The Forecast For 1976 From 1954

From a January 4, 1954 issue of Life magazine, comes this interesting bit:


1954 was before my time, but I was an adult in 1976. And it was an absolutely shit year. We’d been through the assassinations, the oil shock, stagflation, pervasive urban crime, race riots, widespread unemployment, the collapse of quality control, Vietnam, war protests, Hippies, the counter-culture, bombings, airjackings, and drugs were everywhere. No one seemed to give a shit or know what to do to fix anything. It would be several years before things began to get better (as well as bring even worse revenge effects we still live with today).

So sit back and have a read of this forecast that had no idea what was to come and blithely extrapolates from its much-calmer present to the far future of twenty-two years hence.

Some Unqualified Predictions From A Highly Qualified Observer


by George R. Harrison, Dean of the School of Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In only 22 more years, less than the span of one generation, the USA. will be celebrating its 200th birthday as a nation. What will it be like? The answer is that the material conditions of American life will have undergone some drastic changes. By 1976, for example, the cities and their surrounding suburbs should just be recovering from a great flow of population in two directions: out from the centers and in from the country. The job of clearing away the rotting slums will still be proceeding. The new buildings going up will be smaller than the present large skyscrapers and better designed to eliminate gloomy city canyons. More steel, aluminum, glass and new alloys will be used as building materials. Bricklaying will diminish as handling costs gradually price it out of competition.

The population spread-out, which now appears sensible as a defense measure, will be intensified as better travel and communication facilities make it feasible. Shopping and small industrial centers will move increasingly to the suburbs. These, sprawling in a circle 20 miles or more out from the center of the city, will be connected by expressways which will run to huge parking lots in the city’s outskirts. The last few miles from parking lot to office will be covered by greatly improved public service transportation. The two-car family will be as common as the two-radio family is now.

Homes will generally be assembled from prefabricated parts of lumber, plastic, fiber and metal. Architects will use more and more glass and design more and more picture windows covering the entire side of a room. On the site the houses will be put up quickly by expert workmen who will be paid more than $4 an hour. In the north, houses will be heated by oil or gas, but more houses will be heated by electricity as it becomes cheaper to do so. In latitudes south of New York and St. Louis many homes will be built or adapted for solar heating. If auxiliary heat is necessary, it will come from the same electric air-conditioning unit that cools the house in the summer.

Some of the greatest changes in the next 22 years will come in transportation. With twice as much freight to be carried in 1976 as at present and at least half again as many passengers, all of our present modes of transport will be flourishing. Jet planes not much larger than our present big bombers will be carrying urgent express over long distances, but ships and trains will still be handling heavy and bulky freight. These carriers will have many improvements over the present ones, the most noticeable being in increased speed and safety. Bodies will become lighter and pay loads heavier as new alloys become available. There will be a much greater diversity of types of airplanes than there is today. Planes driven with nuclear energy will have been developed but they will probably not yet be in general use.

London and Los Angeles will be within three or four hours of New York by jet planes departing every hour on the hour. Flying far above the weather at nearly 1,000 mph, transcontinental planes will proceed smoothly and safely to their single destination. There will be many more nonstop flights because of the increased numbers of both travelers and planes. These big planes will operate from long airstrips far outside the city but reachable by helicopter in minutes. On shorter hops between cities closer to each other, small airports nearer town will make intercity travel so frequent that, as in subway travel today, timetables will no longer be necessary.

At the present time helicopter taxi service to airports has not spread rapidly because of the small pay load and the noise and danger which make them undesirable around cities. But the success of helicopters in thousands of rescue missions of wounded soldiers during the Korean war has led to the design of improved larger models which carry 20 or more persons. Although the noise of flying jets may well be with us to stay, that of helicopters can be muffled. A two-engine model which can fly on either engine should solve the problem of getting to the airport quickly and safely.

While it is possible to predict fewer streetcars, lighter trains and more automobiles and buses, the exact evolution of the motor car in the next 22 years presents uncertainties. Cars will be simpler to drive and probably more complicated to build. Discovery of a method of storing electrical energy in a battery one twentieth as heavy as the present lead storage battery, and with the same 90% efficiency of recovery, could make the simpler electric automobile competitive with the gasoline-driven cars of today. Less probable are cars run on nuclear energy — not because an engine driven by a “pea-sized plutonium reactor” is basically inconceivable, but because of the heavy shielding required to block off dangerous radiations.

More land from the sea

How well will we eat in 1976′? Today each of us requires about four pounds of food products per day. Many of us are currently consuming more than that and some 20 million Americans are shortening their lives by overeating. By 1976 we will have about 40 million more mouths to feed at home alone, to say nothing of commitments abroad.

