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The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America
The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America

11 Areas of Future Life Covered in The Tricentennial Report

The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America
The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America

In 1976, to celebrate America's bicentennial, Atlantic Richfield Company put out a call—in the form of newspaper, magazine, and television ads—for average citizens to write in and respond to dedicated questionnaires predicting what life would be like when the country celebrated its tricentennial in 2076. Sixty thousand people wrote in.

"It was like one of those talk shows in which people call in to the local radio station and share their opinions on some critical issues of the day," reads the intro of The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America, which was published the following year. "Only in this case, the entire country was plugged in at once." The report is 70-plus pages of analysis interspersed with excerpts from specific letters and even pictures from respondents of all ages. They're arranged roughly thematically, but the themes range from overall impressions of the future world to detailed developments in industry to even fictionalized narratives of daily life.

Technology moves so fast that while some letters still read like science fiction, there are inklings of truth in others. Even for those predictions that are still far-fetched, it's interesting to consider if we're moving toward or away from them. We pulled 11 different topics touched on in one or more of these letters about life in 2076, and we promise to check back in on them in 62 years.

1. Unfettered Optimism

I see a world of peace and beauty. The air is clear and invigorating. The tall, clean, stainless and blue tinted glass business/living complexes seem to blend with the greenery that abounds everywhere...There is no anxiety, no loneliness. There is happy activity and tranquility...Man has controlled disease, population growth and his hostilities.

It seems safe to assume that Jane Petti of Brooklyn, New York, represented an extreme outlier on the spectrum of how hopeful respondents were for the country's future. And since she doesn't seem to provide even an outline for how we should go about not only setting aside hostility but also curing all diseases, we're destined to fall short of the utopia she's envisioned.

2. The Catastrophizers

Not everyone thought the future would be all stainless buildings and abundant greenery. In fact, plenty of people wrote in with bleak prognoses that exaggerated the worst parts of contemporary life.

Irene Sarraf of Howell, New Jersey, wrote ominously that "Spaceships have been arriving daily to take aboard the few scattered survivors left after the havoc."

Andrew Grzanka of Piscataway, New Jersey, used questionable science for his prediction: "A great part of the earth has collapsed due to the removal of vast amounts of coal and minerals," he wrote.

Bruce Povall of Pleasantville, New York got creative; he delivered his prediction in the form of a fictional story about the futuristically-named Nemo Outis, but his prognosis was even darker. "It was short, as such wars go, ending after a week of all out scientific warfare," he wrote. "The net result was the near total destruction of mainland Asia, large parts of Europe, the Mideast, Africa and of course, the United States."

3. Sustainable Energy

The report says that of all issues, the matter of sustainable energy drew the most responses and that "nearly everybody agrees that what is most urgently needed is a substitute for the diminishing, costly fossil fuels we are now so dependent on." Some people suggested nuclear fission or nuclear fusion as a replacement, but solar power seems to have been the most popular replacement.

"Because scientific fact has shown fossil petroleum reserves will run out in the near future...I would like to see a full-speed switch to solar and other natural forms of energy," wrote Bruce Hilde of Moorhead, Minnesota.

"Sunlight is always available, free," backs up Tom Stafford of Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Frances Schleissner of Chatsworth, California, offers a very thorough take: "Many different ideas for fuel are being explored such as hydrocarbon fuels, nuclear fission and fusion, thermal gradients and solar generators. As a long-term means for providing energy without the concomitant production of potentially lethal byproducts, I feel that solar energy is the most practical."

4. Rationing energy

One of the solutions to the energy crisis suggested in a number of letters was to limit or heavily discourage usage by law, a stark contrast to the continued excess that has come to pass.

"I think the best way to solve our energy problems would be by making laws on how much energy you can use," offered Charlotte Walck of Longmont, Colorado.

"The best way to solve our energy problems is to give each family an energy allowance annually, for a stipulated price, whether it be for gasoline, utilities, etc. Once this allowance has been fully utilized any additional usage should be extremely expensive so as to encourage conservation," Richard Kleinbaum of NYC suggested.

5. Food

This take on futuristic food came from Sikeston, Michigan high schooler Karla K. Adams:

In the year 2076 there will be several changes in the world. We will be eating capsules and pills instead of food. At the Fourth of July picnic our baskets will be stuffed with barbecued chicken pills and potato salad capsules.

Scientists will have discovered that human consumption of meats and vegetables is hazardous to human life. For this reason livestock will be kept only as pets and vegetables will be grown only as ornamental plants...

Another major accomplishment of these tasty capsules would be the fact that sloppiness at the table would be eliminated.

