Nineteen Forty-Six. Futurics.

1 Jan

The Futurist Convention was held at the Illinois Hotel in downtown Chicago during the last weekend of November in 1946. The man standing in the eye of the hurricane storm that occurred there was its chairman, Oscar Duncan. As publisher and editor of the monthly magazine named “Aftertime”, he was the president of the Futurics Association of America and one of the founders of the fresh new movement. But neither he nor anyone else foresaw the explosion that was going to happen in Chicago.

The first signs of trouble and division became visible to Oscar at a series of meetings with various individuals he knew in his private suite on Saturday morning. Determined to preside over a smoothly flowing general meeting a few hours later, he conferred with Grant Corman. The latter was a metallurgist he had met before the war when both had been students at M.I.T. The two had always been friendly but out of direct contact for a long while.

As he opened the door to the corridor, Oscar’s lapus lazuli eyes gleamed with brightness and joy. The dark complexion and brunet hair of the president contrasted with the gray eyes and sandy hair of his visitor. Oscar gave him a warm, hearty bear hug, then led him into the suite parlor. Grant was of the same medium height as his old friend.

“Please be seated,” said Duncan, pointing to a stuffed chair. He himself remained standing for the time being.

The president got down to business immediately, starting out with a question. “What’s the difference I heared that you have with some of the biologists, Grant?”

Corman took several seconds to formulate a reply, licking his lower lip before speaking.

“I am in a situation that I never could have foreseen, Oscar. Our first national convention as Futurists and this had to happen! It is an unforeseeable surprise that has shaken me some. Let me explain how this disagreement began. I call my opponents the ultraists, because they tend to carry their ideas to the extreme limit. Why are they doing that and acting so? Their motive may be a simple desire to grab public attention with radical statements. There are some people who would say nearly anything if it brought them attention. It might all be due to greed for the spotlight, a picture or mention in the newspapers. A certain type of fame comes from espousing the strange, the surprising, or the outrageous. That could be what lies behind some of their wild prognostications. But by what they are saying about the scientific and technological future they are indulging in pure sensationalism. If it continues and widens, we will all be seen as laughing-stocks, I fear.”

Oscar raised his right hand and scratched his large jaw before responding to this.

“You may have something there, Grant, but I know many of those in that group. They are only a small number of our members. They are sincere in what they say and are not putting on an act or a show. The one that I have never met is the most prominent one, this fellow named Harlan Holt. I plan to talk with him. We can surely agree on how our organization should organize itself and proceed forward.”

“He is their chieftain and main instigator,” explained Grant. “I’ve read his articles in biology journals and am familiar with his outlandish predictions. The man is a bull-headed fanatic who spouts off personal fantasies and infects the minds of others with his nonsense.”

Oscar glanced at the watch on his wrist, then looked thoughtfully at his old pal.

“Well, we will have an opportunity to hear what he thinks from his own lips. Holt gives a paper at the earliest morning session on a panel on future agriculture and food supply. I plan to be there to get his ideas at first hand. You and I both can ask him a question after the speakers have their own discussion. What do you say, Grant?”

The latter sprang to his feet, following Duncan out of the suite.

Harlan Holt, his seal brown eyes gleaming, strode briskly to the podium with notes in his hand. All eyes in the large hall followed the scraggy spindling. He was extremely tall and lean. He smoothed out his notes and began to speak.

“A colossal food shortage faces the world in the future. By 1976, there will be 190 million Americans to feed. Agriculturists estimate that this country will be 23 million acres short of farm land. The rest of the world will suffer even more, unless something new and different is done. Famine will be decimating China and India without revolutionary breakthroughs in farming. Where can mankind find salvation from hunger and starvation?

“I believe that oceanic agriculture will, in a few decades, become the primary source of sustenance. People in Japan, China, Greenland, and the South Pacific already eat sea plants today, in 1946. This will expand and spread widely in coming years. Animal fodder and fertilizer will be harvested in the oceans. An early leading area of development will be the Atlantic around the Bahamas and the Antilles.

“Agricultural farms can be set up underwater even now along our West Coast. Irish moss can be grown on the New England Coast. We already know how to produce seaweed rayon from gulfweed and sargassum. Extraction from sea water of nitrates, phosphates, manganese, and potash can help pay for the creation of marine farms. I can foresee growing demand for sea silk, mermaid’s hair, wrack, laver, and daber locks.

