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Monday, 17th December 2007
I n the he 1970's

there was a panic about fossil fuels running out. It seemed that we were going to be running out of coal, oil, gas within twenty years or so. If something was not done there was going to be a new dark age by the 1990's, that is if we were not all living on the moon by then. In the UK we got a feel for what this might be like as the economy collapsed, the three day week was introduced and the power workers were forever on strike. Dark days.

Big Ben would be preserved as a relic

Then we found North Sea Oil and we could not care less, we were all going to be living like oil millionaires. It did not quite work out as planned. The scarcity of resources was all down to an error. A well intentioned error but one none-the-less. It was all down to the fact the commercial extractors were just not interested in anything beyond 20 years so never looked for resources beyond that time scale.

Details from Card
Coal-mines and oil-wells will not last for ever. We shall have to gain, the energy we need, not from fuel, but from the inexhaustible forces of nature. Among these is the heat of sunshine. It could be focused onto a central boiler by a huge circle of mirrors, mounted on a revolving turntable so that they would always face the sun. Vast volumes of steam could thus be produced with no expenditure on fuel and next to none on upkeep, the water-supply being replenished by an automatic pump as it began to run low. A similar sun-furnace in the blazing heat of California or the Sahara, could be used to melt metals.

Since that time Britain has pi**ed away North Sea Oil keeping people out of jobs. A lot of those people out of jobs were the coal-miners, not because they had run out of coal to dig out of the ground. Nope, the pits closed with huge quantities of coal left in them. It was because there was so much of it worldwide to extract it was no longer commercially viable.

In the 1970's we had the answer, nuclear power, endless cheap sources of incredible energy. The reality turned out to be huge white elephants storing up massive problems for future generations that produced energy which cost far more to produce electricity than the conventional power stations.

Now time has moved on, we have a mighty nervous relationship with nuclear energy. If most of us had to make a decision of living next to a coal-fired power station or a nuclear one, we would all be sitting next to a coal-fired power station. Talk about Hobson's choice.


'Not in my back yard'

Today we are all into renewable energy sources, the sun, the wind, the tidal activity of the globe. Renewable and pretty inefficient. I drove past some wind farms the other day, huge monsters, a blight on the landscape, and this was just a small-scale experimental farm. I don't care, they are miles away from me and I can feel good about my planet-saving electricity (as long as it does not cost me more, and it does) whilst somebody else has to look at a beautiful hillside covered in wind generators.

All these things seems mighty modern problems, but effective energy management has been the bane of civilisations since time began. No surprise then that in Westminster, World of Tomorrow [1939] there should be a few cards dedicated to this theme one way or another.

In fact the largest wind generator is based in Oahu, Hawaii USA with 320 foot rotors, it generates 3200kW when the wind reaches 32 mph.
The largest solar power plant on the planet is in the Mojave desert, California USA, where you have to admit it is hot. The station (actually two of them) cover 1280 acres and generate 160 MW of energy.
The worlds largest nuclear power station consists of 10 reactors in Fukushima, Japan with a net output of 8814MW

The box-out is in fact the text from card one of this series and might forward thinking it feels as well. Not though if the 'sun-furnace' was in my back yard.

In fact the next five cards are dedicated to the idea of alternative energies. The second one deals with tidal power. This has the idea of floats bobbing up and down with tidal movements thus powering generators. All very nice then it goes onto mention sealing of river mouths to generate the power, building dams to harness the power of the water. Large environmental impact in other words.

Card 3 shifts the emphasis to sea power generator. Now this uses the seldom discussed idea of pressure changes. It reads thus, 'At low pressure the warm surface-water gives off steam and thus can be condensed by cold water pumped from below.' When the card was written such a scheme was in operation but the compiler was thinking big, creating an artificial island to house this energy creation method.

All seems quite sensible but card 4 comes straight out of the blue. Rotor power plants. The idea is simple and it works, a cylinder exposed to the wind will turn, at the time the set was produced this was being used to propel ships. So far so good but then it gets interesting. The cylinders were going to be at least 100 feet in height and mounted on trucks which were in turn on a circular railway. The cylinders would spin pushing the trucks along the line. This would drive dynamos geared to the axles.

Just imagine if each town had its own rotor power plant encircling the town and forever spinning around it, fantastic stuff.

Card 5 and you knew you were going to get to it in the end, the Wind Turbine Station. It begins with the simple observation that the wind speed is much higher as you go higher into the atmosphere. From this point you get the suggestion from the German engineer, Hermann Honnef that a wind generator would be 1500 feet tall, built of steel and have a number of gigantic wind vanes.

This suggestions makes the experimental wind farms about the planet today positively cute.

