The Coming Air Age

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The fifty years preceding 1942 had seen tremendous technological change, not to mention a global depression, the rise of several different kinds of fascism and a couple of world wars.

Just go through the list of things that didn't exist or were hardly used in 1892 that were widespread by the early forties: cars, planes, electric lights, telephones, record players, cinemas.

People expected radical change.

So when Russian émigré and helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky predicted in the September 1942 issue of The Atlantic that we'd all live in the mountains and commute into Manhattan via helicopter bus, it didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. It seemed like a natural extension of two major trends of the time: the rise of powered flight and the decentralization of America into the burbs and beyond. Why wouldn't these two themes conjoin to spawn an airbus future?

The truth is that it's really difficult to know when a predicted massive sociotechnical change is absurd and when it's visionary. About the only thing we do know is that people like Sikorsky are wrong when they tell us that one thing or another is inevitable.

"But for the fact that the helicopter is now a war weapon -- which means that all improvements must be shrouded in military secrecy -- I could describe additional details which would show why I am convinced that a helicopter bus service, for instance, is not only practicable but, in fact, inevitable," Sikorsky wrote. "Had the Second World War not turned all our thoughts to instruments of destruction, I do not believe you would have to wait another decade to see hundreds of thousands of helicopters in daily use."

Too many similar predictions of inevitability haven't panned out for us to take such proclamations seriously. Nonetheless, people do and 11 years after his Atlantic piece, Time even put him on the cover promoting helicopters. Prognostications that don't pan out are rarely remembered.

Which is too bad because Sikorsky's chopper-powered ecotopia sounds pretty nice, and he did a nice job of painting the soft-lit dream for a nation that probably needed some hopeful futures to get them through the beginning of a terrible war.

Here's the beginning of Sikorsky's piece, "The Coming Air Age."

The time is 1955; the place a lovely meadow surrounded by deep woods on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful lake in the Catskill Mountains 120 miles from New York. It is quarter past eight in the morning, and you are about to commute to your office in the city. Yet there is no paved highway nearer than fifteen miles, and it is fifty to a railroad station.

Now you hear a low hum, and over the horizon appears a flying machine. You press the button of a box near by and a radio signal flashes to the machine. The aircraft, looking oddly like a horizontal electric fan, drones toward you. When the pilot is directly overhead, all forward movement of the machine ceases and it descends vertically until the cabin door is within a foot of the ground.

On the machine's gray side is painted Helicopter Express to New York. As you make ready to enter, the direct-lift machine does not touch the ground; it poises motionless under its whirling rotor blades like a gigantic hummingbird. The door opens and you step inside; you nod a greeting to the co-pilot who takes your commutation ticket, you wave to those of the other fifteen passengers you know. The door closes and the helicopter immediately ascends vertically to 1000 feet. Now it darts ahead, quickly attaining a forward speed of 140 miles an hour.

The co-pilot says conversationally, "How do you like your new home? Good, eh? Popular spot here. So many people have moved into these mountains that we've had to put on an extra bus to carry them."

Fifty minutes later the helicopter bus hovers over a midtown New York building, descends slowly to alight on a roof space some sixty yards square. You go into the building, take the elevator to the street below, and walk half a block to your office. Not quite an hour has elapsed since you drank your morning coffee in your home. Des this sound like a fantasy imagined by Jules Verne? If so, I can assure you, as a practical aeronautical engineer, that such a trip is neither fantastic nor impractical. Any of us who are alive ten years after this Second World War is won will see and use hundreds of short-run helicopter bus services. We shall see hundreds of thousands of privately owned direct-lift machines carrying Americans about their business and their pleasures.

In forecasting this aviation development I am not drawing upon any imagination, nor am I depending upon the future invention of a direct-lift machine. A practical helicopter that can do everything I have just described is at this instant within a hundred yards of me. Less than an hour ago this craft was hovering motionless ten feet off the ground while a man climbed to the cabin by a rope ladder. With a pointed stick on the nose of our helicopter, it was possible to spear a wooden ring twelve inches in diameter fastened to a pole only four feet from the ground. The helicopter could be backed, turned, and stopped motionless in the air right in front of a man who plucked the ring off the helicopter's nose. In April 1941, the VS-300, piloted by its designer, exceeded the record of endurance for this type of craft by remaining in the air for one hour, thirty-two minutes. The novelty of this record flight was that the ship hovered during the entire period over one spot less than half an acre in area. Since that time considerable further progress has been achieved with this project.

Read the rest of Sikorsky's "The Coming Air Age."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

Image: "Jess Dixon in his flying automobile" in the early 40s from the State Library and Archives of Florida.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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