Did you know that Henry Ford wanted to make a flying car? And he came very close to doing it, too. This video tells the story of how flying cars almost became a thing, as well as other technologies we really thought we’d have by now. Why didn’t they work? And will they ever work? Let’s take a look.


The Art of Prediction

At the beginning of this year, I did a video where I looked to the year 2100 and imagined what the future will be like 80 years from now, and in that, I took a look back at predictions that people had made in the past about today. Some of which are hilarious now.

But these predictions weren’t just hopes and dreams, they assumed we’d have those technologies because people were working on it at the time.
Some of the brightest scientists and engineers in the world were trying to make these things happen. Flying cars, space habitats, a cure for cancer. Which got me wondering… Why didn’t they?

Like what went wrong when we tried to make these things happen? What were the pivot points where things went the wrong direction?

So I looked into it, and it’s kind of a fascinating way to look at how technology evolves. Sometimes it was just way harder than they thought it would be. Sometimes it’s economic forces that work against it. And some may still happen.

Flying Cars Part One

Let’s start with the obvious one, flying cars, which is a much older idea than you might think.
Like, Leonardo DaVinci designed a personal aircraft. You might be familiar with his helicopter design but he also designed an ornithopter. Because even in the 15th century, the spice must flow.

And obviously there were many attempts to build a flying vehicle over the years but it was the Wright Brothers who figured it out in 1903.
It might be weird to imagine now but the first airplanes… Were kinda like flying cars.
And again, I have to set the context here, first of all the people who were alive at that time had seen some of the biggest societal and technological change in human history. The Industrial Revolution and the Victorian age introduced electricity, recorded sound, photography, the combustion engine, indoor plumbing, the radio – and they already had giant airships that were like cruise liners for the sky.

Airplanes were these tiny things that only carried a couple of people at at a time. Compared to airships, they were kinda like cars.
Taking to the sky felt like the next obvious step. So of course the world’s biggest automobile manufacturer wanted in on it.
So in the 1920s, Henry Ford took his shot. He bought the Stout Metal Airplane Company and together they built the Ford Tri-Motor transport plane.

This was a moderate success and was even used by Admiral Richard Byrd when he became the first person to fly over the South Pole in November 1929.

But Henry wanted to go bigger. He wanted to replicate his success from 20 years before, so he brought in the designer of the Tri-Motor, Otto Koppen, to design the Model T for the skies.
He had a few mandatories for this.

I want it to be a single-seater. I want it to be less than 1000 pounds in order to be considered a Class C plane. And I want it to fit in this office.

And what they came up with was the Ford Flivver. It was 15 feet long with wingspan of 23 feet, weighing a mere 350 pounds and powered by a twin cylinder motor cranking out a whopping 35 horsepower.

This is of course more of a personal flying vehicle than a flying car, but it was meant to be used the same way, plus it took up about the same space as a large car. Also, Flivver is kind-of a weird name but apparently it was slang for a cheap car, going back to the Model-T.
They built several prototypes throughout the 1920s and officially unveiled it on his 63rd birthday. The next step was to work out all the bugs so Henry brought in Stout’s test pilot Harry Brooks.

Harry spent the next few years with the Flivver and apparently even commuted to work with it. He was using it exactly like it was designed, you wheel it out of your garage, fly it across town, land it at your destination and park it in roughly car-sized parking spot.

Now I know you may be thinking that there would need to be a lot of infrastructure built out for something like this to work but keep in mind, they were still building out the car infrastructure at the time. Integrating this into it would have been a lot easier back then.
It was starting to look like this thing could actually work. The Flivver was working flawlessly and Ford began drawing up plans for mass-production, which let’s face it, nobody did that better than him.

The plane was performing so well, in fact, that by the third generation prototype, they decided to make the wings a little bit longer so that they could break the world distance record for a Class C airplane.

The goal was to fly 1000 miles on one tank of gas, so they chose a route between Detroit and Miami and in January of 1928, Harry Brooks loaded up the plane and headed south to the land of flamingos and G-strings.

He was not successful.

