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Popular Science

22 Popular Science Covers That Outlined the Future

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Popular Science

Since 1872, Popular Science has been on the cutting edge. From the fanciful to the dead-on, here are some of their most enjoyable covers.

1. September 1917

Even PopSci was skeptical of this decked out star bicycle, writing, “The air propelled unicycle is much too complicated to operate successfully.”

2. November 1917

To fight enemy subs, the government considered building these floating fortresses. Not for the easily queasy, four soldiers could live inside the giant buoys, which had living quarters 20 feet below. (It was even supposed to come with a telephone!)

3. March 1921

Built in 1888, this nine-mile monorail linked the villages of Listowel and Ballybunion in County Kerry, Ireland. But three years after appearing on PopSci’s cover, the train’s track-straddling days were over. The rail was scrapped. In 2003, a 1000-yard stretch of track was restored, which you can now ride.

4. April 1923

Inventor E. J. Christie believed his 14-foot-high gyroscopic unicycle would shatter the world’s speed records. It was supposed to go 115 mph.

5. October 1930

George Bennie built a prototype of his overhead railplane in Milngavie, Scotland. Although PopSci predicted it could whiz along at 150mph, the idea was left hanging. Bennie went bankrupt in 1937, and his creation was destroyed two decades after.

6. April 1932

With motors mounted at the center of each tire, a working model of a steam-wheeled vehicle actually took off in a Chicago lab.

7. March 1933

With fins supplying lift, Victor Strode’s winged speedboat was predicted to skim atop the waves at 70 mph. He even landed a patent for the design.   

8. April 1933

Volcanologist Arpad Kirner wore this asbestos and steel suit when he descended 800 feet into Mt. Stromboli’s inferno. He lived to write about the tale in this issue.  

9. November 1933

Clearly, PopSci's editors had a thing for unicycles. But this one-wheeler was not for clowning around—it was a battle weapon. The motorized unicycle could be converted into a one-wheeled tank, reaching speeds of 100 mph. As for economy? It was supposed to get 280mpg.

10. July 1936

Dubbed a “tumbleweed tank,” this bowling ball of doom was designed to deflect bullets. A fixed, hollow sphere protected troops inside while a rotating outer shell rolled them toward the enemy.

11. August 1936

“Churning the air with wing-shaped paddles mounted on giant, wire-spoked wheels, an odd plane recently devised resembles a pair of flying Ferris wheels,” PopSci wrote.  

12. August 1938

Decades before protective suits made high altitude skydives possible, J. J. Dunkel wanted to visit the stratosphere. According to this issue, the daredevil planned to ride inside a bomb-shaped gondola, which would float via balloon to 110,000 feet. The balloon would release, leaving the capsule—and Dunkel inside—freefalling. At 30,000 feet, a parachute would slow the gondola’s descent and, at 5000 feet, a trap door would open, allowing Dunkel to parachute down on his own.  The plan never got off the ground.

13. June 1939

Now this is water polo. “In a thrilling new aquatic sport, players are mounted on dummy horses that skim over the water under the power of outboard motors,” wrote PopSci.

14. March 1940

Picture this battle scene: “Solders hurling themselves across wide streams at a single leap, charging over battlefields at high speeds, flying across wide trenches and gaping shell holes in a series of broad jumps…” That’s what inventor George de Bothezat envisioned. His one-man helicopter was supposed to be handy for sportsmen, too.  

15. January 1956

One year before the U.S. launched its first satellites into orbit, PopSci took a stab at what they’d look like. Although the Americans eventually favored a different design, the rendering does resemble Russia’s Sputnik.

16. July 1959

Powered by propeller, William Bertelson’s aeromobile rode atop a smooth bubble of air. Although it was one of the first successful hovercrafts, it had a few bugs. 

17. May 1966

Buckminster Fuller was the poster boy for geodesic domes. His designs inspired Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Montreal Biosphere. Less popular, though, were his plastic pool domes, which kept your personal swimming hole warm almost year round.

18. July 1966

“If development work now under way is successful, as appears likely, it will soon be possible for you to own a revolutionary low-cost glass-bubble submarine that can drive to the ocean floor. It will cost about the same as a small cabin cruiser.”

19. November 1971

In the 1970s, the government was serious about podcars. The U.S. Department of Transportation liked the idea so much that Secretary John Volpe announced a $6 million plan to install four systems. Although some are scattered about the world, the idea didn’t catch on. A nine-mile stretch still winds through WVU Morgantown, transporting about 15,000 people a day.

20. July 1973

Motorola’s DynaTAC phone—the original brick—weighed 2 pounds and sold for $3995. Inventor Martin Cooper made the first handheld call with it while walking around New York City. “I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter—probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life,” Cooper said.

21. January 1981

Those extra blades on a wind turbine? Wasted space! That’s what Dr. Rudolph Meggle believed, who sketched this colossal windmill—a 394-foot, one-armed behemoth with a 35-ton counterweight. It was never built. Meggle opted for a shorter, two-armed turbine instead.

22. April 1992

When airplanes are about to touchdown, the “ground effect” phenomenon causes drag to dip and lift to increase.  That’s what helped the flarecraft zip over the water at 60mph. In 2001, Lockheed Martin bought two of the craft.

You can browse more old issues of Popular Science through their enormous, free archive.

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NASA // Public Domain
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]


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