“You may wonder: can human beings develop a desire for such foods, or will their taste have to be altered? I believe that science will make great strides in food modification, until a point is reached where foodstuffs can be artificially synthesized. Think of it: factories will be producing what we eat, mostly from the raw materials growing in the sea. That will be a genuine industrial revolution, an ultimate one.

“The primary product of sea factories will be the basis of all life: food. Today, agriculture takes up too much geographic space and too much manpower. Humanity needs liberation from its bondage to the plants of the land’s soil. Today’s farmers lack the efficiency of the modern factory. We must rise above our prejudicial preference for what we consider natural food. Already America uses synthetic rubber and fiber. The recent war proved that we had that capacity. We are going to see a great leap forward in chemistry that will create a system of managed, fully engineered photosynthesis. It can be accomplished in just a few more years. The secret of plant production and growth is near to being discovered and harnessed for human purposes. New, efficient methods will turn out food better and faster than nature does that.

“I predict that carbohydrates will be the first food substance synthesized in our laboratories, then maufactured in factories. Protein manufacture will follow in a few years, once we crack the riddles of the complex compounds called amino acids. Our digestive system already breaks down proteins, then our body rebuilds them. In such processes there lie the answers to our quest for artificial food.

“Fats will present few problems. We already know how to harden them into products such as oleomargarine. Today, we have partial synthesizing. There will, in the near future, be total synthesization of every fat that humans can consume.

“These developments will come about in spectacular leaps. There will be sudden breakthroughs. The revolution of man-made photosynthesis will be as immediate as the coming of the atomic bomb and atomic energy. Life will be turned upside down, all aspects of society will be transformed. Think of it: no more dependence on land or soil. Industry will provide new foods unknown at present. Mankind need never fear famine again.”

Holt came to a halt and looked about. “Any questions or comments?” he asked with a smile of triumph on his face.

In the front row facing him, Grant Corman rose to his feet.

“That was very interesting, Dr. Holt. But there is something that puzzles me greatly in all that you have presented. How can one predict such astounding advances while avoiding wild, speculative fantasy? Today we stand upon the science of 1946. That is all we have to depend on. Have you found some way to progress beyond direct extrapolation from our present state of knowledge? If, as you contend, unforeseen and unforeseeable developments are golng to come about in aftertime, how in the world can they be described with any degree of specificity? In other words, how can what is invisible by definition be delineated and mapped out?”

Corman remained standing, his grayish eyes nailed on Harlan Holt. For a short length of time, no one said anything. The hall grew completely silent.

“In all that I have said, there has been a consciously planned generality. The future cannot be considered in any way predetermined. Chance happenings, like accidental encounters in the dark, always happen in the history of scientific discovery. What I have predicted is the highly probable, that is all. The odds for synthetic photosynthesis are high, that is all that I imply. That is the extent of what I predict will come about in future years, nothing more than that.”

Another question immediately come from Grant Corman.

“That is most interesting. But how are we to calculate the odds and make comparisons between various conceivable but differing scenarios?”

Holt considered a moment, his face frozen into its earlier smile.

“I can say this: certain ideas about the future have an impellent force that gives them a strong feeling of credibility in our minds. They contain an impulsion toward strong probability and we dare not negate or deny them. Such is the concept of synthetic photosynthesis. It is too compelling, too captivating, for anyone to deny. For me, the idea is irresistible and overpowering. I go so far today as to predict that we shall see it realized in fact within the next twenty years.”

The crowd of listeners stirred, all eyes on the scraggy speaker. What had he claimed, what had he admitted? How would his questioner now pursue him?

“I find this fascinating, Dr. Holt. Can you tell us whether you have some inner instinct that reveals which predictions are going to become so enchanting that they will have to come true?”

No one laughed at this, though several people seemed to be biting their tongues.

Harlan Holt glared at his opponent with a frosty smile.

“That discovery will be made within twenty years, my friend,” he coldly declared, picking up his notes and leaving the rostrum.

Oscar Duncan sensed a need to smooth the waters. From his hotel suite, he rang up Holt and invited him to lunch at a restaurant across from the Illinois.

The two took an available table at the extreme rear of the place. Both ordered club sandwiches. Then Oscar took up the brewing division of the futurists.