Bad weather and icy wings forced him to land in Asheville North Carolina, but a month later, they tried it again. And he aaalmost got there.
He ran out of gas and landed in Titusville, Florida, where he had to fix a leaky fuel line and replace the propellor. He didn’t quite make it 1000 miles, but he did make it 930 miles, which was a new world record for a plane of that size. Even if he didn’t make it the whole way, they had proven that the Flivver could be used both as a daily commuter vehicle and as a long-distance vehicle.

The next morning, after repairing the plane, Harry Brooks took off on a short hop to Miami to finish the trip, still reveling in his new status as a world-record holder.

He was never seen again.
The next day, sea planes found the wreckage of the Flivver in the water off the coast of Melbourne, Florida. Harry’s body was never found.
It’s not known what went wrong, some suspect a fuel line issue, some that a rudder wire snapped and he lost directional control. What is known is that Henry Ford took this loss VERY hard and paused his mass production plans. Soon after that the stock market crashed and the US entered the Great Depression, and the whole program was scrapped.

This was the closest we ever came to real personal flying vehicles, with Henry Friggin Ford at the height of his success. The dream wasn’t dead, though.

In 1935, the US Bureau of Air Commerce ran a competition to build an aircraft for everyone. The goal was to design a plane that could retail for $700 – $15,500 in today’s money.
Popular Science hailed some of the designs as “foolproof” and “as easily as an automobile.” But ultimately none of them went into production.
As the airline industry matured and cars became ubiquitous, the need for a “personal airplane” kinda went away. If flying cars were going to be a thing, they would have to change. And in 1962, a new inspiration came along.

Flying Cars Part Two

The Jetsons debuted in 1962, and with them a new idea about what flying cars should be. Small, wingless, and suitable for puttering around a floating city. You might think the anti-grav tech would have stalled efforts, but you’d be wrong.
In 1965, Canadian engineer Paul Moller showed off the XM-2 Skycar. It looked like the real deal, something George Jetson would fly. The problem was, it couldn’t.
The Skycar hovered. It could kind of fly on a tether, but it never really took off. Literally.

By the way, Moller worked on this idea for nearly sixty years, and it changed drastically over time, but he never was able to release one that flies freely.
That is some serious dedication, though, good show, old chap.

A lot of people have tried to crack this nut over the years but it just never took. I actually did a video a while back on inventors who were killed by their inventions and talked about Henry Smolinski, who made his car into a plane, which, it worked, but he died tragically in a crash.
That car was a Ford Pinto, so I guess Ford did eventually make a flying car.
Today there are multiple companies working on personal drones that really can be flown by anybody because they’d be autonomous. Even Uber was working on that concept, they called it Uber Elevate, but they were purchased by Joby Aviation in 2020.

Since then they’ve kind-of been in stealth mode, I wasn’t able to find much about what they’re doing.

And there are others I covered on a video about this topic that I will shamelessly plug.
One flying car I haven’t really talked about is this thing from a company called Alef which is an interesting concept at least. It rolls like a car but the frame is an open mesh with propellers on the underside. So when you want to fly, the propellers engage, the car lifts off the ground and rotates to the side to fly through the air.
Alef calls this car the… Model A.

Didn’t I just joke about that?

These are all just concepts right now, but we might start to see personal flying drone services in the next decade or so, probably ridiculously expensive but it might exist in some capacity.
Or… maybe not. Maybe it’s just an idea whose time will never come. But we got close once.

So, why did the competition planes fail? Because flying is hard, and not everybody should do it. But there’s a deeper problem I think these early attempts failed to address: the rapid growth of car ownership.
In 1935, there were something like 22 million cars on US roads. There are now more than 290 million. Imagine each of those cars with wings and a tail, and I think you see the problem.
Millions of planes in the air is a nightmare. So for flying cars to become a thing, the concept had to change. In the 1960s, it did.

We’re probably going to see flying taxis in the next few years. They’ll be few in number, and each one will have a qualified pilot. I think we have to accept, at this point, that flying cars won’t be coming home anytime soon.
An aircraft for everyone didn’t happen, but there was a time it looked like it would. The closest we probably came was when Ford was pursuing the Flivver. If Harry Brooks had landed safely, all those years ago, the history of transportation might have looked very different.

