Where is my flying car?

In 1902, H. G Wells penned a book, remarkably prophetic in some respects, that can be taken as the definition of the fin de siecle take on the probable course of the 20th century. It was called Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought. You can find it here at Project Gutenberg.

He writes:

Ever and again during the eighteenth century an engine would be put upon the roads and pronounced a failure–one monstrous Paloferric creature was visible on a French high road as early as 1769–but by the dawn of the nineteenth century the problem had very nearly got itself solved. By 1804 Trevithick had a steam locomotive indisputably in motion and almost financially possible, and from his hands it puffed its way, slowly at first, and then, under Stephenson, faster and faster, to a transitory empire over the earth. It was a steam locomotive–but for all that it was primarily _a steam engine for pumping_ adapted to a new end; it was a steam engine whose ancestral stage had developed under conditions that were by no means exacting in the matter of weight. And from that fact followed a consequence that has hampered railway travel and transport very greatly, and that is tolerated nowadays only through a belief in its practical necessity. The steam locomotive was all too huge and heavy for the high road–it had to be put upon rails. And so clearly linked are steam engines and railways in our minds that, in common language now, the latter implies the former. But indeed it is the result of accidental impediments, of avoidable difficulties that we travel to-day on rails.

Railway travelling is at best a compromise. The quite conceivable ideal of locomotive convenience, so far as travellers are concerned, is surely a highly mobile conveyance capable of travelling easily and swiftly to any desired point, traversing, at a reasonably controlled pace, the ordinary roads and streets, and having access for higher rates of speed and long-distance travelling to specialized ways restricted to swift traffic, and possibly furnished with guide-rails. For the collection and delivery of all sorts of perishable goods also the same system is obviously altogether superior to the existing methods. Moreover, such a system would admit of that secular progress in engines and vehicles that the stereotyped conditions of the railway have almost completely arrested, because it would allow almost any new pattern to be put at once upon the ways without interference with the established traffic. Had such an ideal been kept in view from the first the traveller would now be able to get through his long-distance journeys at a pace of from seventy miles or more an hour without changing, and without any of the trouble, waiting, expense, and delay that arises between the household or hotel and the actual rail. It was an ideal that must have been at least possible to an intelligent person fifty years ago, and, had it been resolutely pursued, the world, instead of fumbling from compromise to compromise as it always has done and as it will do very probably for many centuries yet, might have been provided to-day, not only with an infinitely more practicable method of communication, but with one capable of a steady and continual evolution from year to year.

Do you see it? I don’t think there could be, in retrospect, a clearer case made for the private automobile. We see it — but Wells doesn’t.

Let us consider what other possibilities seem to offer themselves. Let us revert to the ideal we have already laid down, and consider what hopes and obstacles to its attainment there seem to be. The abounding presence of numerous experimental motors to-day is so stimulating to the imagination, there are so many stimulated persons at work upon them, that it is difficult to believe the obvious impossibility of most of them–their convulsiveness, clumsiness, and, in many cases, exasperating trail of stench will not be rapidly fined away.[6] I do not think that it is asking too much of the reader’s faith in progress to assume that so far as a light powerful engine goes, comparatively noiseless, smooth-running, not obnoxious to sensitive nostrils, and altogether suitable for high road traffic, the problem will very speedily be solved. And upon that assumption, in what direction are these new motor vehicles likely to develop? how will they react upon the railways? and where finally will they take us?

At present they seem to promise developments upon three distinct and definite lines.

There will, first of all, be the motor truck for heavy traffic. Already such trucks are in evidence distributing goods and parcels of various sorts. And sooner or later, no doubt, the numerous advantages of such an arrangement will lead to the organization of large carrier companies, using such motor trucks to carry goods in bulk or parcels on the high roads. Such companies will be in an exceptionally favourable position to organize storage and repair for the motors of the general public on profitable terms, and possibly to co-operate in various ways with the manufactures of special types of motor machines.

In the next place, and parallel with the motor truck, there will develop the hired or privately owned motor carriage. This, for all except the longest journeys, will add a fine sense of personal independence to all the small conveniences of first-class railway travel. It will be capable of a day’s journey of three hundred miles or more, long before the developments to be presently foreshadowed arrive. One will change nothing–unless it is the driver–from stage to stage. One will be free to dine where one chooses, hurry when one chooses, travel asleep or awake, stop and pick flowers, turn over in bed of a morning and tell the carriage to wait–unless, which is highly probable, one sleeps aboard.[7]…

And thirdly there will be the motor omnibus, attacking or developing out of the horse omnibus companies and the suburban lines. All this seems fairly safe prophesying.

And that’s it. So near, and yet so far. No private cars, or more precisely, private cars to the extent we have private planes, for people who can afford chauffeurs. As I quoted in Nanofuture, historian of technology D. S. L. Cardwell wrote:

If we turn to contemporary speculation in order to gain some idea of men’s expectations of the technology of their times, we find that in their predictions of the future, or rather their extrapolations of contemporary technological trends as they interpreted them, writers often made shrewd prophecies. Following the inventions of telegraphy and telephony, television could readily be imagined; air travel by heavier-than-air machines (usually powered by steam-engines and therefore boasting handsome funnels) was confidently predicted long before the Wright brothers’ first flight. Even the atomic bomb was, it is claimed, forecast by H. G. Wells not very long after the beginnings of sub-atomic physics.

It is, however, a truly remarkable fact that on the very brink of an economic-technological revolution unparalleled in history no one foresaw the universal motor car and all that it was soon to imply. This failure on the part of imformed and perceptive men to grasp the significance of what was going on under their very noses must make us suspicious of all attempts to forecast technological developments even one or two years ahead, much less ten or twenty.

It’s all, I claim, a matter of economics. Assembly-line factories made machinery — automobiles — cheap enough for individuals to own. That would have been unheard of in the nineteenth century. Nanofactories will do the same for us in the twenty-first.

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