Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Popular Science & The Epic Snow Sports Our Grandparents Predicted We’d Be Doing (Part 2)

Started in 1872, back when science was still struggling to come to terms with concepts like dinosaurs, comfortable clothing and foreigners, Popular Science has spent the last 139 years trying to predict the future. In the early part of last century they really started going to town making some impressively wild snow sports predictions. Clearly the people of that era were made of seriously stronger stuff because some of the ideas they came up with were not much safer than being a Christian lion tickler in ancient Rome. Today we take a look at how accurate they were..

Dec 1921 - Popular Science Predicts:  Badass Postmen
Postman Pat's round got a lot easier once he started riding his dog mincer to work
Popular Science used to just throw out barely-thought-out concepts to see if anyone was crazy and resourceful enough to try them. Their target reader at the time could only have been Dr Emmett Brown. In this very short, half-page article they promised, “Good looking as is the homemade ice-flyer, it is not expensive, as it can be made from used parts that a mechanic always has lying around his workshop.” Contrary to what Popular Science had speculated, it turned out that no one happened knew a mechanic with a few spare aeroplane engines and propellers knocking around the place, who was happy to invest their time and money making an ill-conceived idea, because no one ever got round to building one.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 0 out of 1 (0% accuracy)
Santa was also a badass in 1921. On the negative side Christmas presents were shit.

Apr 1924 - Popular Science Predicts:  Cable Cars Coming to the US
Popular Science also predicted an incredibly rapid increase in global warming
So this one wasn't one of their normal bat-shit insane design concepts, it was actually some factual reporting. After at cable car was constructed in France, Popular Science predicted that this technology might come to the US too. The most interesting thing about the article though was the description of the amount of seriously hard-core work that was involved in building one. In those days all the materials had to be dragged up the mountain by hand and in one case it took 50 men, 10 days to move just one piece of machinery less than 150 feet. Despite the logistical nightmare of construction it was as safe a bet as a prediction could be, so notch one up for Popular Science.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 1 out of 2 (50% accuracy)
Not such a good prediction

Mar 1925 - Popular Science Predicts:  Corkscrew Snow Trains
A bus so ridiculously dangerous only ridiculously dangerous armed  men had the cojones to ride them
Despite everything you might be thinking looking at that artist's impression it seems someone might actually built a prototype of this up in the Yukon. It's hard to know though because Popular Science didn't go to the trouble of going to look at it, finding any photos or having any sort of proof that it was actually built. They did however chose to interview the more conveniently located Carlos de Zafra at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, New York University to get his thoughts; “The device seems deserving of development along lines that the peculiar local conditions would dictate." Apparently the peculiar local conditions decided that they didn't like the idea because there's none of these monsters screwing around the place today.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 1 out of 3 (33% accuracy)

Dec 1925 - Popular Science Predicts:  Ice-cycles
Tubs McCoy narrowly escaped the wrath of the gang of furious posties
This thing was built by the incredibly determined inventor Thomas Avoskan who spent 12 years and produced 10 versions before he got to this point. Apparently the final version could reach speeds of up to 50mph on Lake Placid and could drag 10 skaters along. “My first machine was not successful. Nor was the next or  the next or the next. I must have built a score of them. But I was convinced that the idea was sound and I kept everlastingly at it.” Sadly the concept was not so everlasting and the ice-cycle is no more.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 1 out of 4 (25% accuracy)

Jan 1926 - Popular Science Predicts:  Flying Toboggans
To infinity, and beyond!
So far we've seen that Popular Science was not all overly concerned with truth, facts, or even science when they wrote their articles. It seems that they also encouraged other similarly truth-disinclined individuals to contribute. The guy that invented the flying toboggan and submitted a story of his exploits to Popular Science was one such bullshitter. For example, when describing his standard tobogganing Paul Keating said “So, when I say that we hit the bottom of the hill going more than 200 miles and hour, I know the speed is under estimated.” If you chose to believe 200mph Keating he went on to pilot the flying toboggan 25-30 times and  he got as high as 15 feet off the ground. The flying toboggan came to a sticky end when he crashed it on its final run, “my face was like a piece of raw beefsteak for two weeks” and it it's never been seen again.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 1 out of 5 (20% accuracy)

