The future is now

The 1964 World’s Fair held in New York City was the touchstone for a postwar US.

It was the grandest and most optimistic show on the planet at the time and on an influential par with the British Empire’s Great Exhibition in 1851.

Designed not only to show off technological prowess, it signified the rise of the US as the dominant global power.

The exhibition showcased a number of household products, cars and gadgets, making bold predictions about the future.

During the show’s run over two 6-month periods between 1964-65, 51m visitors saw forecasts about the way we would live. General Motors’ Futurama 2 ride was a centrepiece attraction which tried to explain its vision of the world 60 years into the future.

With an outward looking era obsessed with space and exploring unknown worlds, it is perhaps unsurprising that many predictions were wildly incorrect. Cities on the moon, deep sea dwellings, and living in

Antarctica have never really left the drawing board (although General Motors could argue we still have 9 years left).

Neither for that matter have the widespread use of lasers in forestry or jet packs in the hotel industry.

However, a significant number of predictions – whether deliberate or inadvertent – have become part of our daily lives in 2015.

1964 predictions become reality 

The “photophone” introduced by Bell Systems allowed the caller to see who they were speaking to. While this concept was before its time (people didn’t really want to be seen in their dressing gown), the widespread use of smartphones and tablets have seen applications like Skype and Google Hang Out take off in both business and personal arenas.

Robotics played a role thanks to Walt Disney’s animatronic exhibition and a semi-robotic gasoline pump from Sinclair Oil Corp that migrated towards the car – very similar to the automated snake-like charger unveiled by Tesla Motors this year.

The fair placed great emphasis on the computer thanks to it being in the back yard of the powerful, all-American manufacturer IBM.

The IBM pavilion predicted that computers would expand away from its business machine origins and become an integral part of our personal lives; although seeing computers being integrated with our phones and cars was one step beyond.

DuPont used the fair to declare to the world new super materials for everyday life such as plastics or synthetic polymers. The company’s Happy Plastic Family Show – where everything was made from plastics – was a real coming out party for these modern materials.

Now, we are seeing a new generation of advanced materials once again emerge with graphene and nanomaterials finding real world applications.

One prediction that was deemed incorrect a few years ago was a computer controlled, driverless car that drove along congestion free highways.

This year, Tesla Motors launched its autopilot Model S, a software update that allowed the vehicle to be driven by the on-board computer. Not only would the computer regulate your speed in line with legal limits, keep you at a safe distance from the car in front, and keep you within the road lines, it would also steer the wheel for you.

Google has also made significant technological and legislative progress on this in recent years and expects to have driver-less cars on the road before 2020.

While both Tesla and Google have had teething problems, the technology is already there to achieve this and is in some cases operational.

The most relevant prediction of all was the rise of low emission cars, albeit nuclear powered vehicles, unsurprising considering the nuclear age the country was in at the time.

General Electric proposed “electricity too cheap to meter” and with it a car that could run for thousands of miles without running out of power.

While the pitfalls of a nuclear reactor in every car quickly became apparent, the concept is still relevant today not only with the rise of electric vehicles but also solar power and utility storage batteries.

The ability to store the power you need and do so from a source as(potentially) low cost as solar means “electricity too cheap to meter” could be just around the corner.

Promotional posters by General Motors at the New York World’s Fair invited people to “see the future first”. It looks like the car manufacturer has kept its promise, as the glimpse into the future that was witness 61 years ago is starting to become eerily similar to today’s reality.

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