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Notes From the Field

Things To Come

Winter 1999 | Volume 14 |  Issue 3

ONE GREAT EVENT OF EVERY MODERN AMERI can’s youth was watching the family car’s odometer turn over. When the mileage approached a multiple of 1,000—or even 10,000, on a particularly lucky day—all conversation would cease as riders tracked the dial’s hypnotic crawl: 999.1, 999.2, 999.3. … When the longed-for moment finally arrived, the 9’s turned into O’s with the flawless synchronization of a Rockettes kick line, and everyone spent a few moments in silent contemplation. Then, always, someone would sarcastically remark, “Boy, that was exciting!” And the entire car would collapse in giggles.

We may be headed for the same sort of anticlimax when 1999 turns to 2000. Still, as the end of a century approaches, the temptation to commemorate the past and forecast the future is irresistible. A hundred years ago the inventor Hudson Maxim—known for his work in explosives and munitions and for being Hiram Maxim’s brother —predicted the technological world to come in an article called “Inventions That Ought to Be Invented” (published in Woman’s Home Companion , of all places). While such exercises in prophecy are often absurd flights of fancy, most of Maxim’s visions have turned out to be impressively close to the truth.


Predictors of future technology face two main pitfalls. At one extreme they assume that whatever can be dreamed up will eventually exist. At the other they foresee only incremental changes to current technology instead of entirely new directions. Maxim is fairly cautious on the first count, his only major slip coming when he endorses Thomas Edison’s assertion that someday “a bucketful of coal should drive an express-train from New York to Philadelphia.” Otherwise he stays firmly within the realm of possibility.

On the second count Maxim suffers from the misfortune of writing just a few years before the transportation revolution of the twentieth century. He dismisses the importance of the automobile (“it attains speed only on deadly conditions”) and even more so aviation (“though the aeronaut is one of the foremost of present-day scientific sensationalists, the [railroad] engineer knows that he really holds the field”). The greatest transportation improvement Maxim could envision was “a train that will cover two miles a minute.” Maxim himself had struggled to build an automobile, and his brother had attempted heavier-than-air flight with little success, so he may have been too strongly impressed with the limitations of these technologies. Because of this narrow outlook, when he imagines aerial military reconnaissance, he assumes that it will be done with balloons. Much less cautious are his forecasts for the still-new technology of electricity (which he expects to revolutionize agriculture, medicine, cooking, and transportation) and the just-discovered radium (which will provide abundant heat and light and even enable the blind to see).

Otherwise Maxim’s predictions of today’s high technology are surprisingly prescient for a child of the Maine woods who got his first pair of shoes at the age of 13. He envisions global communications (“it will be as easy to telephone from New York to Pékin as from New York to Brooklyn”—even truer now that calling Brooklyn requires an area code), fax (“the actual portrait of an absent friend transmitted by telegraph”), medical imaging (“it will be [as] easy … to see the interior of the body and to explore its recesses as it is now to survey the exterior”), and all the manifestations of today’s video age (“our descendants will … witness by perfected kinematographs the weddings of any of their friends at the antipodes, the battles being fought on the other side of the world, and the races of horses, yachts and boats in every land”).

Equally impressive, if less farsighted, are Maxim’s predictions of the Haber nitrogen-fixing process, developed during World War I (“to catch the elusive and flirtatious floating nitrogen,” he passionately declares, “is one of the most cherished objects of present-day explorers among Nature’s secrets”), and fluorescent lighting (“lamps that have the radiance of the sun and the coldness of the moon”), which would be commercialized in the 1930s. Colorfast dyes, another item on Maxim’s wish list, are taken for granted today, as are color photography and (to a degree) “cheap cotton and wool fabrics [that] cannot be distinguished from silk.” Genetic engineers have recently accomplished Maxim’s expected “transfer of the perfume of any scented flower to another that is naturally inodorous.”