Feb 1927 - Popular Science Predicts:  Assorted Nutters
Christmas jumper, Christmas scarf, Christmas hat and Christmas socks: Nigel's gran knitted up a full Christmas nightmare.
People in the 1920s were nuts. I guess surviving a World War made any ordinary sports seem more than a little dull in comparison. Here's some guys doing some head-first bob-sledding, reenacting Ben-Hur on ice and someone rocking up in something that looks suspiciously like a Star Wars pod racer.

Even back then ice dancing was a very camp affair; "Queen of the Ice. In the gay whirl at St. Moritz Switzerland.."
And if they did do sports we are still familiar there's was none of that helmets and pads bollocks, they did them with nothing more than the protection of a pair of long woollen socks and a leather cap designed to stop heir brains embarassingly spilling onto their chums. Like ice hockey for example...

"the More Dangerous the Better!"
There's a few sports in that eclectic mix that we still recognise today but some like horse-drawn skiing, lady jumping and stilt skating never stayed the course.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 5 out of 17 (29% accuracy)

Jan 1931 - Popular Science Predicts:  Red Bull
After numerous deaths during the inaugural event it was decided that all future Flugtags should be landed in water rather than on ice.
“Joseph Krupka, Viennese dare-devil, recently showed how it could be done. Whizzing down the side of a glacier in the Austrian Alps as he reached express-train speed. Then he tilted aluminium wings of his own design, and for hundreds of feet soared over the snowy tracks.”
While the rest of the world turned soft around them, the Austrians continued to do the same things they've always done, and now this ethos packaged in the form of a fizzy drink has taken over the world. 
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 6 out of 18 (33% accuracy)

Feb 1932 - Popular Science Predicts:  The Speedy Ski-Car
He might have an epic fire breathing vehicle and an endless expanse of ice to rip around but Father Frank Nestor still struggled to convince himself that it compensated for his vow of celibacy.
Following what appears to be a fairly common line of thought for the readers of Popular Science, Father Frank Nestor stuck an aeroplane engine on a sled. This thing could apparently reach 100 mph, but it sadly it didn't outlast his genetic lineage.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 6 out of 19 (32% accuracy)

Dec 1933 - Popular Science Predicts:  Aquatic Three-Wheeled Super-Trucks
14 million square kilometres and you had to drive right across my bloody garden!
Eric Lyon associate professor of physics at Kansas State Agricultural Collage dreamt up this behemoth.
But the most amazing thing about this three-wheeled super-truck is that a few years later someone actually went and built one (more on that later).
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 7 out of 20 (35% accuracy)

Feb 1935 - Popular Science Predicts:  Parachute Toboggans
Hubert soon regretted securing the parachute around his neck
The guy in the artist's impression above is a bit soft because he’s wearing goggles. The actual inventor and only ever exponent of the sport, Frenchman Hubert Garrigue, was in fact a fan of the not-being-able-to-see-where-he-was-going-effect-through-the-tears-technique. Garrigue was last heard of planning an attempt to get dragged up mountains on a similar contraption.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 7 out of 21 (33% accuracy)

Dec 1936 - Popular Science Predicts:  Motorbike Tanks
For fuck's sake Steve, I know we should be going left, but there's just no way to steer this thing!
“Spitting bullets from its armoured side car, a new military motor-cycle tractor just invented skims over snow or ice at high speed.” Popular Science loved this idea, but it was another fundamentally flawed plan seeing as there was no way to steer a single-tracked motorbike with a side car. 
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 7 out of 22 (32% accuracy)