6. Marriage

Another student, Sheri Lynn Brown from Sylmar, California, worries about how a more automated life will lead to widespread boredom, but also extrapolates a radical change to our current social structure based on the changing norms of the '60s and '70s:

Customs have changed much in the last 20 years, so I think that in 100 years I believe we won't have marriage. Families won't be important as they are now. Everybody will do his own thing.

7. City-scapes

Everyone seems to agree that the future will see even more of a shift to further urbanization. The cities of 2076 are meticulously planned and essentially revamped from scratch with detailed, organized layouts. Arthur R. Carroll of Flushing, New York goes all in on the grid-structure:

My idea is a plan for the city of the future. Population of each city should be limited to 1,000,000 and overcrowding eliminated. The city should be laid out in a huge square with numbered streets and avenues only, not names. All avenues would be six lanes wide. One section of the city would be limited to commercial buildings, a second section to apartment buildings and residences. There would be areas restricted to shopping centers. There would be an automatic overhead monorail system run by the city (no fare charged).

The appeal of cities seems to be that they can accommodate growing populations while still leaving room outside their borders for agriculture. Here's how Donal Hawk Jr. of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania imagines it:

My idea for the Tricentennial is what I call complexes or a city in one building. These could replace the old cities and use spaces economically...A population of 8,000,000 people could be fitted in a 16 square kilometer (5 square mile) area. I gave each person a 10 meter square room and figured out the area needed and doubled it to account for halls and other needed areas.

The main purpose of these cities would be to save land to be brought back to nature and to create more farm space for food production.

8. Beauty Standards

Most letters avoid day to day minutia, but in a long, sprawling note from Ralph Doty of Cambridge, Massachusetts comes this gem of the unintended consequences of a return to almost feudal life:

...[S]ince most of the population will be barely subsisting on the results of their agriculture, almost everyone will be thin. Consequently, fatness will be considered a singular mark of beauty in a woman, and parents of marriageable daughters will starve themselves to stuff their offspring. Matchmakers will travel from town to town, displaying photographs of obese beauties to bachelors with money and an urge to marry; fashion will dictate loose dresses with puffed sleeves to counterfeit curves. Perhaps the bustle will come back.

9. The Government

People in 1976 were understandably wary of the government—they had just lived through the Watergate scandal, after all. Their letters, then, are a form of wishful thinking in which politicians are more open or the central government plays a far reduced role in their lives.

"I think we should take away most of the services the government performs and have individual companies bid for the work," wrote Linda Custer of East Hartford, Connecticut.

"Let's start by making it mandatory that each candidate be required to give the public such information as educational background, political ties and past work record," Lewis Wilson of East Orange, New Jersey wrote. (He might be happy to learn that the current news cycle surrounding political campaigns reveals all sorts of personal history far more sordid than previous employment.)

Ed Archer of Brooklyn, New York suggested a radical solution to governmental incompetence, a training program for politicians:

The curriculum would stress the fundamentals of the American constitutional system with emphasis on leadership training, while preparing the student for a career in certain area of government. Graduates would be obligated to a service in government for five years.

10. More radical change

Some people thought the current government couldn't be properly reformed, and that the following hundred years would reveal a need for an all new system.

Allan LeBaron's letter suggested that "We need to rewrite the Constitution."

"We should have a national Council of Elders, a group composed of capable, wise, detached individuals, appointed for life, who would be responsible for supervising studies of alternative courses of action," suggested Fred Floodstrand of Crystal Falls, Michigan, who may have been reading too many Superman comics.

11. Space Travel

What would be the point of predicting the far-off future if not to anticipate space travel?

"Even if the light barrier in never surpassed, I think I can safely say that in 100 years we will have reliable star travel," Martin Halbert of Houston, Texas predicted.

Rather than serve as a backup to a failed Earth habitat, as is often the case with extraterrestrial colonies, Norm Honest of Wantagh, New York anticipated how our space developments would benefit inhabitants back on Earth:

I visualize in the year 2076 space colonies, each housing tens of thousands of people. These colonies will serve as bases for the future exploration of space. They will beam down all the solar energy the earth requires and they will supply us with unlimited amounts of precious ore obtained from the moon, asteroids and other planets.

Christopher Placak of Charlottesville, Virginia was not so hopeful:

If we can set some sort of goal, such as attempting to send men to Mars by 1985, or reach the nearest star by 2010, it would unify the people and provide a tremendous boost for technology. It could help the economy and maybe give some people a place to go after 2010, if we blow the hell out of this planet and make it unlivable.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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