(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)
|Solar Air Conditioner|
|Cost||$830/1989 ($870/1990, $1400/2007)|
There's a new breeze a-comin', and its name is conveniently New Breeze. It's "mounted on a wall, will cool a 100-square-foot-room", and is run from a rooftop solar panel. Rooftop solar panel? This is just a standard air conditioner (swamp cooler?) hooked up to a solar panel. Why not install the panel and a standard air conditioner? What's the difference?
Today the Independent Power Company of North San Juan is out of business, but there are still solar-powered air conditioners (actually, they appear to be solar/house power hybrids, as does New Breeze itself). One price I found was $3100-$3500/2007 ($1900-$2100/1989). They still rely on roof-mounted solar panels. The only difference between them and regular air conditioners seems to be that they can run directly on the DC power from the panel.
PS: The phrase "new breeze" is now often used to describe wind power, not an application of solar power. Hopefully it won't catch on in the field of nuclear power.
|Embalmed House plants|
|Cost||"3 times regular plant"|
Are you a vile gangster long past your prime? Do you long to relive the days when you encased your enemies in carbonite without fear of retribution? Now you can take out your frustrations on helpless plants! Embalmed houseplants "never have to be watered, fertilized, pruned or exposed to sunlight." Here's a 1987 Mother Earth News article that mentions the process.
Embalmed plants are brought to you by Weyerhauser, which nowadays focuses on chopping plants down rather than embalming them. The process, which apparently involves replacing the water in the cells with a preservative chemical, was developed by Broadike, a Dutch company that's now gone.
These are still being sold—they're now called "preserved" plants, having passed through the euphemism-happy '90s—but I can't find many places selling them (here's one). It turns out that people either want a real plant, or something really cheap that looks like a real plant. Plastic plants have gotten much more realistic since 1989, and a preserved plant always costs more than a real plant. So not much of a market. It's not hard to find preserved bonsai trees (around $90/2007), though, which makes sense--it's an elaborate plant that's very hard to maintain, and fakes don't look that good.
Future Stuff now dabbles in the realm of kitchen gadgets: an area where it's very easy to come up with an idea, not difficult at all to get the idea made into a product, but very difficult to have any lasting impact on the way people make food. The last two kitchen gadgets that really caught on were probably the food processor and the microwave. In 1989, it was the turn of the self-stirring saucepan.
The Tefal COOK 'N' STIR comes direct from France. It's a special saucepan with a motor that drives a rotating paddle like you'd see in an ice cream machine. It's sold, of course, through Hammacher Schlemmer, which as I go through this book is taking on greater and greater importance in my mind as the only place in 1980s America where you could buy anything even slightly out of the ordinary.
The main problem is that most kitchen gadgets are only good for one thing; as Alton Brown would say, they're unitaskers. The COOK 'N' STIR is great when you have to stir something constantly, but I'm not French and I don't make something that needs constant stirring more than once a month. For this I should allocate some of my precious kitchen space?
I've actually seen one of these self-stirring saucepans, but it wasn't in a store. It was at a garage sale or in someone's disorganized kitchen. This is the inevitable fate of the kitchen gadget: bought but not used. Since the gadget company only gets the "bought" signal, they don't care and they keep making more gadgets.
COOK 'N' STIR must have sold well enough to spawn imitators. Salton had a "Le Saucier" for a while, and there's currently a product called the Stir Chef available for $24/2007 ($14/1989). The Stir Chef is, I must admit, a lot less cumbersome than the COOK 'N' STIR. It's just the motor and the paddle, and it hooks like a face-hugger onto your existing cookware. In fact, I bet it could fit into the ice cream maker's freezer container, possibly obviating the need for the big motorized base... (This is where you stop me from buying one.)
Most kitchen gadgets die out or limp along, but the self-stirring saucepan has found undead life outside the kitchen. A web search shows that the COOK 'N' STIR and Le Saucier are ideal for making library paste, and are much coveted by book conservationists. Nobody seems to be using the Stir Chef for the same purpose.
"A delicious bite of 'fresh' bread that is really two weeks old? The chef didn't perform the miracle; the earth's magnetic field did."
Yeah, I'm gonna call bullshit on this one. This idea clearly derives from pyramid power, another of those ideas that didn't make it out of the '80s. Despite government propaganda, putting bread inside a pyramid does not increase its shelf life. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say this is true even on a planet with a very strong magnetic field.
Inventor John Hastie may have "applied for patent proection on his food fresher concept," but patent search says he didn't get it. He did get a 1986 patent for his Magnetic razor blade conditioning device (seen in Future Stuff as the "Acusharpe Razor Conditioner"), which probably doesn't work but makes a lot more sense than this breadbox thing, since razor blades are at least made of metal.
"According to Hastie, magnetic energy can also be used to extend the shelf life of eggs, vegetables, and other food products, even bananas!" Oy vey. If only humanity had taken to heart this 1879 patent granted to a different John Hastie: Improvement in Self-Adjusting Cranks.
|Super Laundry Detergent|
"It seems that everybody who gets laundry done in Mexico comes back talking about it... The swamps of Mexico are ripe with a powerful enzyme that does the job on 'those tough laundry stains'..."
