Prediction is a tricky art. Those that dare peer into the future often find themselves ridiculed by those with the benefit of hindsight. But without individuals who are willing to stick their neck out, we would not have such a rich record of the hopes and fears of previous generations.
These forward-looking archives – in newspapers, magazines and films – have led to a new kind of historian – the palaeofuturist. And from where we sit now, we can sift through this scrapheap of lost futures and try to make sense of the present.
Take 3D television (3DTV). At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas – the annual convention where consumer technology companies come to show off their future wares – the floor was buzzing about the next great technological hope: the TV. But of course, tomorrow’s TV is voice-activated, web-connected and 3D. If that last part sounds familiar, it might be because the big television manufacturers were all banking on 3DTV as the saviour of their stagnant industry at last year’s CES, and the one before that and… well you get the picture. But this is not a recent phenomenon. We have heard these promises about the 3D future of TV repeated time and again throughout the 20th Century.
In the 1930s, for example, smokers were treated to a glimpse of this future. Stephen Mitchell and Son, a cigarette manufacturer in Glasgow, Scotland, produced promotional cards for their cigarette packs called The World of Tomorrow. The black and white picture cards featured fantastical illustrated predictions of the future: robots, spacesuits and streamlined vehicles of all types.
There is also one of a 3DTV. The card shows a gigantic television image from the 1936 film Things to Come. The card proclaimed that one day, television images would be transmitted, as if by magic, in colour and three dimensions.
Coming less than a decade after the introduction of broadcast television, it was a big claim. But the makers of the cards had reason to be confident that this technology was just around the corner.
In the mid-1920s, John L Baird of Scotland tinkered with the transmission of live television images, making the first public demonstration of the medium in January 1926. His “radio movies” were shown on his “televisor”, as the Oakland Tribune called it, and only two years later he was already tinkering with “stereoscopic”, or 3D, television.
Baird’s experiments, however crude, proved successful. But ultimately his 3D television had no commercial potential, because it could be viewed by only one person at a time standing directly in front of the screen. Not great for a social activity.
But Baird was not the only one tinkering with 3DTV. In 1931, Modern Mechanics magazine ran Television in Three Dimensions, a profile of a radio engineer in Connecticut named Leslie Gould. The piece claimed that Gould had developed a way to televise 3D images using neon tubes, a revolving shutter drum and a TV receiver. History shows that his ideas did not take off either.
The lack of 3D did little to hamper the take-up of television sets. A headline from 1953 declared that the city of Chicago now had more television sets than bathtubs.
This rapid emergence of TV in the 1950s was seen as a threat by the movie industry, since it allowed people to be entertained in the comfort of their own homes. They needed a new weapon to lure people back, and they too turned to 3D. The release of Bwana Devil in 3D in 1952 sparked a craze, and it was said to be “Hollywood’s answer to television”.