50 Years Later: Remembering How the Future Looked in 1974
They predicted the future. The top thinkers of 1974 were gathered together in the pages of “Saturday Review,” for a special issue celebrating that magazine’s 50th anniversary. In a series of essays, each one tried to imagine their world 50 more years into the future, in the far-away year of 2024.
Traveling forward in time, I’ve procured my own copy of this illustrious document — buying a yellowing copy from a stranger on eBay.
You can tell it’s an old magazine. Besides its thick, off-white pages, there are ads for forgotten entities like the Bell Telephone Company and Smith-Corona typewriters, along with a full-page ad for a new chain of restaurants called Benihana.
Inside the front cover is an ad for a revolutionary new Polaroid camera that produces “a color photograph which develops before your eyes” — followed by a two-page ad for Shell Oil.
And, on the back cover, there’s an ad for Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
But besides enjoying what’s quaint about a long-ago era with thriving ecosystems of print magazines, it’s also a chance to catch a glimpse of a future that never was.
The future they’d hoped for — or feared for — is detailed and debated, offering readers of today a surprisingly clear picture of the future they’d expected in 1974.
While a 19-year-old Bill Gates was getting his first programming job at Honeywell, 20 thinkers set down their own visions for space travel, the environment, and this new-fangled thing called the computer.
It’s a chance to look back in time — or even better, to look back to the future.
Best Hopes of a Generation
It’s fascinating to see the leading luminaries of their day daring to articulate their very best hopes.
- Rene Dubos, who popularized the phrase “think globally, act locally,” saw a 2024 with new sources of energy and “sound environmental policies.”
- Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau wrote of “new and terrible risks, and also of new hopes,” in “a future worthy of our great aspirations.”
- Norman Podhoretz, then editor of “Commentary” magazine, predicted that “literature will survive experimentation, activism, and boredom.”
- The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh addressed the question, “Will there still be a God?”
Not every prediction came true. For example, in the essay by Emmet John Hughes, a former Eisenhower speechwriter and foreign correspondent for “Time” magazine, Hughes stated that “the odds are not overwhelmingly against a French secession from Canada, spurred by the passions of Quebec province. In that event, could the province of Ontario control the impulses of Canada’s prairie provinces toward union with the United States?”
And a former U.S. Education Commissioner even imagined a 2024 paper to “Madam President.”
But living in a time when women made up just 39% of the U.S. workforce — a country with no female Senators or even governors — writer/activist Clare Boothe Luce disagreed. She envisioned the working woman of 2024 “making a little more money than she is making now. But I see her still trying to make her way up — in a man’s world — and not having very much more success than she is having now.” (Though perhaps America would have a female president by 2074.)
And arguing that “Tomorrow’s world needs a sense of interdependence for survival” was Kurt Waldheim, who was then the Secretary-General of the United Nations. This was before the public revelations in 1986 of Waldheim’s involvement during World War II with a German army unit that committed war crimes.
But in 1974, with the U.N. entering its 27th year, Waldheim urged that “in looking to the future, we make use of the accumulated experience of the past.”
How They Saw Computers in 2024
Isaac Asimov’s piece placed news clippings from 1974 next to imagined clippings from 2024, seeing the manager of the New York Mets challenging a computer’s predictions for their upcoming game against the Tokyo Suns. (“The computers have been wrong before. They can’t predict every lucky hop or just the way a batter feels at a particular moment. The game is still won on heart.”) Computer-generated injury forecasts were now legally required — in order to prevent their occurrence.
Scattered throughout Asimov’s clippings were hints of our future — the first woman on the moon in 1994, the last tiger in the wild in 2018, and “over 99% of the computer programmers who ever lived are alive now.”
Another essay was contributed by 64-year-old Michael DeBakey, a pioneer in open-heart surgery, who imagined doctors using computers to help diagnose patients. Even in 1974, the results of EKGs were already being processed automatically.
“My faith in human virtue and human wisdom reassures me of man’s future on earth,” DeBakey predicted (adding, for example, that “The problems created by pollution will be conquered by devising new ways of providing energy.”)
In December the “National Review” also marveled that in this 1974 issue of “Saturday Review,” widespread use of the internet was predicted twice — both by nuclear scientist/human rights activist Andrei Sakharov and by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.