Space Habitats

The film 2001 depicts a future where space travel looks a lot like air travel. The year 2001 came and went 23 years ago and still we don’t have anything close to what we see in the movie.
The main reason is price. Now granted, the cost to orbit has gone way down in recent decades, but still, even with the Falcon Heavy being only fifteen hundred dollars per kilogram, it would cost $100,000 just to launch the weight of the average man.

The other reason people don’t commute regularly to space is there aren’t a lot of places to go. The ISS is nice, but it’s only built for seven people. Those are pretty exclusive accommodations.
There are plans for space hotels and moon bases but… those have been planned for a long time. Kubrick wasn’t crazy to expect them way sooner. For the record, neither was Arthur C. Clark who wrote the book.
In fact, massive space habitats were in the plans from the very beginning. Wernher Von Braun promoted the idea of massive spinning space stations in a series of articles for Collier’s magazine in 1950. This was when NASA was still NACA.

In 1955, von Braun appeared on an episode of Disneyland, which was an early name for The Wonderful World of Disney.
And what he proposed was not a far cry from what Kubrick brought to life.
That model by the way is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
And the wheel station was far from the most out-there space habitat idea. In 1975, a team of researchers from NASA and Stanford university set out to design space habitats that could be built with existing technologies. The head of that project was Dr. Gerard O’Neill.

This is obviously where the idea for the O’Neill cylinder came from. In case you don’t know, the O’Neill cylinder is a giant rotating tube that can house thousands of people, it’s fairly famous, but that same group also thought up Bernal Spheres, the Standford Torus, and some even crazier ideas.
All were meant to rotate, so they could simulate gravity. They were designed to house at least 10,000 people, and were mostly self-sufficient, though some raw materials were expected to be shipped in.

I should be clear that none of these were actual plans, NASA Administrator James Fletcher called them “a vision that will engage our imaginations.” But NASA did have some huge plans for space travel following Apollo.
Again, I did a whole video about this, shameless plug, but NASA wanted to build multiple space stations and moon bases and an infrastructure of transports and shuttles to move people and goods between them.

In fact, a station was planned in the early days of Apollo to serve as a gateway to the moon. The space race accelerated the timeline and Apollo ended up going straight to the moon, instead.
The space shuttle was actually born from the idea. Its original purpose was to shuttle astronauts between earth and an orbital space station. The station itself was supposed to go up on a Saturn V rocket.

A clash with the military changed NASA’s plans. See, the space agency needed the help of the US Air Force to make the shuttle a reality. NASA’s budget shrank after Apollo, but at the same time, the US military budget skyrocketed, due to the Vietnam War.

The Air Force wanted a beefier shuttle that could carry spy satellites. They had the money, so they got their wish. Over time, the redesigned shuttle became the go-to vehicle for NASA
But it came at the expense of plans to build a stopover space station.

The plans weren’t abandoned, but they were massively pushed back.
But the big hurdle has always been cost. Big space habitats means putting a LOT of stuff into space, and the cost is still just way too high.
And while yes, there are some interesting plans for private space stations in the very near future, none of them are remotely at the scale of spinning wheels or cylinders.

Hopefully new megarockets like Starship and New Glenn could change the equation and make our space fantasies finally a reality.
By the way, did you see that New Glenn was on the launch pad recently? I know I’ve given Blue Origin a lot of grief, but I’m excited to see that go up.

Vactube Travel

The idea of people flying through vacuum tubes at ridiculous speeds feels like a recent thing since the hyperloop idea was put out there by Elon Musk a few years back. But this general idea has been around for a long time. In fact… This might be the oldest idea on this list.
It was 1799, the year Napoleon seized power and George Washington died, English engineer George Medhurst patented a pump that could move coaches by compressed air.

This led to the development of the first atmospheric railway in 1834, between Exeter and Newton Abbot in the UK. Medhurst unfortunately died 7 years before it opened so he never got to see it, but it was a commercial 32-kilometer line that actually worked. For about a year.

But it wasn’t like a hyperloop, the passenger carriage wasn’t inside the pipe, the pipe was only about 15 inches wide, but the carriage attached to a plunger inside of it, through a resealable seam in the pipe. Then, at the opposite end of the line, a pump at the station would suck the air out of the pipe and the vacuum would pull the train down the line. And believe it or not, this thing was capable of reaching 70 miles an hour.