This puts a considerable burden on the industry of farming. Today each worker on a U.5. farm feeds 16 people; by 1976 he will have to feed 20 or more. To do this by present methods would require about 120 million more acres of arable land, but even with the best irrigation, drainage and clearing we cannot get more than 40 million. That we will be able to solve the problem by improved machines and techniques is indicated by the steady rate of improvement during this century: since 1920 our crop yields have increased by a third; by 1976 they should be up 50%.

Not more than two thirds of our daily caloric food intake should be carbohydrates (starch and sugar), which we convert to energy through our muscles. But electric and gasoline motors now provide a substitute for much human energy, and as a result our per capita starch consumption has been cut in half since 1900. It will fall still further by 1976. Nevertheless we will need an ever increasing supply of starch as our population grows. More and more of this can, when necessary, come from the sea. Each year some 360 billion tons of starches are produced in the ocean by single-celled algae plants and are largely wasted: this constitutes 200 limes the nourishment needed by the present population of the entire world. Many of the algae are eaten by tiny animals, and their stored energy is passed through larger animals so that after five or six such transformations a pound of on our dinner table represents the energy residue of 50 tons of plants. If we could gather algae effectively and learn to enjoy them as food, we would be eating higher off this energy pyramid.

If we are not careful we may be in for a serious protein shortage by 1976. The present mild shortage, resulting in high meat prices, is caused by our greater prosperity which enables more people to buy meat. Protein farming is less efficient than starch farming, for when animals eat feed, less than one seventh ol’ the solar energy stored by the plants reappears in the animal products. This problem can be partly solved, of course, by such technological improvements as selective breeding and better soil fertilization and conditioning. But algae can swell the world’s protein supply. Many types which grow in fresh water contain about 50% protein. Experiments have recently been carried out in which Chlorella, a single-celled alga, was grown in long plastic bags about four feet wide. After producing 100 pounds of dried algae the researchers estimated that for an investment of $2 million in equipment, some 1,750 tons of food could be produced on 100 acres annually at a cost of about 25¢ per pound. This is still higher than the cost of producing many similarly nourishing and tastier products in the U.S., so algae farming will probably not be widespread until it can be done more cheaply, perhaps in open ponds. In Japan 30 tons of algae have been raised per acre per year. But their so-called “delicate grassy flavor” is not attractive, and much scientific work must be done before they can be converted economically into real or synthetic steaks.

Since natural protein foods spoil more easily than starches, the great canning, freezing and processing boom is due to grow even more. Food technologists are rapidly discovering better ways to sterilize, process and package food without loss of flavor. Nuclear radiations from cobalt-60 and similar radioactive materials will be used in our 1976 factories to sterilize food without the flavor change that heating often gives it. Quick freezing and storage in freezer units will be even more common than now. Packaging foods will be made more practical as microcrystalline waxes are developed further to seal paper packages from air and moisture, and as more and better metal foils become available.

Other great additions to our social wealth by 1976 will come from materials not known at present. The 90-odd kinds of elementary atoms existing in nature combine to form several hundred thousand kinds of molecular substances, of which chemists have already identified more than 100,000. But the chemists have themselves regrouped atoms to produce nearly twice as many kinds not found in nature and thus have given us such new materials as Freon and nylon. Synthesis or isolation of a new molecule can he a wonderful thing for mankind, affecting immeasurably our health, comfort, safety and general welfare. The pneumonia death rate was cut in half to a considerable extent because the price of penicillin was brought down from $20 to per 100,000 units.

Chemists will have learned by 1976 to synthesize more cheaply many valuable molecules now found only in natural products. At present 99% of the products of the dye industry are synthetic; so are 95% of the plastics, 75% of the drugs, 65% of the rubber products, 50% of the paints and 20% of the textiles. These percentages will all increase as the chemicals industry, already one of the fastest growing, becomes even more of a giant. Instead of the one natural rubber with which we were once content, or the present 30 varieties, there will be hundreds of special types, one that is best for tire treads. another for inner tubes, another for raincoats. This is also true of textiles, where such materials as Orlon, Dacron, Teflon, Acrilan and Dynel will be supplemented by dozens of equally valuable synthetic combinations of molecules.

Titanium, aluminum and magnesium will affect our economy more and more. Titanium, because of its lightness, strength and resistance to corrosion, will he used with, and sometimes instead of, iron The production of aluminum in the U.S. has already passed that of all other metals except iron and steel. Each new metal or alloy which makes possible a lighter and stronger building, car or airplane starts a vast new development which affects many industries.