Jan 1938 - Popular Science Predicts:  Amphibious Seal Botherers
In a misguided quest to stop his nemesis the Penguin, Batman was about to decimate the Antarctican bird population
It's a boat that can also go on ice, and once on the ice it has all the maneuverability of a motorbike tank. Not a success.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 7 out of 23 (30% accuracy)

Jan 1939 - Popular Science Predicts:  Ice Yachts
One of the IRA's least successful terrorist  weapons
These things do actually exist. People have been sailing ice yachts since at least the sixteenth century and they are still at it today. The fastest ones can go over 100mph and beating the outright land speed record of 126.2mph looks achievable if you have no fear, live next to a very large and perfectly flat frozen lake and if you can convince this guy to let you borrow his machine
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 8 out of 24 (33% accuracy)

Nov 1939 - Popular Science Predicts:  Propeller driven Soldiers & Massive Arctic Snow Trucks
What happens if you let go?
A bright red soldier blender, what could go wrong? There's so many flaws in this plan that Popular Science didn't even go to the bother of writing an article about it and having to make up some awkward reasons or excuses. They just plonked this purely fictional idea on the cover and  left it at that.
But that wasn't the only crazy snow machine in this edition. Remember the super-massive snow-truck? Someone throw a shit load of money at that idea and shipped it to Antarctica...
Where they drove straight through that guy's garden again.
This huge mobile bond villain lair was actually built. Designed to give the US an advantage in the great Antarctica land grab that was fashionable at the time, the plan was for this big truck to cruise around the place claiming all the land for the US. 
This is nice, we'll take it all.
Unfortunately things didn’t turn out so well. The truck got stuck in the snow as soon as it drove off the boat. Three days of digging later, after some snow chains were added to the smooth rubber wheels, it staggered just 93 miles, in reverse, before it was parked up permanently and is now part of the ice shelf.  We've written about this truck before if you’re interested in seeing a few more pictures and a video of it in action. 
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 8 out of 26 (31% accuracy)

Rather inconveniently Popular Science's hot streak of winter sports was rudely interrupted by World War 2. The winter sports writing team then put their thinking caps on to try and help the war effort...  
Thankfully despite Popular Science's help the goodies won the war. Unfortunately afterwards it seems that Popular Science lost interest in snow sports with just one more story before they quit the game...

Aug 1951 - Popular Science Predicts: Ski lifts bodged together out of buses 
The aerial bus stopped for no one
Now if you’re thinking that this looks a little on the almost possible side for the usual Popular Science madness to you then your suspicions are not wrong. The Skiway was actually built in Mount Hood.
It opened Feb 3rd 1951 and it was the World’s longest aerial tramway at the time, joining Government Camp with Timberline. Unfortunately it wasn’t a success, because a year before it opened they built a road that followed the same route making the tramway largely redundant.  A ride on the tramway cost 75 cents, but a ride on the bus up the road only cost 50 and it took about the same length of time. It closed in 1956 and was removed in 1961.
Popular Science Prediction Rate: 8 out of 27 (30% accuracy)

Despite their clear disdain for science, Popular Science were still somehow 30% accurate when it came to predicting the future of snow sports. The similarly monikered and similarly bonkers Popular Machanics magazine by comparison was more successful with and accuracy rate of 41%, even if you include...

Jan 1912 – Popular Mechanics Predicts: Motorised Bathtubs
Still more accurate than Popular Science

You Might Also Like…
Part 1 of this hugely successful mini-series - Popular Mechanics 
If you liked the Arctic Snow Cruiser then try Kick-Ass Snow Trucks 
An archive of all the Popular Science back catalogue. The 1930s was easily the most bonkers decade


  1. Just as an FYI. In New Mexico they built a cable car that services the Sandia Mountain and adjoining ski area... "Summer to winter in 20 minutes". Sorry, it really happened...

  2. http://www.wimp.com/snowmachine/


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