Predicting the future… in the 1950s

In January 1956, The American Weekly published an article looking at the future. Many magazines in the 1940s and 1950s tried to peer into the future. So how much of it has become reality? After the depression, and Second World War, the 1950s were a time of hope, prosperity, new products, and the move to the suburbs. Things had changed so quickly that there was hope that the near future would bring even more wonderful automation into the life of the average person. Here we will look at the house of the future. One quote states: “How would you like to bake a two-layer cake in a cold oven in six minutes? Press a button and have ultrasonic, or silent, sound waves wash the dishes?” It is likely that people in the 1950s looked upon such statements with more awe than now. Nowadays if somebody makes an incredible statement about some future technology, few if any are truly awed. Has technology become too ubiquitous? Let’s explore the future in 1956 by looking at what became reality and what was truly science fiction.


The front cover, by artist Fred McNabb, shows the family of the future having a party.

“Friends are arriving by personal helicopter. The push-button food unit is keeping some things cool, thawing others, and popping ice cubes out. The microwave stove is making the cooking chore a matter of a few minutes. Portable TV provides the floor show and ultraviolet rays from the funnels around the lawn are drenching the blooming flowers. In the background, the chemically treated shrubs are holding their color against the winter and far in the distance are those typical signs of a future day – a monorail train and needle-pointed atom aircraft.”

  • Moving sidewalks – “will take you to and from work, shopping, even to a ball game or movie“. Reality Moving sidewalks are real, but they only tend to exist in airports to help people walk the long terminals. Industrial conveyors “extending for miles across the countryside“, not so much.
  • New skylines – “a towered wonderland of glass and porcelain-enameled steel, or aluminum and titanium and beryllium“. Reality Although glass and aluminum are more the go, largely because they are cheap. They did predict that skyscrapers wouldn’t likely “get up to 100 stories” – which of course they did. Weird prediction considering the Empire State Building is 102 stories and was built in the 1930s.
  • Personal helicopters – “step into your own helicopter and hop over to the nearest airport“. Fiction Well, reality if you are wealthy and can afford (i) the helicopter and (ii) the place to land it. “Helibuses like local trains” – too expensive, even if anybody wanted to do this.
  • Travel by rockets – “zip across the United States – or across the Atlantic – in an hour“. Fiction. The closest we came was with the Concorde, which took somewhere between 3-4 hours to get across the Atlantic.
  • The jet age – Airplanes that “whisk some 135 passengers across the Atlantic in little more than six hours“. Reality Surpassed from a capacity point-of-view, if not from a speed perspective. In some respects the golden age of air travel has passed.
  • Atom power for planes – Within 20 years, American Airlines predicted it would have “atom craft“, allowing people to “commute to London“. Fiction Likely really no. Not now, not ever. Not a good idea. Ships, yeah no problem. Atomic planes? F-O-R-G-E-T it.
  • Space flight – “that long-talked-about trip to the moon“. It’s “an approaching certainty” they concluded. Possible Trips to the moon? Yeah you could likely get there from a technology perspective. Nothing to do when you do get there though. We actually might be regressing from a space exploration point-of-view.
  • Cars – “a telescopic eye… and radar brakes“. They though engines would move to the rear of the car, and actually be replaced by gas turbines, or what they termed “pinwheel jets“. Reality. There are cars like this – they are called dragsters. That’s a recipe for people getting hurt than they do now. Use of a “telescopic eye“, which is essentially an infrared camera? Reality. Cars like the Audi A8 have a Night Vision Assistant that works this way.
  • Railroads – “the much publicized double-decker cars of today will be commonplace“. Reality. They became a reality in the 1950s, and these days these double-decker cars are used extensively on commuter lines. “Monorails … will provide fast service between some metropolitan centers and outlying cities.” Fiction. Monorails have been used, but often only in an urban context – still a work in progress. “atom power for locomotives“. Fiction. Like atomic planes  – again N-O-T a good idea.
  • Atom power for shipsReality. Nuclear powered naval ships like the USS Long Beach and USS Enterprise appeared in 1961 and were successful. Nuclear powered submarines, ok. Merchant ships, apart from nuclear-powered icebreakers? Not so much. “atom-powered undersea freighters“, Fiction. Easier to make ships larger.

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