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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Future written on the back of a fag packet

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TechnologyTomorrow's world, today. Towering wind turbines and solar panels generate endless supplies of clean green energy, robots glide around gleaming industrial plants while rockets take man into space. This astonishingly accurate vision of a modern, mechanised society was made almost 75 years ago. In 1933, Glasgow tobacco firm Stephen Mitchell & Son commissioned a futurologist to produce his vision of how the world would look in the next century.

The results were turned into a series of cigarette cards which no doubt provoked howls of derision from sceptical smokers in bars and workplaces. Decades later, the complete series of 50 lavishly illustrated cards has been republished and they are being hailed for their incredible foresight. The black and white images from the era of the Great Depression predicted a host of present-day realities including space travel, the Channel tunnel, "wireless telephones" and renewable energy.

Idrisyn Oliver Evans, a science buff and biographer of French visionary Jules Verne, put together the images and captions, which were compiled under the title of the World of Tomorrow. The first sentence of the first card in the series is definitely prophetic in a month when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing global warming to the attention of millions. The card, which predicts the widespread use of solar power, states: "Coal mines and oil wells will not last forever. 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 the sunshine."

Another features an illustration of a wind turbine, not dissimilar to the dozens sprouting up across the country.

It declares: "Wind is a possible source of energy as yet completely untapped."

Another accurate prediction was the creation of the Channel tunnel, which did not open until 1994.

The card reads: "Railway tunnels could pass below stretches of sea like the Straits of Dover, linking England with the Continent. In such a tunnel stream-lined electric trains could travel at high speed."

A space shuttle-like vehicle is depicted on another card which predicts the birth of space travel and states: "Ships returning to earth would probably drop into unfrequented parts of the ocean where they could arrive safely. A fleet of tugs would haul them to the refitting shops where they would be made ready for another flight."

Intriguingly, another card claims that space travellers would be likely to be fitted with "wireless telephones". Last year it was estimated that more than two billion people around the world own mobile phones.

The card series, created during the infancy of television, also predicted the satellite transmission of sporting events: "A mechanised world need not lack in sporting excitement. Such events would be witnessed not only by the crowds but, by means of television, by spectators all over the world."

Professor Ian Pearson, futurologist with the BT Group, was astonished by the insights contained in the cards.

"I can only hope that my own predictions prove to be as prescient as these in years to come," he said. "That these cards were talking about the importance of renewable energy sources in 1933 shows that the author was incredibly ahead of his time."

Robin Harper, the Scottish Greens leader, is a former cigarette card collector. He said: "It is incredible that, back in 1933, far-sighted individuals were able to recognise that renewable energy was the future. Sadly, in the 21st century, the message still hasn't got through to some individuals, including the current inhabitant of the White House."

The cards have been re-published in a collection entitled Prophets Of Zoom by Merrell books.

Life's passion

Idrisyn Oliver Evans was a South African-born civil servant, scientist and author with a lifelong fascination with the future and its possibilities.

Evans had an equally unquenchable thirst for the works of Jules Verne, above.

His work translating Verne's yarns from French to English inspired his own creativity and led to his compilation of the images in the World of Tomorrow series. This brought together his two loves and on his death in England in 1977 his unrivalled collection of cigarette cards was donated to the nation.

Rocket post

More often than not the predictions made in this remarkable collection of cards were uncannily prescient, but inevitably others were well wide of the mark.

One image prophesied that rocket post - with letters being blasted inside shells - would revolutionise mail delivery and become a regular feature of life.

Equally inaccurate was the claim that advances in sea reclamation would see channels opened in the North Sea leading from Scotland to Norway.

The world is also still waiting for an enormous dam in the Mediterranean which could harness the "mighty inflow" from the Atlantic.

Similarly the huge predicted irrigation schemes which would see the arid desert of the Sahara "blossom as the rose" have yet to come to fruition.

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