Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Days of future past

Engineers at McDonnell Douglas have put forward ideas for a rocket-liner called Hyperion which they claim could carry passengers, 170 at a time, from one side of the globe to the other in just forty-five minutes by the 'eighties. A trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu would take eighteen minutes.
You don't believe it will ever happen? There was a time when wise men proclaimed that if God had intended men to fly He would have given them wings.
The concluding sentences of Aircraft, John W R Taylor's 1971 potted history of aviation. To the primary-school aged me, this sounded like a perfectly reasonable extrapolation of trends being forged in the white heat of Concorde-era techno-optimism. Which only goes to prove Neils Bohr's point that prediction is difficult, especially if it's about the future.

These days, there's still plenty of extrapolation going on, although sub-twenty minute flights from LA to Hawaii are mostly off the agenda, replaced by techno-utopian/dystopian futures in which the machines have either liberated humanity from toil and oppression, made their human hosts desire inexplicable products like Internet-connected fridges, trashed our jobs with automated obsolescence or terminated us in a swarm of rogue killer bots.

The only prediction I'm making is that most of these predicted futures will one day sound as quaintly retro as the term "rocket-liner" sounds today. As quaint, say, as this:
Fetch the howitzer! Some fool's armed the robot with a pistol!
Which sounds like a failed prophecy of some whimsical robopocalypse, although it's really a sentence from Schott's Miscellany, illustrating three words of Czech origin commonly used in English.