So yeah, it was speedy, but hard to maintain. That resealable seam was made out of leather that had to be constantly greased with tallow. And the tallow attracted rats, who ate the leather, which ruined the seal.
All those maintenance costs added up, and after about a year, it was deemed too expensive.

In 1869, a proper pneumatic subway was built in New York City. It spanned just 312 feet (95 meters) and was operated as a thrill ride.
It was created by an inventor named Alfred Beach, and it was a moderate success, but he wasn’t able to get funding to extend the line, and it wound up closing in 1873.

But! Fun fact, the abandoned tunnel was the inspiration for tunnel sections that appear in Ghostbusters II and two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.
The idea of tube travel was later revived in 1888 by Jules Verne’s son, Michael. In a short story, he described an underwater tube that could send trains across the Atlantic. The travel time was less than three hours.

By the time the story debuted, the atmospheric railways had closed. The concept has been revived a few times, and small scale examples still exist. But a large scale train-in-a-tube has never happened.

Which is weird, because some smart people pushed for it over the years. One surprising advocate was Robert Goddard, the rocket pioneer.
He wrote about it in a short story and tell me if this sounds familiar – he described it as a high-speed train that ran in partial vacuum and used magnetic repulsion to eliminate friction. He even filed a patent for his design later on.
In the 1970s, an American engineer named Robert Salter proposed something he called a “Planetran,” which was a transcontinental railway using magnets and air to propel cars through tubes.

It was considered too expensive and never made any headway.
He envisioned an underground system of tubes criss-crossing the country, but building it out would have cost $750 billion – 2 trillion dollars in today’s money.
There must have been something in the air in the 70s because over in Switzerland, a guy named Rudolph Nieth designed a similar maglev vactrain in 1974.

He and a team of engineers presented the idea for what they called the Swissmetro in 1980, and this actually got a lot of traction at the time.
The idea was developed over the years by the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology and a pilot track was planned to be built between Geneva and Lausanne in 1998. But before construction began, the Swiss government put the squash on the idea to focus on expanding existing rail projects.

And in 1991, none other than Gerard O’Neill started work on a vactrain that could reach speeds faster than an airline jet.
What can you say, the man loved tubes.
He filed a patent on this idea but unfortunately died of leukemia two years before winning the patent.

So yeah when Elon wrote that white paper about the Hyperloop in 2012, he was just the last in a long line of people promoting the concept. And for a while there it started to look like it might happen, a lot of companies came out of the woodwork to build a working line, including Virgin, but none of them have really amounted to anything.

I could go into all the reasons why Hyperloop has hyperflopped but there are tons of videos on YouTube that deconstruct all the problems with the idea. No need for me to pile on, but those problems aren’t specific to Hyperloop, it’s the same problems that have prevented all the vactrain concepts over the years.
The point is, the idea is nothing new. Neither are the issues with it.
But once upon a time, pneumatic tubes to transfer mail and small items were the height of technology. It only seemed logical that we’d transport ourselves the same way. But unfortunately the economics are hard to work out
In 2016, Professor Jose Gomez-Ibanez of Harvard called Hyperloop a “utopian vision”. He doubted the vactrain could compete with airlines, and so far, it looks like he’s right.
One last note on this though, the Swissmetro I mentioned earlier is pushing for a pilot line again, this time calling it the Swissmetro-NG. Next generation?
Anyway, I guess time will tell whether or not they’re able to pull it off.

Cancer Cure

There’s one more I wanted to talk about today and that’s a cure for cancer. And this requires a little bit of nuance.

Because cancer is not just one disease, it’s a whole complicated family of diseases. In fact, according to worldwidecancerresearch.org, there are “more than 200 distinct diseases” under the umbrella of cancer.
And we’ve made huge strides in cancer treatment over the years, including some types of cancers that we actually have, effectively “cured.”
But there was a time when the US took a massive action toward curing cancer, diverting tons of government funds and resources in a way not seen since the Manhattan Project.

It was the US War on Cancer, and the guy who declared war on cancer was Richard Nixon of all people.

In 1971, Nixon announced in his State of the Union address that he was making it his mission to cure cancer in the United States, saying his administration would apply the same “concentrated effort that split the atom” to come up with a cure.