“You must ignore the way that you were grilled this morning. There are many present here who insist that the future must be a clear, direct, and logical unfolding of the present. No sudden, unexpected surprises are to occur. Nothing at present inexplicable by us. They think that you took too much of a jump into the blue. That it was too drastic, too radical.”

Harlan Holt made a sour grimace. “Oh, yes. We dare not rile up these Unfolders. There has to be a straight-line evolution from stage to stage. No leaps or detours allowed. The road of science is to never take an erratic route. Synthetic photosynthesis is too exotic and off-beat to be acceptable today. They cannot connect it to what we now know and have. It is too far ahead for them, so they deny it.”

Duncan tried to smile. “You yourself are referred to as a Ultraist. Too distant from the prosaic present that we know, moving forward into an unexplored frontier.”

Holt suddenly grew excited. “I could have drawn a picture of what is just over the horizon, the day after tomorrow, with nothing faraway or unfamiliar. But I am not that kind of cautious futurist. There are aeons of time before us. Our minds must contain visions of the most elevated possibilities. I can make prognostications no other way but with a farsighted telescope.”

Oscar looked down at the top of the table. How was he going to maintain unity of the convention and the futuric movement? he wondered.

When the members congregated in the afternoon, Grant Corman was to present a paper on the prospective future developments in his field, metallurgy.

“We are about to enter upon an Age of Titanium,” he boldly began. “The element holds the promise of a glorious and better future for the world. It is light, strong, and rust resistant. I predict that within less than a decade titanium will be a major industrial product, rivaling both aluminum and steel. It has a multitude of potential uses, once its price is brought down by advanced mining and refining techniques. We will enjoy more durable automobile engines, faster airplanes with lighter, more powerful jet engines, all sorts of new motors and turbines. Ocean liners and all other shipping vessels will need no paint when made of this material. We will have long-wearing, rust-free tools and machinery. Optical lenses, kitchen pots and pans, oil barrels, and thousands of other items will be made with titanium.

“If war should break out in the future, titanium tanks can defeat steel vehicles. The weight of weapons can be cut in half. Containers of that metal can resist both acid and alkali.

“Tiny wafers of barium titanate have been proven better than vacuum tubes for hearing aids, radios, record players, radar, and the television sets in our future.

“And the world supply of titanium is plentiful. There is more of it in the earth’s crust than copper, nickel, or lead.

“For building construction, I foresee it as a major structural material by 1960. There can be no doubt that its day is coming soon.”

When the members gathered for their afternoon session, Grant Corman was prepared to present his paper on prospective developments in the field of metallurgy.

“It will be zinc that succeeds in revolutionizing all forms of electrical illumination. This will happen in the form of zinc sulphide sheeting.

“Zinc-based electroluminescence needs no tubes, bulbs, or accessories. It will glow almost endlessly. Thin panels of it can take any shape or size, from a postcard to an entire wall. Any color light can be built into a wall or a ceiling, without any cord or fixture. There is never any glare from such lighting. Panel lamps can be placed on radio and telephone dials, bedside clocks, house numbers, and thermometers. There is no need for shades with such area light, as it is already called.

“Zinc sulphide sheeting is thinner than wallboard and as flat as wallpaper. The intensity of the light can be controlled. The sheets can provide a cheap screen for television images. The use of zinc will soon revolutionize the entire world of the electrical.”

Having finished his talk, Grant looked about the conference room. He spotted Harlan Holt and a large group of Ultraists sitting together in the rear. Reluctantly, the speaker asked for questions. As he anticipated, his foe rose to say something.

“This question of mine has to do with the fact that you failed to mention any alternative to metallic luminescence. I refer to the subject of bioluminescence. For years, there has been research on the subject of what is called “cold light”. I know of predictions of usable lighting from the luciferin protein and the luciferase enzyme of fireflies. If they were developed, then the need for electrical current for lights would disappear. What do you think, Dr. Corman?”

The latter boiled with rage. “Zinc sulphide is much nearer practical application than what you describe, sir. My ideas do not depend upon speculation, but existing research results.”

“I wonder, though,” continued Harlan. “The dominance of metal in general may eventually give way to replacement by new rubber compounds, the polymerised synthetics. For instance, Sheets of carbon-black rubber can provide radiant home heating. Why not lighting as well as heat? There can be warmth and illumination at the same time, from the same source.”

