic post-war generation never got their flying car – and, as mentioned, there are some of us who are still waiting.
Another high-flying promise that was never honoured was that of supersonic transport. I readily admit that we could admire the amazing Concorde for almost 25 years, but supersonic passenger transport never became an everyday thing. In the 1960s, when the entire airline industry was high on moon dust from the Apollo programme, we were promised trips to New York that would only take a few hours. This promise wasn’t just about luxury flights for millionaires. The expectation was that we would all ride the wave – supersonic transportation for the people.
The big aircraft manufacturers lined up with their new, fast-flying models, and their respective governments promised financial support by the bucketload. Boeing showed off its streamlined 2720 Concorde-lookalike; Lockheed had its L-2000, Sud Aviation upgraded its popular Caravelle to a supersonic Super-Caravelle, Bristol in the UK drew up the Type 223, and the Soviets built the Tupolev Tu-144 (which crashed spectacularly during the Paris Air Show in 1973). The future looked both bright and fast, but now, nearly fifty years later, we still don’t have supersonic passenger transport. The flight time between London and New York hasn’t decreased much since the introduction of the de Havilland Comet in 1958, and there are no signs that this will change in the foreseeable future.
And what about undersea cities? From my childhood I very clearly remember a wide range of articles about designing these fabulous constructions, and the idea is at least a generation older than me. The idea wasn’t just for small, Disneyesque undersea hotels; the point was actually that a part of humanity should start a new (and better) civilisation at the bottom of the sea. I am not quite sure of what should be so enticing about living under water, but that’s not really relevant. We were promised a new beginning at the bottom of the sea, and that promise wasn’t kept.
In addition to the individual technological promises, there was actually a whole branch of technology that never saw the light of day. I am naturally speaking of nuclear technology. In the 1950s, when nuclear optimism was at its height, people expected that all sorts of machines would be powered by nuclear reactors. We would get atom-powered trains (monorails, of course), airplanes, ships and even private cars (specifically the incomparable Ford Nucleon from 1958). However, this atomic honeymoon abruptly ended in the early 1960s when people started dying from various radiation sicknesses and when small, private nuclear power plants turned out to be a particularly bad idea. Nuclear power also became synonymous with the Cold War arms race, and we are now so scared of the atom that we can barely speak of the technology, even in its most harmless form.
I guess that the moral in this story is that just because we can imagine something, it isn’t certain that there is a practical solution to anything at all. In spite of this, the ideas mentioned above still crop up in the media from time to time (particularly the flying car). There still are people dreaming the same dreams as the previous generation. They are willing to pursue ideas even if they have been abandoned by others as being impractical. Perhaps this is the fundamental power behind all invention? The courage to think: wouldn’t it be amazing if…?
ABOUT the photo:
In the 1950s, nuclear energy was considered clean, healthy and the energy of the future. The photo shows Ford Nucleon, 1958, an atomic-powered car that never came to fruition, despite financial support from the American state.