OK, that sounds plausible. Let's see what a random webpage has to say about this. "In the last two decades, there has been a huge increase in the number of laundry detergents containing enzymes." Incidentally, check out the mousover on "enzyme": "These important stain fighters occur throughout nature." Fighting stains wherever they go, no doubt.
Although "[a]n enzyme was first used to improve the effectiveness of a laundry detergent in 1913", they started being used in earnest around the time Future Stuff came out, thanks to "rapid advances in enzymology and fermentation technology."
I can't find out what the magic enzyme is. Todd Gusek, the Ph.D. candidate who's "worked extensively with this enzyme," grew up to be a food scientist. But I'd call this a very accurate prediction.
|Cost||"Competitive with inexpensive fabrics"|
The idea here is custom-printed textiles. Instead of carrying a huge inventory, a store will carry a bunch of blank fabric and a computerized list of patterns. You select a pattern, and a printer spits it out on fabric. Future Stuff expands the idea to printing on premade sheets, pillowcases, etc., but printing the fabric is the obvious first step.
Fabric is printed today, but it's not custom-printed. Future Stuff found a real and interesting development but assumed it would go directly to a product. For whatever reason, the technology was adopted at a reserve from the people who were buying the end product. The only people who print fabric on demand are designers.
The xerographic process (as opposed to other ways of printing fabric) stil seems to be in development at Georgia Tech.
This shaped foam pillow tilts your head back. It was distributed through Hollander Home Fashions. They still sell pillows, but I don't know if they sell this one—it looks like they've consolidated on generic-looking bed-and-breakfast furnishings.
There are many, many anti-snoring pillows on the market now, all under $80/2007 ($36/1989). Was this really the first? There were patents filed on anti-snoring pillows starting in the mid-80s, and it looks like they even made it into products in the late '80s. But just because something's been made into a product doesn't mean everybody's heard of it. So I'm gonna go with a strong "Eh."
"If you're a pillow flipper—one who's always looking for the cool side—" Hey, that's me! It's not tough for me to find the cool side, since it always turns out to be the one furthest from my head, but I'll read on!
"Hitachi Inc. could help you sleep better...The 12-by-20-inch pillow is plugged in an hour before bedtime and ensures a cool surface all night."
Hm, electric pillow. "More expensive models are available with small lights, a timer, and temperature control." Are there buttons? Tell me there are buttons!.
This is one of those infomercial things where I'd never imagined it might exist, and it sounds both cool and useless. I don't really think a pillow should plug in, though. Fortunately, the closest existing analogue is the Chillow, a kind of pillow-shaped waterbed that just sits there without being plugged in. It's $30/2007 ($18/1989).
The Doorbutler, is a plastic doohickey that automatically shuts a door you've left open. Joel Meyers of Molvan Enterprises (now defunct?) says, "Stairwells, working areas, and furnace rooms are just a few of the places where an open door may lead to accidents." Maybe that's why stairwell doors already have automatic shutters. I think they had them even in the 1980s, but maybe the ADA mandated them or something.
I think Meyers was overshooting his market a little. The DoorButler brand name is still around, and it markets mainly to a residential audience who wants automatic closers for screen and storm doors. The basic unit is $10/2007 ($6/1989).
This is not an electric screwdriver. It's a manual screwdriver with a caulk gun-like trigger, and it transforms the motion of you squeezing the trigger to rotational motion of the shaft. The battery-operated cordless screwdriver ate its lunch. But unlike most of these failed products, the company that was started to market the squeeze screwdriver is still around and even has an official history of the SqueezeDriver®.
|Digital Tape Measure|
"It is small, like a watch, and you wear it on your wrist. A string 25 feet long is rolled up inside... When you pull out the string to measure the width of your chair, an internal counter records the amount [sic] of markers passed on the string."
This is a very cool idea, and I can't find anything like it on the market. There are digital tape measures but they're just traditional tape measures with an additional readout. Inventor Peter Hsing disses Stanley Tools's sonar tape measure, the product they were selling when they rejected his tape measure: "[I]t can only measure a large wall, not something small like a chair."
Nowadays there are laser tape measures instead of sonar tape measures, but the same problem applies. Hsing does seem a little bit obsessed with measuring chairs, but for things smaller than your armspan, where catenaries aren't a problem, a string you wear sounds a lot better than a traditional tape measure.
|Rotary Blade Paper Cutter|
This paper cutter is smaller than others! It's hard to describe, so I'll just point you to a picture. A "Professional Rotary Trimmer" substantially identical to the one described in Future Stuff, produced by Bidex, is one of the top-selling office supplies on Amazon. Cost: $30/2007. Good inventing, Glenn Polinsky. I hope you didn't get ripped off by Bidex.
|Cost||$7-$17/1989 ($11-$27/2007) for 1000 nails, $540/1989 ($900/2007) for the gun|
Plastic nails are perfect for crucifying your Plastic Jesus. They're also useful for home improvement projects, though Future Stuff avoids saying they can replace metal nails. They don't corrode and if your saw hits one it won't throw its blade in a terrible Mega Man-like industrial accident.