“That is extremely fanciful,” exploded Grant Corman. “Let’s get back to the real and practical, if we may.” He turned away from his questioner, waiting for someone else to speak up. No one did so, giving the still standing Harlan another opportunity to attack.

“May I make a comment, Dr. Corman? Your ideas are interesting, but too constricted. Why must you always tie things to the present, as if the present was going to be permanent? It isn’t, and everyone must recognize that fact. Today will soon be gone, a mere memory. Only limited traces of it then remain. But the future is broad and unlimited. Our aftertime contains the freedom of unseen possibility. The future will contain surprises not visible in 1946, that may have some traces in imaginations, often those of dreamers. That is our purpose at this Chicago convention: to forecast what will astound our posterity.

“We dare not limit our vision within boundaries of any sort. Not at all.”

Corman and Holt glared at each other in a silence that was heavy and tight. The hush was broken by a voice from the front row of seats. All eyes focused on Oscar Duncan as he rose.

“I believe this is the right time to make an important announcement. My hope is that it pleases those of all opinions. Several Midwestern universities have in private offered me funding for a scholarly futurist publication. This has the potential of placing us before all of America interested in our area. My plan was to reveal this proposal late tomorrow, at the last session. But I now know that we will need an agreement on the parameters of this enterprise of ours. How far will the journal extend in terms of time covered and the subject matter? For example, will psychic phenomena like thought transference be acceptable? How about metempsychosis and the transmigration of souls? All of these are subjects where the future could hold unforeseeable discoveries and developments.

“Obviously, lines must be drawn somewhere. What is covered and what is not has to be defined. I propose that a special committee be set up at once. It will have the task of naming, describing, and mapping out the new periodical. The committee will have the authority to name the editorial staff, as well. It will set direction for it.”

Members continued to stare at Duncan after he sat down. It sank in that he meant to name the people on this committee himself.

As the audience left the room, Oscar stood up again and spoke to two individuals.

“I want you to serve, Grant,” he told the perplexed man at the rostrum. Then he turned around. “And you too, Harlan. The three of us should be enough for this new committee.”

When his two partners-to-be appeared at his suite that evening, Oscar had a surprise for them. It was Grant who arrived first. In less than two minutes, so did Harlan. Would they agree to go out on the town with him that night? asked the leader and founder of the movement. Stunned, both the Ultraist and the Unfolder agreed to, almost before realizing what they were doing.

Oscar called for a cab and the trio went to the Blackhawk for their dinner.

“What next?” he asked once they had finished eating. So far, no one had talked about their dispute. The future and its interpretation was a topic they all avoided.

Oscar took a guide to Chicago night life from his coat pocket and read them descriptions of the Latin Quarter, the Rio Cabana, the Panther Room, and the Chez Paree.

“The Panther Room sounds intriguing,” suggested Harlan Holt. Since no objection came from Corman, that became their next destination.

Between the musical numbers, Oscar Duncan mentioned a promising new idea.

“I’ve been reading about research in Europe before the war on heat pump compressors. It is an ingenious device, on paper. During winter, heat will be extracted from the ground, water in wells, and even the air. Grids of long copper pipes are to be laid underground, well below the local frost line. In warm weather, this can cool by pumping out the heat. A gaseous refrigerant is used that can be compressed into a liquid to surrender the heat it holds. But when this liquid evaporates again into gas, it will absorb all the heat around it. There will be no smoke and no dust, because no fire is ever made or used. It will be more efficient than anything now in use, according to the reports I’ve looked at. What do you two guys think of this heat pump?”

He looked first at Harlan, then at Grant. The latter responded with a laugh.

“That’s the kind of innovation that the new journal should concentrate on. It’s highly practical and feasible. It is something that can be widely put to use in the immediate future, very soon. Yes, the concept of heat compression seems hopeful to me. There should be no problem in featuring it in an early issue of the periodical. I myself would be happy to research and write an article about it.”

Harlan frowned with displeasure. “Such pumps already exist and need only to be perfected and made competitive with fuel furnaces. How about emphasizing something more novel and exciting? I can think of several possibilities. How about the atomic irradiation of food for long storage? It could eventually replace canning and freezing. A beta-ray machine using high voltage can easily sterilize all the microorganisms on the fruit, vegetables, and meat that we eat. There could be a complete revolution in preservation of food. If not beta rays, then gamma rays might serve the purpose. I understand that radioactive cobalt is a powerful generator of what is needed for the sterilization of food.

