Everything Old Is New Again
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: EL0605
Date: May 01, 2006 / Show Official Info /
If you look at the early bi-planes, they look like first cousins to ultralights. In fact, that's really what they were. Underpowered by later standards, minimal airframes making the most of every weight saving technique they could find to stay in the air.
Outside the door to the early flying machines made from wood and fabrics hung the Gossamer Albatross, which won a competition for human powered flight, using a bicycle mechanism cranked by a very buff rider/pilot. It's construction was very much in keeping with those early planes, and with my idea of what the future should aspire to.
But by WWII, the face of flying had changed completely. In the sleek lines of the P-51 Mustang there's no sense of teasing flight out of the margins. WWII planes weren't taking maybe for an answer...they weren't just out to fly, they were out to dominate the air. It's that attitude that makes them seem out of step with today, and even more so for craft like my two favorites, the X-1 and X-15. Finesse just wasn't in their vocabulary. A massive thirst for fuel was. But that was then.
Antimatter, Desktop Fusion, and Zero Point energy aside, none of which are especially likely to arrive in quantity at my fuel station shortly, this new millennium is also a new energy era. The Twentieth Century may well be remembered as the "Cheap Fuel Age" and the future may not belong to massive machines running on unlimited power, but tiny ones that make the absolute most of what they've got to work with. In this new paradigm, the ability to consume mass quantities of fuel for instant energy release is of little importance, while cleverness and conservation are paramount.
If this means we'll stop burning fossil fuels at a rate that will leave the planet power poor, polluted, and heat soaked so that the future might be a place worth surviving long enough to see, I couldn't be happier.
Now, if you're thinking about the alternate fuel sources that we could shift to replace our precious petrol, and think I'm selling the energy industries ability to pull oil out of the ground as cost incentives rise short, it's not so. I'm sure we could find other power sources to fuel our addiction, from Hydrogen power to Super batteries charged from Nuclear Power Plants, or even microwave power stations in orbit, beaming down Gigawatts of power to receivers in the desert. I'm not even saying we shouldn't. But what I am saying is that we've got a terrific opportunity to change our lifestyle so that we're more energy efficient, so that, to borrow a phrase from the economic depression of the 1930's, "take all you want, but use all you take."
Human energy output can handle a lot of what we currently offload to other power sources, and the returns to us in health and longevity are substantial as well. Though the population is graying, this makes it all the more important for them to be less, not more, sedentary. At least if they want more from their golden years than feeling like they're carrying all their gold on their backs. The trick will be to store that energy so that you can call on it for brief surges, like pedaling a bicycle up a hill.
The technology that I'd most like to see developed for that is even older than the first powered aircraft. What I'd really like to see is the world run on windup spring mechanisms. You may never have seen a wristwatch that didn't wind itself or run on batteries (though I'm wearing one that has solar cells at the moment). Even if you have, the amount of energy stored there probably doesn't impress you. But there was a time, before the invention of the disposable battery, when all manner of mechanical devices, and not just toys, were run off wound up springs. One of my favorite examples was a 16mm movie camera my grandfather owned. You'd crank it up and it would shoot for five or ten minutes before running down again. Batteries not invited. There have been any number of small appliances I wished I could run off springs, which allow me to separate the effort from the application, or to even out the effort over a greater period.
I'm not in favor of giving up the evils of modernity for the good old fashioned days, because I'm pretty sure they were anything but. But I'm all for taking the best of the old and the new and creating a world where each of us can puts in as much energy as they take out, rather than consuming the resources the future will need to survive.