Details from Card
Attempts have recently been made to 'split the atom.' Though these have not so far been very spectacular, nor have had any practical application their theoretical results have been important. Developments of similar methods might enable us to release the vast stores of energy which are thought to hold the atom together, thus obtaining unlimited supplies of power for our use. Further advances in this work might enable us to break down the more complicated elements into those of which we are in need, and overcoming any possible shortage of food supplies, or raw materials for our industries.

Card 6 deals with the futuristic idea of the 'atomic disintegrator'. An unfortunate phrase I suppose but it was going to prove to be pretty apt within a few years. Imagine living in a world where you could write about splitting the atom as not being very spectacular, happy days?

It is heartening to see there was some thought being given to alternative energy sources all those years ago. It is not so pleasing to see just what a small impact these energy sources have actually made on the modern world despite all the research that has gone into the things.

The Compiler
All through this series I have been keeping the identity of the man that put this set together a secret. No real reason, it was not me or anything exciting like that. However it was I.O Evans, a man with a passion for cigarette cards who unfortunately passed away in 1977 but did give his collection of cards as a gift to the nation, and no small gift they were. Born in 1894 his full name was Idrisyn Oliver and I am going to quote from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute & Peter Nicholls:
'South-African born UK civil servant and, especially after his retirement in 1956, editor and writer. His first book of sf reference was the nonfiction The World of Tomorrow (1933), about the possible future inventions, partly illustrated with reproductions of artwork from sf magazines, and thus - almost accidentally - the first anthology of sf illustration. He later specialised in the works of JULES VERNE, many of which he translated, beginning in 1958; some of these were reprinted by ACE BOOKS. Unfortunately, in editing Verne IOE occasionally abridged him cruelly, rendering him more of a simple boys'-action writer than was in fact the case. IOE wrote Jules Verne and his work (1965) and edited Science Fiction through the Ages 1 and Science Fiction through the Ages 2 both {1966)

I believe architecture was once described as 'music frozen in time' I have a weakness for things architectural. It was always hoped I was going to be an architect when I grew up (you never know I might be). There are many areas where the future has turned out to be rather less exciting than anticipated. The home I live in now looks nothing like the home of the 1990's as seen from the 1950's. Hardly surprising as the house was built about 100 years before the home of the future was thought of. Every year at the ideal home exhibition there will be the home of the future. Fully automated and usually full of glass and light. We all walk about it, the media show it, futurists say it is going to happen and then we all trot back to our ageing housing stock or mock-Tudor housing estate.

In article one (go see) we looked at the office of the future. Again this has yet to really happen for the vast majority of us.

The compiler deals with these 'cities of the future' card 23 has London of the Future. The card notes the clay sub-soil would not be able to take the great weight of super-skyscrapers. Instead graceful buildings were imagined and the suggestions was flat roofs would be used to land helicopters (and aeroplanes, which seem more adventurous). Quite clearly this re-design was obviously radical as he suggests Big Ben would be preserved as a relic of an interesting past. Can you imagine such a scene. I have not got all the facts but I suspect there are so many buildings with preservation orders slapped on them in the Capital that it would take another Great Fire of London to ensure anything like the redevelopment suggested would go on. Afterall a few years after the set was created the Germans had a darn good go at redeveloping London for us but we somehow managed to rebuild it in the same chaotic manner before the Germans started redeveloping it for us.

Card 24, New York of the Future sees skyscrapers reaching ever higher towards the gods. High-rise pedestrian walkways criss-cross the city whilst traffic whistled beneath them, separate lanes for differing speeds. All very nice. For some reason though the city is driven more by grace than function. The reality of modern architecture though is form follows function. A square box fulfils all the functions of any building and so graceful spires and sweeping arches rarely appear to the extent they were expected to (or indeed are expected to) by the futurists.

Card 25 deals with the church of the future, it is nice to see religion still had a place but I am going to skip over it as it does not say much.

Card 26 deals with the sort of skyscraper that might exist in the future, a cross-shaped skyscraper, as proposed by M le Corbusier, a French architect. The shape of the cross was to get as much light into the building as possible. The idea really is not that exciting but card 27, Revolving house is far more fun. A lovely idea but somewhat impractical given the density of population in the world today in most areas.

The revolving house was an effort to get more sunlight into the building, something which is seen as desirable for whatever reason. For my part I live in a world of almost total non-natural light. The curtains never open in this building and the window I have in front of me now is on the third floor and has two sets of curtains over it. I do not seem to come to any harm. Card 28 deals with a house made of glass, something which would probably cause me a nervous breakdown reasonably swiftly.

In Ipswich there is a beautiful glass building which belongs to an insurance company, it really is a wonder, at Christmas it lights up like a huge Christmas tree, wonderful. There just are not enough of these buildings about. Probably better suited as a business idea rather than residential stuff.

So there you go another peak into yesterdays future. It could well be a peak into the future but then again it is more likely this future has come and gone and we did not notice it slip away from us.