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Matt Novak

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

Recent posts

 

time-machine-supersonic

Postal Service by Projectile: Delivering Mail With Rockets

Long before email, it was predicted that traditional letters would be dropped off using the ever-advancing technology of the Space Age.

 

ghost-prisoner

How to Conjure a Ghost to Get a Murderer to Confess

All you need is a projector and a willing prisoner.

 

communal-map

The Google Maps of 1917

Before Mapquest and Google, there was the “electric directory.”

 

fake-robot-librarian

Were There Robot Librarians in the 1950s?

No, there were not. Here’s how we know.

 

thinking-cap

Thinking Cap

Never worry about distractions again.

 

lp-audiobook

The First Audiobook: an LP for the Blind

Before they started playing music, LPs were used to play books for those who couldn’t see.

 

radio-button-like

The ‘Like’ Button That Came Before Facebook

This one was actually a real button, too.

 

dream-recorder

The Dream Recorder (of 1926)

Scientists are getting closer than ever to capturing the contents of our dreams, a goal since at least the 1920s.

 

edison-tesla_fe

Nikola Tesla and the Myth of the Lone Inventor

We like our inventors to be lone geniuses, but it’s almost always the case that today’s giant is standing on the shoulders of yesterday’s.

 

A Santa Monica apartment building destroyed by the Northridge earthquake in 1994 (PHOTO: SPIRIT OF AMERICA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Will California Build an Earthquake Warning System?

We’re a long way from being able to predict temblors, but what if we had even a few moments of warning before the shaking started?

 

Horse attachment as depicted in the 1937 Popular Science film "Horse-Friendly Auto Attachment"

Adding a Horse to the Horseless Carriage of Yore

Nostalgic for the nostalgia of yesterday? Popular Science had a thriving enterprise in the 1930s that looked back at wacky inventions from earlier years.

 

timemachinerobot

Your Granddaddy’s TiVo

Inventors have been trying to find a way to silence ads since way before Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark

 

airtravel

Visions of Futuristic Air Travel (And Plenty of Leg Room!) in 1946

The vision of post-war air travel isn’t all that different from what well-heeled fliers can get today, but what a long, strange trip it’s been.

 

1919-electrical-experimenter-xray-diamond-sm

An X-Ray a Day Keeps Diamond Smuggling at Bay

One mine in 1919 South Africa had a foolproof way to see whether its miners were smuggling out raw diamonds: it gave them a radiation-laden scan at the end of every shift.

 

Illustration of a radio being installed in a car in the June 1933 issue of Radio-Craft magazine [Source: Novak Archive]

Distracted Drivers Are Nothing New

Forget cellphones. The real danger from distracted driving is the car radio—according to observers in the days before Sirius, in-car DVD players, and even web browsers.

 

steamcar

Steam-Powered Cars: California’s 1970s Smog Solution

Steam-powered cars may sound like a shout-out to the early 1900s, but in 1970s California the idea was building up a real head of, umm, steam.

 

Horse attachment for an automobile -- U.S. patent 777,369 issued in 1904 [Source: Google Patents]

Driving a Dead Horse: Making Cars Less Frightening in 1904

The traffic safety department is trying to get the nation used to today’s silent cars. Something similar happened at the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Nap Zapper

The Nap Zapper

An inventor’s shocking solution for office doldrums

 

Push-Button Promises

Big thinkers have been selling the push-button as the key to the future since way before the Jetsons. Try the 19th century.

 

Butter-Kist popcorn machine advertisement in the May 1919 issue of Popular Science [Source: Novak Archive]

Corn of Ill Repute: How Butterkist Helped Make Movie Popcorn Respectable

How a salt-of-the-Earth Midwest manufacturer learned to butter up customers and see its sales explode.

 

Who Owns the Books You Read?

The Supreme Court may soon rule on how the first sale doctrine applies to textbooks. But what about the ebook on your iPad? Who owns that?

 

Illustration of a bunny syringe from Robert L. Smeton's 1963 patent application

Pretty Much the Scariest Way to Give Kids Their Medicine

Bunny needles, puppy spoons, squirrel otoscopes. Here are some great, well-meaning ways to make children fear doctors AND cute fuzzy animals.

 

What Uber, Lyft and Sidecar Can Learn From the Jitney Cars of the 1910s

Ride-sharing took off in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century, but it couldn’t beat City Hall.

 

When Santa Traded His Sleigh for an Automobile

The American Santa of the end of the 19th century was a lot fatter and in a car—much like the average American a century later.

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Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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