Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


I'm from the Year 1957 -- Surprise Me...October 2001

Let's imagine for a moment it is the fall of 1957 and you are sitting in your high school algebra class. Being the really smart kid that you are, you are bored silly with the slow progress of most of your classmates. After all, how difficult can simultaneous equations be? Why can't we get this topic out of the way so we can move on to something more challenging? Your gaze wanders outside to the green grass of the athletic field and to the warm fall sunshine. And without much effort you drift off into a momentary snooze -- using the well-practiced position of crossing your arms while pretending to be reading your math-book. The end-of-class bell jars you awake, but unlike similar previous occasions, you find yourself more than momentarily disoriented. You are not at all sure where you are and where you are supposed to go next.

Something has gone terribly wrong. Somehow, inadvertently you have broken through the time-space continuum and it is no longer 1957. It is instead the fall of the year 2001. So, it turns out that the challenge for you is not to figure out where you are, but rather when you are. How could this have happened? Could someone in some future time be doing experiments with time and space, and you are the victim of something that didn't go as planned? Or maybe it went exactly as planned! Your teachers and even your mother had warned you about sleeping in class. When they said it would get you into trouble, could this be what they meant?

Well, whatever the reason, once you check the various calendars and even the newspapers, you begin to realize that you are now... in 2001. What does the world look like to you? What are the big surprises? After all, you have just jumped ahead through forty-four years. The technology-driven futurists in the 1950s were predicting some pretty amazing things. Did they happen?

As you walk outside into the fall sunshine you look about you. The school building looks pretty much the same, with only a few minor updates -- except for what look like temporary buildings apparently added to accommodate growth in the student population. One immediate big problem for you is that you don't recognize any of your classmates. Fortunately, they seem mostly to reciprocate. Perhaps they are thinking that you are the new transfer student that one of the teachers mentioned in passing. In the weeks to come, the people problems will turn out to be your most challenging. All of your former classmates now look like their grandfathers or grandmothers did back in 1957. The character traits and personalities you knew will still be there with surprisingly few changes. But the big shocker will be the variety and range of physical conditions in which you will find your former contemporaries -- many barely recognizable couch potatoes, with a much smaller percentage still vigorous, full of energy, and productively active.

Once out on the street, you note that there are more cars but they don't really look all that different. There are more varieties of shapes and sizes, and ordinary people seem to be driving vehicles that look as if they should be used for milk and bread delivery. The biggest difference you note is that the cars don't smell the same. The engine exhausts are no longer the pungent mix you remember from just "yesterday." In fact, considering all the cars on the streets, the air seems remarkably clean. What happened to the futurist predictions of unbreathable air and polluted cities, you wonder? Later you will learn about "air bags" and find their operation pretty amazing.

Your biggest overall impression is that there just seems to be more of everything. There are more people everywhere. More cities now resemble New York and Chicago. There are more tall buildings, but the Empire State Building is still about as large and impressive as any of the newer ones. Trains still look like trains. However, there are some really fast ones in Japan and Europe that you decide you would like to try sometime soon. The passenger jet airplanes that were so new in 1957 are now the standard mode of public transportation. Amazingly, they fly at speeds slower than in 1957. The biggest difference you note is that they are quieter and some of them are really really big.

Everywhere you go, you are surprised by how people are dressed. Although nothing much has changed in the fabric materials, everyone now looks like they are living in poverty. Sweatshirts with slogans on them! Shoes on bare feet that are made from cutout pieces of rubber or plastic with a single strap to hold them on. Baggy shorts on both men and women held up with elastic waistbands. If you had come to school dressed like that, you would have instantly been sent home. And this style of dress seems to be ubiquitous. The same clothing is worn to work, to restaurants, on airplanes, to concerts, and to shopping malls. Pride in one's appearance seems to have given way to the ultimate in location-independent comfort. And from the appearance of the younger segment of the world's population, this trend has not yet run its course. Well, so much for the futurists' predictions of sleek form-fitting garments. Maybe the problem is that "sleek" did not turn out to reflect the reality of how most of us are now shaped.

Houses also seem to have gotten larger, with more rooms, more space, and bigger garages. But living in them has not changed all that much. The traditional styles are even more popular than in 1957. No longer are people searching for something futuristic or ultra-modern. Furniture styles mirror those popular over the past several hundred years. As with other things, there is just more of everything. The refrigerators are larger, more homes are air-conditioned, there are more kitchen appliances, and there are multiple bathrooms with both showers and fancy bathtubs. The microwave oven is new and interesting but not so surprising given the understanding of this technology in 1957.

The television sets in these homes are definitely an improvement over those in use forty-four years ago. However, you instantly note that the scan lines are just as visible as they were in 1957. That sure seems like a peculiar lack of progress. Ah, but there are at least a few modest surprises. Who would have thought in 1957 that it would be so easy to record a TV program and to have a way to play it back -- all for only a hundred dollars (about ten dollars in '57)? And you note and appreciate the nice little hand-held wand that can be used to change channels and volume with no additional adjustments needed to "tune in" the station! And there are few antennas on the roofs. Some that you see are strange dish shapes like the radar antennas of 1957. The programs come in over a coaxial wire or are relayed from a satellite. Now that is real progress!

But isn't there something that would be completely unexpected as we visit 2001 from 1957? What have we technologists accomplished that is a genuine surprise -- a real "mind-blower?"

It seems to me that there are just a few products that would create such a major "Oh Wow!" I would suggest that they are the laptop computer (with Internet connection included), the desktop computer (with all the printers, image capture, and communications peripherals included), and the cell phone (with long-distance calling included).

I think in 1957 it would have been hard to imagine the compute power that we all now carry with us, our access to information from sources all over the world, and the ability to send and receive messages from anyone, anywhere, and at any time. After all, the objective of taking a typing class in high school in 1957 was to be able to do nice-looking term papers in college. The capability for every individual to capture, create, transmit, and reproduce images would have been a big stretch for our 1957 imaginations, especially while doing timed speed-typing exercises in typing class.

The cell phone by itself would not be such a big surprise upon our arrival in 2001. Didn't the Dick Tracy comic strip describe such a portable communicator -- later even with video capability? But here again, I think the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, and anytime is the big wow factor. In 1957, long distance calls were made only in cases of family emergencies, telegrams were still being used for similarly urgent messages, and even the fax machine was just beginning to take on semi-useful form -- using electrically conductive paper on a rotating drum and a modulated high-voltage spark to "burn" a text image. The idea of talking-while-driving to someone in another part of the world who is also talking-while-driving would have been a genuine stretch for the imagination.

And what about the displays that go along with these computers and communication devices? I think the best we can say is that our time traveler would view them as incremental improvements or implementations of concepts that were already being suggested. Flat panels and hang-on-the-wall televisions were already being described in the popular press, even though the ideas that were then proposed did not become the successful technologies of today.

Are there some other time-travel surprises that I have forgotten to mention? There have certainly been developments in medicine, such as bypass surgery, non-invasive imaging, and new chemicals that have made major improvements in our ability to overcome certain illnesses. On the other hand, our continuing inability to treat a number of common ailments would perhaps be a surprise to our time-traveler from '57. And what about unlimited cheap energy from fusion? I guess we still have a few things left to work on.

How do you view our current status from this perspective of the past? Are LCDs (with over a million TFTs) and 60-inch Plasma Displays predictable developments or revolutionary technology surprises? Are there some fundamental changes that I have missed completely? I would enjoy hearing your viewpoints. You can communicate them to me by e-mail at or, by phone at 425-557-8850, by fax at 425-557-8983, or by the same system you would most likely have used in 1957 -- the mail, at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.