Amazing Inventions and Concoctions

As we get older, we forget what’s new and what’s not. In 1988, Amazing Inventions and Concoctions by Howard Elson (Octopus, UK) introduced ten-year-olds to quirky facts about old inventions and to the newest technology of the time. It makes thought-provoking reading today.

Media and communications technology

The default audio technology was gramophone records. Walkman cassette-tape players were cutting edge, replacing (according to the jokey illustration, at least) open-reel tape recorders. The book overlooked CDs, which were first released commercially in 1982 and going strong by 1985 when Dire Straits became the first artist to sell a million copies of a song on CD. Similarly, videotape was new in 1975 and DVDs, developed from CD technology in the early 1990s, weren’t even on the book’s horizon. Both CD and DVD, in turn, are now in decline, being replaced by purely digital sales.

The invention of photographic film a century earlier is celebrated, but with no mention of digital cameras, let alone any prediction that film would vanish from consumer photography within fifteen years.

‘There is a fortune waiting for anyone who can invent an efficient typewriter that can be used in Japan,’ according to the book. Not now, there isn’t: typewriters are obsolete and the Japanese are perfectly happy with their computers, just like the rest of us. Yet computers for personal use don’t even make it into the book.

Online shopping was experimental, as was the possibility that aircraft passengers could telephone people on the ground; and the fax machine ‘in a few years could make sending letters a thing of the past.’ Two out of three is not bad, but the fax itself is nearly history now.

Transport

Concorde was relatively new (it entered service in 1976) and still glamorous; but it is was withdrawn from use in 2003 with no successors. It seems that the demand for speed had met its limits.

The pedal-powered aircraft Gossamer Albatross crossed the English Channel in 1979. What did that lead to? Ask Wikipedia: “As of 2008, human-powered aircraft have been successfully flown over considerable distances. However, they are primarily constructed as an engineering challenge rather than for any kind of recreational or utilitarian purpose.”

A solar powered car developed for the World Solar Challenge in 1987 has done rather better. The Challenge is still being run and its technologies have spun off into both battery-electric vehicles and solar panels for non-transport applications.

Hi-tech sailing ships get a mention: ‘now that the world’s natural supply of oil is running out fast, the Japanese in particular are pioneering ways of returning to sail power to propel their ships into the 21st century.’ It now seems like an even better idea, but little progress has been made. Wikipedia informs us that developments have continued but only as far as a very expensive ‘proof of concept’ vessel, a super-yacht called the Maltese Falcon; commercial freight usage now seems improbable and is, at best, a very long way off.

Looking to the future

What will we be using in twenty years’ time? It’s easier to say what will have vanished than what will replace it.

There is no end in sight to the digitisation of our daily life, so CDs and DVDs do look likely to follow gramophone records and cassette tapes into oblivion. Newspapers are already on the way out, being replaced by online equivalents. Will books follow them? Perhaps, but (I hope) not so quickly – paper is a pretty good medium for publications with intended lifetimes of years rather than days.

Petrol and diesel powered transport will be rare, both because we can’t afford to keep on dumping CO2 into the atmosphere and because the cost of oil is going to continue its upwards trend. For the same reasons, mass transport on land should make a comeback with trains, trams and (electric) buses taking an increasing percentage of commuters in the cities and trains replacing a lot of long-distance road freight.

Air transport, both passenger and freight, will become increasingly expensive (again for the same reasons) unless there is a technological breakthrough and will therefore decline. Virtual conferencing is already replacing the physical event, holidaying closer to home will become more attractive as airfares rise, rail freight will save a more significant cost at the expense of only a little time, and so on.

These predictions, of course, assume that our civilisation undergoes no radical shocks. If the banking system collapses or the sea level rises five metres, all bets are off.

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