Thursday, October 19, 2006

Where are the modern miracles?

I've always been fascinated by futurology articles, since they tell you so much about the times they were written in. The Modern Mechanix blog has a great article along those lines: "Miracles You'll See in the Next Fifty Years", published in the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics, by Waldemar Kaempffert. Kaempffert was no ordinary reporter. He had a long career in science journalism, with stints as managing editor of Scientific American (1900-1916), editor of Popular Science Monthly (1916-1922), and Editor of Science and Engineering at the New York Times (1922-1928, 1931-1956). He was also director of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for several years, leaving after a dispute with the board of directors over the objectivity of the exhibits (and his lax accounting practices).

Kaempffert saw first hand the rapid development in technology. He was born in New York in 1877, the year after Bell patented the telephone. He saw the rise of the automobile, the movie, penicillin and the atomic bomb. His wife, Carolyn nee Yeaton, a former concert pianist and music teacher, died in 1933. They had no children, and it doesn't appear that Kaempffert ever remarried. In 1950, when this article was published, Kaempffert was 72 years old.

In the article he describes the typical day of the "Dobsons", who live in a suburb, population 100,000. He is clearly enamored by the potential of "better living through chemistry", and, despite 50 years of progress, envisions a world where the husband goes to work and the wife stays home to cook and clean. The power plants are fueled by the sun, rather than coal or the atom. Houses are made of synthetic material, because wood brick and stone are "too expensive". They are built to only last 25 years and cost a mere $5,000 (predicting the real estate market was definitely not one of Kaempffert's strengths).

Everything was synthetic and disposable. There's no dishwasher because the plates and cups are made from dissolvable synthetics. Food is either purchased as partially cooked and frozen or "synthetic".
Discarded paper table “linen” and rayon underwear are bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy.
Yum, yum!

Mrs. Dobson, who, of course, stays home and does the housework. She has it easy, because everything can simply be hosed down or recycled. She apparently is very good at aiming the hose at the furniture while missing the paintings on the wall and the knick-knacks.
When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors — all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. Jane Dobson throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but Jane Dobson has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.
I find it kind of amusing that hosing down bedsheets would somehow be preferable to putting them in a wash machine. Maybe there weren't wash machines in 1950?

Of course the world of the future does have some whiz bang technology. People use television-phones and businessmen have what we would call video conference calls. Factories are largely automated. The weather is accurately predicted and under control. Joe Dobson commutes to work via helicoptor and supersonic rocket planes cross the Atlantic. Oddly, no one has yet orbited the moon.

I think Kaempffert comes closest to the real 21st century when he discusses the use of antibiotics.
In the middle of the 20th century, doctors talked much of such antibiotics as penicillin, streptomycin, aureomycin and about 50 others that had been extracted from soil and other molds. It was the beginning of what was even then known as chemotherapy—cure by chemical means. By 2000, physicians have several hundred of these chemical agents or antibiotics at their command. Tuberculosis in all of its forms is cured as easily as pneumonia was cured at mid-century.

It no longer is necessary in 2000 to administer the purified extracts of molds to cope with bacterial infections. The antibiotics are all synthesized in chemical factories. It is possible to modify their molecular structure, so that they acquire new and useful properties.
Kaempffert accurately predicts that scientists will use information on the structure of viruses to engineer treatments, but is a bit overoptimistic in thinking that influenza and the cold would be cured. He was about right with other predictions though:
Cancer is not yet curable in 2000. But physicians optimistically predict that the time is not far off when it will be cured.
Of course he missed the major changes in technology, like the miniaturized silicon chip that's at the heart of most of our electronics and the discovery of the structure and function of DNA (Watson and Crick's discovery was three years after this article was published). He has a little too much faith in the power of chemistry to change the world without negative side effects, and he ignores the idea that technological change will also bring social change . If you have video phones, why not telecommute? What does Jane do if she spends little time cooking and cleaning? I like the optimism of the article, but the hit or miss accuracy from someone who was knowledgeable about science shows that we should take any such predictions with a grain of salt.

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