This contemporary website describes plastic nails in much the same terms as Future Stuff. They never made it to "a hardware store near you", probably because they don't meet building code requirements and you can only use them with a special nail gun. One use not predicted by Future Stuff: boatbuilding. Cost: $10/2007 for 1000.
|Biodegradable Plastic Bags|
Mike Gould of the Northern Regional Research Center [now the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research] is working on the biodegradable plastic problem and "they've got something that will at least half-biodegrade within three weeks, but it may not be 100% biodegradable. The trick is to determine how to measure for biodegradability..."
I've heard about this idea off and on my whole life, and recently it started happening for real. There are now biodegradable plastic bags, often made from starch, and they're used in the UK. I don't think I've ever gotten a biodegradable grocery bag, but I've bought food that was packaged in bioplastic boxes. The main problem now is that just because something can biodegrade doesn't mean it actually will in the anaerobic environment of a landfill.
This is the SunCooker, a product of Advanced Research Development, Inc (Why do companies have such generic names?! I guess it didn't matter so much before domain names.), which did other solar product development as well, like thin-film and transparent solar cells and which doesn't have a website but might still be around.
There are definitely solar-powered cookers in use today, but most of them are cheap, low-tech cookers mainly used in developing countries. This cooker is pretty complicated: "An optical system that resembles a small satellite dish collects sunlight and sends it through a glass pipe into a cavity inside the oven. There, the energy is stored in phase-change material, which, like an ice cube in reverse, turns from a solid to a liquid as it stores heat, and resolidifies as it gives up heat." Actually that sounds more like an ice cube in first gear, but you get the picture. I'm pretty sure today's solar cookers don't have so many complex parts, which might be why they only cost about $250/2007.
|Cost||$325/1989 ($530/2007) without post, $420/1989 ($700) with post.|
This page is the first use of the phrase "letter sledder" on the Web. The letter sledder is a remote-controlled device that moves your mailbox into your car window. so you don't have to open the car door, possibly dinging it on the mailbox post. It's sold through... all together now... Hammacher Schlemmer! It's solar powered.
I think this didn't catch on because the government requisitioned the parts to build Inspector Gadget. Without it, I don't know how people in rural areas manage to get their mail without destroying their cars. But when I lived in the country we rolled down the window and extended ourselves to the mailbox.
|Cost||"Same as conventional lawn"|
"A geneticist in Canada has unearthed a grass that emits its own natural herbicide, an agent that destroys or inhibits plant growth." Actually the story is a little more complicated. Jan Weijer found 23 species of grass growing in the Rockies, and hybridized them together.
According to Virginia Scott Jenkins' The Lawn, in 1986 "an American pharmaceutical company with investments in grass-seed production offered to buy the rights to the seeds in order to keep them off the market." Instead he sold the rights to Texbeau Industries, hastily renamed Supergrass Inc. He tried to patent the grass and there were patent problems. According to "Alberta Inventors and Inventions", "The company abandoned its plans due, in part, to criticisms of the seed's performance, and an inability to find a distributor."
|Cost||"Slightly higher than regular geraniums"|
I don't buy a lot of geraniums, so at first I thought maybe this had caught on. A search shows that there's a plant called the polka-dot plant, but no geraniums. Also, I'd been confusing geraniums and poinsettas.
But the polka-dot geranium is only one mad project of Dr. Richard Craig, professor of plant breeding (now retired emeritus) at Penn State. Future Stuff shows him working on two other projects that are still listed as his research interests: "Regals" that can "initiate flowers at high temperatures" and "zonal geraniums" with "novel leaf patterns and plant growth forms that can be asexually propagated and produced in the greenhouse."
It's kind of hard to track improvements to plants when the improvements don't show up as big phenotypic changes like polka dots, but according to Craig's page, "The [Regal] cultivar improvement program has resulted in the introduction, patenting and licensing of twelve cultivars for commercial production." Example patent.
|New, Improved Christmas Tree|
This is one of those entries where I like to step back and appreciate the Future Stuff authors' clear background in magazine writing. Check out this first paragraph:
It was poet Joyce Kilmer who decreed that "only God can make a tree." Not anymore. Now James Hanover, a professor of forest genetics at Michigan State university, also holds that distinction.
The tree in question is the Spartan Spruce, a hybrid (Picea glauca x P. pungens) developed in the W.K. Kellogg Experimental Forest and described (one assumes) in this 1980 paper. Spartan Spruce is commonly grown for Christmas trees, though I couldn't find any statistics on how common they are. They don't show up in this top 10 list.
Unfortunately, Dr. Hanover died in 1992. On Arbor Day 2000, MSU [trans]planted a tree for him.
This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Friday, January 18 2019, 10:00:35 Nowhere Standard Time.