It is 8.15 a.m. as Whitney van Gould steps into the helicopter atop his Fifth Avenue apartment house. Two hours later he is signing an important contract at his desk in London, He lunches in Arequipa, plugs two sets of tennis in Honolulu, and is back in his apartment in time for a short nap before dinner.
Fantastic ,you say?
Not at all.
THE foregoing, with geography reshuffled to suit, is the standard lead for the World of the Future article, Transportation Division. We never do learn just what kind of business keeps Whitney van Gould on such a far-flung tear, but the velocity of his travels is what counts, not the reason for them.
Any author in search of a good meal-ticket subject, dependable stuff that he can market again and again, year after year, would be well advised to settle down with the World of the Future. As a field of inquiry, the future has plenty of room; it is likely to go on for quite a while, and if the author finds that the year 2000 is wearing a bit thin or becoming old hat, he has merely to raise his sights by a few decades and go to work on 2055.
He will be better off, on the whole, if he keeps within the next hundred years or so. Most of the ventures into the year 3000, the real long-pull projection, have a way of getting out of hand and drifting into the metaphysical, and the reader is usually satisfied by a prospect that he can envision for his grandchildren — much of it quite like the world of today in such familiar details as food and drink, sports, recreation, the arts, Republicans and Democrats, etc. It means nothing to a reader who is fond of bourbon whiskey to be told that he can get the same effect, a century hence, from an inexpensive pill, and that all citizens of the World State will vote the straight Hyperion ticket.
There are other showy fields — genetics, nutrition, plastics, weather control — to name but a few — in which an author might let himself go, but none of these has as much allure for the American reader as the perennial old stand-by: transportation. The World of the Future, in other words, won’t be alarmingly different but it certainly will be faster — much faster.
The strength in transportation as a subject is rooted in the reader’s desire to be in several places at once, or at least in some other place, and the quicker his transport the better. Authors have been peering into the future of transportation for a long time now, and I realize that I have never yet had a chance to ride in that monorail train which the writers of 1910 told us would be spanning the continent at 100 m.p.h. by around 1930. The attractive thing about the monorail train was its gyroscope, a new device which kept it from tipping over, and I still read from time to time about these wonderful trains and the great speeds they have attained in “tests conducted by German scientists” — convincing proof, it seems to me, of the durability of the subject.
Only the most elementary arithmetic need be used in this kind of article. The distances between the principal cities of the world are listed in the World Almanac, so that all the author needs to do is to decide on the speed his planes will make: New York to London, 3500 miles, would take 3½ hours at 1000 m.p.h., 1¾ hours at 2000 m.p.h., 1 hour at 3500 m.p.h., and so forth.
At the present time one gets the impression that 2000 m.p.h. is the going rate for around 1980, but that this will have been boosted sharply to 4000-8000 m.p.h. by the year 2000. The first half of the article will be given over to laying out various combinations of these distances and speeds and in showing what they will mean not only to Whitney van Gould but also to everyone else. Just think, the author urges us, of how this will affect our own vacation plans, our weekends, where we live, and how we get there.
The commuter will board the Wall Street plane at Miami of a winter morning as casually as today’s suburbanite takes the Grand Central express at Scarsdale . . .
But even the most enthusiastic reader wants to be given some idea of what still needs to be done before it all comes true. What scientific hurdles remain? What is lacking? The latter half of the article must deal with these questions, and this part is even easier than the arithmetic. I read one of these articles only recently — “Europe in Two Hours” — and I was fascinated by the ease with which the author solved the series of supposedly baffling engineering problems. They boiled down somewhat like this: —
We shall need a greatly improved design of the plane itself. Don’t worry. It’s all being taken care of.
Propulsion? The power plants will be ever so much more powerful than those of today. No comparison, really.
Fuel? That’s another important thing. The fuels of 1980 will be much more efficient.
Most of the two-hour flights to Europe, I learned, would be at 4000 m.p.h., and the extra hour was allowed to smooth out the acceleration and deceleration for the passengers. (No use making the passengers uncomfortable just to save an extra hour . . .) The one really tough problem was how to keep the air friction, at such high speed, from making the plane too hot — somewhere around 500 degrees, or 1000, as I recall it — in which case one of the passengers would be bound to remark sooner or later, “Isn’t it getting awfully warm in here?” Not even that one stumped the author. He simply raised the altitude of the flight to 100,000 feet, where the atmosphere is thinner — much thinner — and this, he estimated, would bring the surface heat down to a mere 200 degrees or so. And if that weren’t sufficient, he suggested that helium could be made to flow over the wings and fuselage, and he seemed to feet that we all know what a little helium will do in cooling an overheated surface.
Meanwhile, I wish one of these authors would find a way of cooling off the roomettes and bedrooms of the ordinary 1955 Pullman car. The little knobs and handles accomplish nothing of that sort for me.