Sakharov got some things wrong. In 2024 he imagined “flying cities — artificial earth satellites with important industrial functions,” possibly housing our solar and nuclear power plants. “The surface of the oceans, of Antarctica, and ultimately, of the moon and the planets as well, will be gradually adapted for agricultural use.”
But Sakharov did correctly predict that cars will be replaced by “a battery-powered vehicle” — albeit one with mechanical legs that “will not disturb the grass cover or require asphalt roads.” And Sakharov also predicted telescopes set up in space, though he seemed to think they’d be installed in “space laboratories.”
But eventually, Sakharov turns to computers. His essay envisioned “the creation of a single global telephone and videophone system … a universal information system which will give everyone access at any given moment to the contents of any book that has ever been published or any magazine or any fact.” And Sakharov imagined it being accessed with “individual miniature-computer terminals,” along with “central-control points for the flood of information.”
Just one year before he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the former nuclear scientist wrote of technological progress that “only now is beginning to fully unfold its brilliant possibilities.”
Wernher von Braun: Online Commerce, Remote Work
Amazingly, there was nearly identical speculation from 62-year-old von Braun, just three years before his death. In 1974 he was still a vice president of the aerospace company Fairchild Industries, having retired from NASA, where he’d been chief architect of the Saturn V superbooster that made the Apollo 11 moon launch possible. (After his death in 1977, greater detail of the German native’s service in the Nazi party and military would become more widely known.)
But in 1974, von Braun would be turned to as an esteemed pundit in the “Saturday Review,” predicting that by 2024, humanity would have a network of interconnected computers “in support of such operations as banking or ticket reservations.” In fact, he goes on to imagine “the average American household of 2024 will be equipped with an appliance that combines the features of a television set with those of a desk computer.”
Besides news and TV shows, this miraculous device would allow people to buy things from stores — and even to pay their bills online. And of course, it would finally bring to the world its long-awaited video phone calls, and would even be able to transmit TV shows.
In such a world, “commuting for business purposes would go out of style. It would become more convenient to let electrons, rather than people, do the traveling…”
Von Braun was also pretty close to anticipating email (though he used the words “facsimile-radioed letters”).
He also thought that our home consoles would still be controlled by pushing buttons — and that we would use this device for printing out a daily newspaper, before then reading it offline.
But his essay is just as interesting when he’s wrong, as when von Braun predicts “some degree of weather control.” (“Think of the implications of having rainfall occur only at night.”)
And with the launch of the first Space Shuttle just seven years away, Braun envisioned the program would still be going strong 43 years later, regularly ferrying up earth-resource experts to survey our planet. “For them, space flight will become the old airline routine of ‘coffee, tea, or milk?'”
Maybe he’d seen too many of the magazine’s ads aimed at airline passengers.
Neil Armstrong: Human Life on Mars
Many of the magazine’s essays are unintentionally poignant.
Just five years after becoming the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong saw a future where “after more than 50 years of exploring the moon, every crater, rill, nook, and cranny of any interest at all will have been visited and revisited.”
Armstrong envisioned colonies of workers living there, dedicated to “mining, manufacturing, and special services” like the production of high-purity metals (using the convenient vacuum and temperature extremes.
Giant solar generators on the moon’s surface would power their underground colonies and farms, with radio and X-ray telescopes installed on the far side of the moon, to gather up light and transmissions from deep space.
Like the best science fiction authors, Armstrong makes a sincere and serious attempt to envision our future.
With undaunted faith, he predicted in 1974 that within 50 years, “man will certainly have visited other celestial bodies, probably Mars and a few carefully selected asteroids.”
Probes of Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn “will merely whet the appetite of man. He must go and see and touch. He must experience both the motion and the emotion.
“And the more seemingly impracticable the goal, the more intense the fascination.”
12 years later, the “Saturday Review” folded. (A development that Luce did not see coming, writing with anticipation in that 1974 forecast issue about the magazine’s 100th anniversary.)
Maybe that can serve as the magazine’s final message to our generation: that in the end, the future remains impossible to predict.
But at least we step into our future with 50 more years of progress — and failures — upon which to build.