We can always get our atoms from the sea if necessary. A cubic mile of sea water contains 143 million tons of table salt, 5 million tons of magnesium, 300,000 tons of bromine (used in antiknock fuels) and many other useful materials. However, the utilization of atoms from the sea is only in its initial stage; it will remain so until vast amounts of nuclear energy become freely available.

Automatic factories

The place where American inventive talents find their widest expression. the factory, is due for the most far-reaching changes of all. Operations analysis, the scientific evaluation of procedures which was developed so markedly during the last war, will greatly affect industry. The automatic factory, which has got off to a slow start, will be in full swing by 1976. Already there is a machine which sorts rice grains so fast that it can remove all the grains with black specks on them from a 100-pound bag of rice in a few minutes. Such novelties of today will become commonplace. Laborers replaced by such machines will be shifted to more important jobs; the more energy a workman can control, the more he can be paid.

A milling machine developed at which turns out machined parts of any desired shape under instructions from a master punched tape, illustrates a trend that will permeate all great industrial installations by 1976. General Electric recently announced a machine that records instructions on a magnetic tape; the tape can then direct the operations of hundreds of other machines.

Just as the printing press made available millions of copies of a page on which ideas and mental images are stored, machines will be made to produce as many duplicate engine parts as desired. And, in turn, calculating machines like ENIAC and WHIRLWIND, capable of making thousands of arithmetical operations in a second, can be made to tell these other machines what detailed instructions to give (but always there must be men to give the first orders).

Basic in assessing the effect of changes in any commodity on our wealth level is the labor involved in its production. We now can buy enough rubber with one hour’s work, on the average, to make a tire thick enough to carry us 2,000 miles; in 1911 the figure was 20 miles.

More bread will be made in 1976, in automatic plants like the one American Stores Company already operates in Philadelphia. Here 912 loaves represent current production per man per day, 200 loaves represent former production.

Thus the level of wealth, measured only in terms of rubber for tires, has risen one hundredfold in 43 years. On the other hand, in terms of the laying of bricks our wealth level has fallen fourfold or more in the same period.

Fewer than half as many coal miners now work in the U.S. as in 1920 and still fewer will be needed in 1976. This is socially desirable, for technological employment (a far more widespread anal important phenomenon than technological unemployment) will give the men more useful jobs in pleasanter surroundings. In 1900 there were 29 million jobs in the U.S.: in 1953 there were 66 million and women filled many of them. Machines can replace men in countless jobs which the machines can do better and which men prefer not to do. The scientific advances which bring in the new machines always open up new jobs. By 1976 there should be at least 96 million jobs, a still greater demand for women workers and added needs for new and better machines. But working hours. already fallen from the 70-hour week of 1850 through the 60-hour week of 1900 to the 40-hour week of 1953, will fall further. perhaps to about 30 by 1976.

Improved communications will have lessened our work by increasing our efficiency. The present 50 million American telephones may well have doubled in number by then, and it should be possible to reach any telephone in the country by dial from any other. While transistors will by no means have displaced all vacuum tubes, they should, in combination with electronic circuits printed on plastic, make possible very light and compact pocket telephones approaching the “wrist watch radio” of today‘s science fiction and comic strips. Television will be in full color and three dimensions, giving technical perfection which program material will have difficulty in matching.

So all in all the prospects are good for 1976. America’s standard of living is four times as good today as it was in 1900. And if we extend the long-term trends of the present to 1976, we find that we can expect to be twice as well off then as we are now. Auspicious omens these are, but they depend to a great extent on one element: energy (which is discussed on the following 14 pages). For the trends that have been cited will hold only if our principal sources or energy — oil, gas, coal, water power, agricultural products (like wood) and nuclear energy do not fall below our needs. Our material future looks good only if these supplies hold up.

But with sufficient sources of energy, this picture of American prosperity in 1976 is probably underoptimistic. Judged by past experience, the forecast is conservative. It does not consider rocket trips to they moon or similar scientific playthings. It assumes there will be no global atomic war fought with hydrogen bombs which might “wipe out civilization.”

Our nation has been passing through the worst period of wars and strikes in its history, yet all these troubles have cost us less than 10% of our material wealth. There is at present no visible limit to the wealth level we can attain, provided we keep our balance on the path we are now traveling. Though all are interconnected, to a considerable degree our politics are determined by our economics, our economics by our industry, our industry by our technology and our technology by our science. So long as freedom of inquiry, of belief and of opportunity can he maintained, there is every chance that the U.S. will have a prosperous and very happy birthday on July 4, 1976.

Original page images (click to enlarge):





1 Comment

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One response to “The Forecast For 1976 From 1954

  1. Some interesting stuff here, both hits and misses. The only country I know of that has anything close to a 30-hour work week is France.

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