A few of the problems Maxim cites have still not been completely solved. “Some day,” he says, “there will be discovered a method of gathering and storing the energy of the direct rays of the sun for use in producing a heat-motor. But the practical sun-engine is still among the ‘uninvented inventions.’” While solar energy has been adapted to many uses, economical large-scale solar power plants remain an elusive goal. The same goes for another Maxim desideratum: “a cheap and practical storage-battery” for long-distance transportation. Though much progress has been made, engineers have yet to produce an electric car that is fully competitive with internal combustion.

Technological prophecies are often absurd flights of fancy, but most of Maxim’s predictions for this century have turned out to be impressively close to the truth.

Despite Maxim’s peculiar enthusiasm for oversized produce, the world has ignored his visions of “strawberries as large as fine apples” and “roses … as big as cabbages.” Food pills (“all kinds of nutriment … condensed into tabloids containing in very tiny compass the essentials to sustain life”) have seen little use outside of “The Jetsons,” while “cheap native rubber … harvested by machinery” was made unnecessary by the syntheticrubber program of the 1930s and 1940s.

For the most part Maxim’s successful predictions have three things in common: They violate no known laws of nature, they are extrapolated from actual research, and they fulfill a legitimate need. Those who forecast the world of 2099 would do well to bear in mind these constraints- respectively physical, technical, and human—and resist the urge to assume that a technology can violate one of them simply because it satisfies the other two.

A New Edison Biography

THOMAS EDISON HAS ALWAYS BEEN A DAUNTING subject for biographers. He seems to have saved everything he ever wrote, so anyone wishing to do a proper job must wade through thousands and thousands of pages of documents. Most of them are highly technical and require a detailed understanding of nineteenth-century engineering practice. Finally, to provide more than a mere recitation of inventions and dates, the biographer must acquire and convey a detailed sense of the man and his era.

Until now the best biography has been Matthew Josephson’s Edison (1959). Josephson was a former poet, Dadaist, and socialist who during a long literary career wrote biographies of such diverse figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Juan Trippe, and Gov. Al Smith of New York. Despite his lack of scientific training, Josephson did an excellent job of placing Edison’s work within the technological and social currents of the time, while his background in business writing gave him insight into the economic aspects.

Still, in the nearly four decades since it appeared, some five million pages of Edison’s archives have been catalogued and the history of technology has been transformed from an antiquarian’s pastime to a thriving academic discipline. Now Paul Israel, after 18 years of work on the monumental Edison Papers project (where he is managing editor), has published his own account of the great inventor’s life, Edison: A Life in Invention (Wiley, $30.00). In so doing, he has achieved the same fusion of technical rigor and cultural context as Josephson while taking advantage of a comprehensive acquaintance with the inventor’s life and work.

Some of the discoveries Israel has made are important, others merely fascinating. In 1886, for example, the inventor’s bride, Mina, took the “share your husband’s interests” approach to extremes by joining him in the laboratory and keeping records of his experiments. (She gave it up when she became pregnant.) In 1911, when a clergyman attacked the freethinking Edison and called the Bible “the greatest nature book in all the world,” the inventor scribbled: “This is the limit We better use it for our chemical, Biological, & physical Expts as Text book—its so informing about nature.” And in 1930, a year before his death, Edison (a lifelong disciple of the abstemious sixteenth-century nutritionist Luigi Cornaro) reported that his entire daily diet consisted of two quarts of milk and an orange. “I do not lose weight,” he added.

As one would expect from an archivist, the text is dense with quotations and tends to be shaped by the voluminous paper trail left by Edison, his business associates, and his research staff. In a few places the scholarly orientation may be a bit too strong for some readers, as when Israel evaluates Edison’s childhood pranks in terms of a social historian’s “recent study of nineteenth-century ‘boy culture.’ ” On the other hand, the author does an excellent job of elucidating the organizational structure of Edison’s companies and laboratories and showing how he reconciled his wideranging inventive fancies with the many business deals he was involved in. In the future Israel’s biography will stand alongside Josephson’s as a standard source for anyone interested in discovering America’s greatest inventor and finding out what made him run.

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