As someone who was born in the year 1986, I belong to the last generation of people who remember life before computers became an everyday necessity. At the same time, I'm too young to recall machines that lacked Internet access, a mouse, and a monitor. Most people my age or younger tend to assume that even the most rudimentary computers contained these elements, but a peek in our archives says otherwise.
Everyone has some skeletons in their closets, and after 138 years in publication, we're no exception. Just type the words "telepathy" or "Abominable Snowman" into our archives and you'll realize that "Popular Science" includes fields that are a little heavy on the popularity, less so on the science.
DIY projects have been a hallmark of Popular Science since we started printing articles with pictures. These contraptions ranged from homemade neutrodyne radio sets, to tractors, to borderline illegal breweries, but many of our favorites were featured between the 1940s and 1970s. By that time, our projects had taken on an "everyman" appeal; you didn't need to be an expert or a crazy inventor to assemble them, but they would take resourcefulness, dedication, and hours of sawing.
Throughout the 20th century, New York maintained a reputation for being the greatest city in the world. It housed the world's tallest building, the most extensive subway system and a group of the world's most creative minds. While the city strikes us as an aggressive, ambitious place, New York thrives on a sensr of nostalgia as much as of enterprise. What New Yorker hasn't felt incensed upon seeing a mom-and-pop deli replaced by a CVS? Who hasn't felt overcome with sentiment while beholding the Brooklyn Bridge on a summer evening? How fitting, given that we're using our archives to tour old-school NYC this weekend.
When it comes to retrofuturism, few motifs lie closer to our hearts than the 1920s-style airship. These majestic "whales of the sky," once considered a standard feature of future skylines, had an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames or get caught in thunderstorms. Only in the imaginations of science fiction enthusiasts do they continue flourishing.
Their demise is regrettable, considering our enthusiasm for their development in the 1920s. After serving the German army in World War I, zeppelins garnered popular appeal when Hugo Eckener re-established them as vessels of peaceful air travel rather than as weapons of warfare. Although Germany continued dominating the industry, American and British manufacturers produced airships that -- for better or for worse -- changed the course of aviation.
Before Ford's Model T entered mass production, cars were largely a novelty, a curio for those privileged enough to afford them. They sputtered odorous gases, crawled at speeds barely faster than a horse's gallop, and stirred up so much dust that you'd need to wash up after disembarking. Pretty cool!
There's something timeless about a good detective story. At the end of a long day, it's nice to know that the clues check out, the crooks get caught, and everyone goes home happy. During the early 1930s, Popular Science capitalized on the mystery genre by running a series of articles detailing how the modern detective incorporates science into crime detection. We were enthralled by scientists who could trace a bullet to its weapon simply by examining it under a microscope. We were thrilled that a person's gender and age could be determined from a single strand of hair.
Every month for the past 138 years, we've showcased inventions and concepts for mechanisms aimed at improving life. Sometimes this meant curing cancer, other times it meant having fun, and on rare (and scary) occasions, it meant building something because you could.
For every airplane, computer or chemical weapon appearing in our archives, there are a ton of other inventions that are, to put it bluntly, rather pointless. At best, they're well-intentioned but a little impractical. Let's take a look, shall we?
Going by our archives, the only thing more hyped-up than flying cars and humanoid robot assistants were cool futuristic homes -- homes that could converge their walls to create new rooms, that could adapt to any environment, and that could play with your children while you took an afternoon nap. In terms of functionality, houses of today haven't changed much over the past fifty years. We still use good old brick, marble and cement as building materials. We still turn the microwave and TV on by our ourselves. For the most part, we still do our own chores. So what happened?