What is ďtransportation futuristicsĒ? Many of us are familiar with covers from Popular Science that depict commuters buzzing around in tiny aircraft and landing on rooftops, or fanciful drawings of vehicles that run on roads, float on water and also take to the air. The basic problem many of us face each day-- how to get from Point A to Point B in the least amount of time with the least amount of trouble-- has inspired many to dream of marvelous ways to solve that problem.


When we see a drawing of a transportation futuristic, we instinctively know thatís what it is. But what do jetpacks, rolling boats and these other endeavors have in common? With few exceptions, such as Leonardo da Vinciís visions of helicopters and airplanes, the futuristics are the product of the Industrial and post-Industrial Age, a time when the pace of technological change rapidly accelerated and people began dreaming about the future in new ways.

The futuristics also all involve fairly radical ideas, from new propulsion systems to novel use of materials to extreme hybrids of existing forms. The designs seen in this exhibit have not been commercial successes. Some fail on the technical side (some spectacularly so), while others never achieve economic viability.

This exhibit examines some of the efforts to address transportation needs in ways that didnít quite get off the ground literally or figuratively. Are the designers simply ahead of their time? Are the failures attributable to an infrastructure that never anticipated such a development? Was there ultimately no way to make the new idea work financially?

Consider the Beach Pneumatic Railway, New York Cityís earliest subway: hundreds of thousands of delighted New Yorkers took a smooth ride on compressed air while this model railway was open from 1870-1873. Despite commuter enthusiasm, this sumptiously decorated subway failed. The pneumatic power was too expensive to produce and was difficult to control. Even after switching to cheaper and more reliable steam power, raising financing was impossible when it became apparent that government subsidies would not be forthcoming.

People have approached transportation problems with imagination, resourcefulness, creativitiy and amazing engineering skills. At times, however, thatís not enough. It may be an idea thatís ahead of its time because the infrastructure isnít in place. This country had plenty of cars, trucks and other vehicles in 1918, but there werenít many roads on which to use them. Or perhaps thereís a material problem. Skateboards appeared in the Ď60s, but it wasnít until polyurethane wheels were introduced in the Ď80s that they became widely popular. Or the economics donít pan out. Witness the spectacular technical achievement of commercial supersonic aircraft that failed miserably on the financial side.

Most of the proposals in this exhibit are the result of an attempt to solve a particular problem or fulfill a specific need. Some of those presented here have failed because the engineer has focused on only a part of an existing sytem (usually the equipment) when there is actually a need to change the entire system. In the Nuclear Eel, for instance, we see a proposal for a submarine large enough to ferry four freight trains accross the Pacific. In hindsight weíre able to see that the better solution to the problem of trans-oceanic freight transport was containerisation, a solution that involved changes to the whole system: equipment, facilities, and operations.

In spite of failing at what they set out to achieve, many futuristics, especially those from transportation practitioners, have influenced the design of equipment, facilities or operations. This exhibit examines why these intriguing ideas failed and what lessons we can learn from those failures.