“You see the possibilities, Oscar?” grinned Harlan with glee.

But there instantly came a powerful rebuke from the Unfolder, Grant Corman.

“I understand that there are warnings from the atomic physicists about medical risks involved with radiation exposure. That may turn out to be a dangerous road to follow. It is hard to measure all the risks that may be hidden in that area.”

The face of Holt suddenly flashed red. “Any new journal must exude positive confidence. We should draw the possible contours of 2000 or 2200, not get bogged down in the problems of our own 1940’s.”

Harlan and Grant avoided each other’s eyes. The hostility between them grew icy. All three men present feared that trouble would soon break out. Duncan decided to act to avoid outright conflict.

“No one today made any mention of algae farming. Perhaps we have overlooked its uses beyond as food. Is there future fuel for society in oceanic crops of algae?”

Holt took the bait offered.

“Green algae are rich in protein and carbohydrate, that’s true. I know that there is one particular variety , chlorella pyrenoidosa, that has been carbonized in the lab. The aim was to produce synthetic coal and a liquid fuel from it. There was a lot of success. So I can see a likely substitute for gasoline .

“Yes, the algae of the sea will be providing for more than simply food. I understand that one acre of ocean can produce over fifty tons of green algae. Mankind will never run out of such an abundant resource. It’s inexhaustible and can be renewed. That is what I believe.”

Both Oscar and Grant looked at him in astonishment. Where was Harlan heading? they wondered.

“But I think that the greatest breakthroughs of the far, distant future will be on what has traditionally been called the metaphysical level. That is where the great surprises will be found. I see there the area of most meaningful change.”

Oscar dared to question what he had just said. “What are you talking about, Harlan?”

The latter curled his mouth into something resembling but not the same as a smile.

“I can imagine how this may sound, but there is a wide horizon that offers uncharted opportunities. Let me explain what I mean.

“The realm of the metaphysical is often laughed at in this twentieth century of ours. Scientists fear the loss of reputation involved in any exploration there. But they are ignoring the most promising and important frontier when they do so. What I am talking about is the human soul itself. An unknown, unexplored continent lies there for the future to discover. A different level of being is inviting humanity to enter and reside there, I am certain.

“I see the soul as a microcosm, a mirror of the universe, of the One and the All.

“In the decades to come, can the transmigration of the soul be established once and for all? Think what that would mean!

“What if metempsychotic survival could be demonstrated? If thought transference was harnessed for mankind a new type of human personality would be the result. Life would never be the same after that.”

By this time, Harlan Holt was out of breath and startling ideas.

He looked at Oscar Duncan with a mad fire in his eyes. Was he revealing too much? he asked himself.

The Ultraist jumped to his feet. “Where’s the restroom?” he unexpectedly inquired. It was Grant Corman who pointed out its distant location.

When Holt was gone, Oscar turned to his other companion.

“I have something to ask of you, Grant,” he softly said.

“What is it?” asked the metallurgist, his mind in a fog of confusion.

“We will need a fulltime editor for the journal. Are you willing to take the post? Keep your present job, because there won’t be any salary for a few years.”

“Of course,” replied Corman with astonishment. “Of course, I shall accept.”

But why me? was the question in his gray eyes. He did not have to voice it, for Duncan understood that it was there and gave him an answer.

“We cannot allow a mystic who has thoughts about the psychic to direct the publication. I’m afraid that Harlan could make us look ridiculous. True or not true, his ideas are hazardous ones for us. Futurist studies are not for cranks or crackpots. Radical Ultraism is just too much to swallow.”

Grant thought a moment. “When will you inform Harlan of this?”

“Not tonight. Let him enjoy himself for the rest of the convention. He can spout whatever he wishes. I intend to allow any dreamer among us to dream on.”

“Here comes our dreamer back from the men’s room,” smiled the confident Unfolder.

“Only the future can reveal who is right about it,” murmured Oscar. “But I venture to predict that even in the year 2000 or 2020, we will still have our Ultraists and our Unfolders. There will be differing perspectives about the future even when it arrives and is here.”

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