Inventions of the 20s
When we think of the 20s, especially in Europe and the United States, we think of the Roaring Twenties – The Great Gatsby, flapper girls, gangsters, and prohibition. This is the impression that Hollywood has given us, but the 20s were hugely important for other reasons.
From the historical perspective, the 20s represented an era of change. The world was still reeling from the effects of the Great War, and society was changing. The 20s saw the emergence of the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – that would dominate the progress of history for much of the next 70 years. Technologically, the 1920s saw important developments, and I thought it would be fascinating to see where some of these innovations might lead a century later, in the 2020s.
While not technically a development of the 1920s, it was around this time that the idea of Mass Production became widely known. By 1927, the Ford Motor Company was producing a motor car – the famous Model T – every 24 seconds. Cars become affordable to the public and led to a huge increase in personal mobility. The famous black colour – the subject of Henry Ford’s famous quote that I won’t repeat here – was solely a result of the economies of scale. Not only was it cheaper to offer just one colour but the black paint also dried in less time, allowing the production line to run more quickly.
The 2020s will see a new era in car production as the electric vehicle comes of age. We will see the large automotive manufacturers enter the battery-powered electric vehicle market in earnest. Until now, electric vehicles have been at the fringe of the automotive industry. However, the demand created by more environmentally aware consumers, combined with the changes in legislation that are being proposed around the world, will give the major manufacturers no choice – adopt new technologies, or risk being left behind.
One invention that was first seen in the 1920s was the television. When John Logie Baird made his demonstration of the television in 1926, I am sure he did not imagine the extent to which the screen would dominate so much of our technology today. As a species, we like to receive our information visually, and we could make a strong argument that the invention of the television has led us directly to the displays that are everywhere today. What developments will we see in visual technology during the 2020s?
A month ago, I was lucky enough to drive a new car that featured a Head-Up Display (HUD). This is a device that is designed to place vital information directly in the eye-line of the user, allowing him or her to concentrate on the task at hand – in this case, driving a car safely. The HUD came to the fore during the 1970s with the 4th generation of fighter aircraft, exemplified by the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The F-16 made a huge impact when it entered service due to the vast range of new innovations that it incorporated – modern materials, fly-by-wire control systems, and unusual aerodynamics. One of the most interesting developments was the way that information was supplied to the pilot. Multi-function and head-up-displays replaced the old analogue dials and reflector gunsight, allowing the single pilot to perform the tasks that had needed two pilots in older aircraft – the F-4 Phantom II is a perfect example.
It has taken many years for this use of multi-function displays to migrate into the average family car, but the last decade has seen these technologies widely adopted. The head-up display has taken a little longer but is now being introduced into some cars and vehicles. I predict that the 2020s will see the HUD become common, not just in cars but in wearable technologies too – the much-maligned Google Glass is an example of a HUD incorporated into a pair of eyeglasses. My inner geek cannot wait for head-up displays to be a regular part of our lives.
Return To The Moon
Robert Goddard launched his first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. Rockets had been around for centuries, powered by solid fuel, but these are impractical for space exploration. The limitation of a solid-fueled rocket is that once started, it is impossible to stop until the fuel is exhausted. There is also no way to vary the thrust generated by a solid-fuel rocket once it is ignited.
The invention of a liquid-fueled rocket was an enormous step towards the goal of space exploration, a step that led ultimately to the enormous power of the F-1 engines fitted to Saturn V rockets. In this refined form, the liquid-fueled rocket can be throttled up and down, just as a jet engine can. It can also be extinguished and then re-ignited to provide controlled spaceflight – the Apollo 13 mission depended on just such a mid-flight engine ignition to bring Jim Lovell and his crew safely home.
There has been much talk by NASA and others about a manned return to the moon during the 2020s, and even a mission to Mars. In either case, the liquid-fueled rocket will be vital to a successful mission. Solid-fueled rockets will still have a role to play during the initial launch phase – launch systems including the Space Shuttle and the Ariane family have all depended on solid-fueled rockets to break out of Earth’s gravity. However, until mankind perfects newer techniques, the liquid-fueled rocket is here to stay.
It is not often that we can look forward to a decade that will be so dominated by technological developments. The 2020s will present some big challenges, not least growing population and the need to reverse our climate-changing ways, but innovations in both existing and emerging fields offer plenty of hope for the future.
Happy New Year Decade!