This resulted in the passing of the National Cancer Act of 1971, which directed hundreds of millions of dollars to the National Cancer Institute, supporting research into preventing and treating cancer.

The goal was to have the cure in five years, by the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. Spoiler alert: That didn’t happen.
It’s not a coincidence that this happened right after we landed on the moon. We were still riding high on that victory and felt like we were capable of doing anything.
But it turns out landing on the moon was a lot easier than curing cancer. Cancer changes and mutates, what works in one patient might not work in another. Sometimes patients will have success with a drug for one treatment but later that same treatment doesn’t work.

There were a lot of fundamental understandings of cancer that we just didn’t have yet. As the director of the Institute of Cancer Research at Columbia once said about the War on Cancer,
“an all-out effort at this time [to conquer cancer] would be like trying to land a man on the moon without knowing Newton’s laws of gravity”
Clearly, five years to cure cancer was never going to happen. But the additional funding and research that came out of it did lead to breakthroughs that we’ve built on ever since, like the discovery of the first cancer-causing gene, c-Src.

Thanks to the Cancer Act, we took leaps in our understanding of molecular and cell biology, leading to targeted therapies and personalized medicine.

And today, most cancers are considered treatable. Maybe not curable, but treatable. And while yes, way too many people are still dying of cancer, according to a report from the American Association For Cancer Research in 2022, for the first time in history, more people are surviving cancer than dying from it.

I’ll moderate that statement by saying that’s the 5-year death rate across all types of cancers so it’s kind-of a narrow view but still, progress!
I should also point out that a similar push for a cancer cure was launched in the last year of the Obama administration in 2016. They didn’t call it a “War” on cancer, they called it a Cancer Moonshot and it was focused more on gene therapies and immunotherapies.

And we’ll likely see more progress in the coming years as new mRNA vaccines may make it possible to sequence a specific cancer’s genome and create a vaccine that targets those specific cells. This would be huge and there are dozens of trials going on right now to test them out.

So with a little luck and a lot of research, this may be the one technology on this list that we may actually have in the not too distant future. And thank God, because – and I say this on behalf of everyone currently dealing with this disease or have lost a loved one to it – F*CK Cancer.

So that’s the list. I think it’s worth looking back like this to revisit how I personally, and other people in the past, have pictured the future. But there is a danger to the exercise.
If you asked ten-year-old me what life in the future would look like, I definitely would have mentioned flying cars. I might even have said I’d be flying my car to the spaceport on the way to work. Life today doesn’t look like that, and yeah, that’s disappointing.

A good deal of the research I did for this video was on different ways to measure cancer outcomes. Mortality rates from cancer have gone down, but not as much as anybody hoped. But focusing on just cancer obscures a lot of the progress medical science has made in the recent past.
If we step back from cancer to look at human life expectancy overall, we see a much brighter picture. In 1950, the average life expectancy of a person who reached 10-years-old was 61.2 years. A ten-year-old in the year 2000 can expect to reach 72.4.

Life expectancy has continued to improve, and the numbers I’m quoting are global averages. Some regions have seen even greater improvements. So sure, we haven’t cured cancer, but medical care as a whole has improved by leaps and bounds.
That’s true of all of the categories I could fit my picks for this list into. Medicine, transportation, space travel, renewable energy — all are better than they used to be. Life is so much better, for so many people, I sometimes feel bad for pointing out the exceptions.

If there’s one thing I want to take away from this review of technologies we thought we’d have, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. Remember that James Fletcher quote about space habitats engaging our imaginations? Sometimes achieving the dream is a bonus.

The point of dreaming is to engage imagination. Because engaging imagination is the first step to motivating change, improving our own lives, and doing the best job we can of building the future.

But anyway, imagine if all of this had come true. We might be living in a world where you wake up in New York, take off in your personal flying drone to the doctor’s office to get your yearly cancer vaccine, then hop over to the vactrain station to take a 30-minute ride to Cape Canaveral, where you blast off to your job at the giant rotating space station

And who knows, maybe 10 years in the future… we’ll still be able to imagine it.

The future has a way of surprising us. It never turns out quite the way we expect. Nobody 50 years ago expected the advancements in communication technology that we’ve seen. And who knows what blind spots we have for the future right now. It’ll be interesting to see what those blind spots turn out to be.

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