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Wild predictions way off the mark

Many forecasts for what was then the future seem laughable now, though some have panned out.

January 02, 2011|By Steve Harvey
  • Time travel, as exemplified by Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in the movie "Back to the Future," was on Time magazine's list of top "failed futuristic predictions."
Time travel, as exemplified by Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in the… (Universal Pictures )

The arrival of the new year is traditionally an occasion for making predictions —- often faulty ones, if an expert is doing the crystal-ball gazing.

In 1931, for instance, The Times asked several prominent individuals to guess what life would be like in 1981.

Sir Oliver Lodge, a British physicist, declared that "science and religion will be completely reconciled and we will be communicating with our departed dead."

Carmaker Henry Ford saw a society in which poverty was "no longer a reality."

Caltech mathematics professor Eric Temple Bell wrote that "cities will be of only reasonable size, for long before 1981 the last realtor will have been hanged."

It's possible that Bell took a tongue-in-cheek approach, for he also forecast that "substitutes for gin, with 40 times the potency and no ill effects, will be on sale at soda fountains."

Which is not to say no one scored bull's-eyes in the Times survey.

Inventor Lee De Forest declared that television sets would "be in every modern home," Caltech President Robert Millikan said that "science will find a way to utilize the energy of the sun" and airplane designer William Stout predicted that one would be able to fly out of New York "after breakfast and arrive in Los Angeles in time for evening dinner."

(He made no mention of tiptoeing through airport security points in sock feet, however.)

Stout got a bit carried away when he also asserted that, by 1981, "planes will be far more common than the motor cars of today."

That assertion was reminiscent of another forecast underrating Angelenos' love of driving — in 1919, the California Railroad Commission declared that Los Angeles County's automobile population had reached the "saturation point" at 100,000.

There are more than 5.4 million cars currently registered in the county.

Surprisingly enough, none of the panelists in The Times' 1931 survey predicted that Los Angeles would fall into the sea.

Others have made such declarations, many belonging to offbeat sects and religions that seem to be attracted to Southern California.

On one occasion, rumors swept the area that the 16th century French seer Nostradamus had forecast in his writings that the Big One would hit May 10, 1988.

Two Phoenix disc jockeys, expressing the hope that Arizona would become oceanfront property, traveled west with four 250-pound men, who performed jumping jacks on Venice Beach to help push L.A. over the edge. They couldn't do it.

One of the wacky disc jockeys, by the way, was Glenn Beck. Yes, that Glenn Beck.

This being the nation's movie capital, Los Angeles has been the scene of numerous faulty forecasts by execs about the industry.

In his book "Inventing the Movies," author Scott Kirsner quotes MGM executive Irving Thalberg as saying, near the end of the silent movie era: "Sound is a passing fancy. It won't last."

Fast-forward to 1982 and you have the utterance of Jack Valenti about what a threat home video would be to the profit margins of the movie studios.

"I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the 'Boston strangler' is to the woman home alone," said Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, in overdramatic testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives.

This was before the studios started raking in millions of dollars from home video sales and rentals.

Writers in Hollywood have also contributed prophecies that have yet to be realized.

Many were on a recent list of Time magazine's top "failed futurist predictions" (along with examples of productions in which they were mentioned), including:

Flying cars (TV's "The Jetsons")

Jet packs (the movie "The Rocketeer")

Time travel (the movie "Back to the Future")

Teleportation, as in "Beam me up, Scotty" (TV's "Star Trek")

Underwater cities (the movie "The Abyss")

"Cyborg abilities" (the movie "The Terminator")

The film "Demolition Man," starring Sylvester Stallone, went even further than the above productions in its vision of the future.

Set in 2032, the movie foresaw Los Angeles as part of a megacity called San Angeles, the result of a merger with San Diego and Santa Barbara. (Oddly, no mention is made of Orange County.)

In San Angeles, "unhealthy" items such as meats, gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol are banned.

But one must wonder at the prophetic abilities of the movie. One of the architectural features it mentions is the Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Museum.

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