Yesterday's Tomorrow


Ready to explore the stratosphere

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Two of my favorite books are titled Modern Inventions and Our Wonderful World of Tomorrow, both written during the 1930s by A. M. Low, a British eccentric who was what we would now describe as a “futurist.” Low made some fairly good guesses, but of course he couldn’t imagine the consequences of quantum leaps in technology such as the transistor or the jet engine. This led him to make failed predictions such as floating islands at intervals across the major oceans, where piston-engined passenger aircraft would land to refuel while winging their way around the globe. I would love to have seen those islands.

My father, who was an automotive engineer, used to know A. M. Low, and received strange and wonderful Christmas cards from him each year. The most memorable one enclosed a transparent acrylic rod. When you placed the rod against some lines of text printed in the greeting card, the rod acted as a lens, turning text upside down. Strangely, however, every other line in the card was not turned upside-down. I was about 12 years old at a time, and was utterly fascinated by this mystery.

In retrospect I can guess at one possible answer. Maybe Low managed to write a poem in which alternating lines contained letters B C D E H I K O and X (which look the same when upside-down) and letters A F G J L M N P Q R S T U V W Y and Z (which don’t). This of course would represent a significant amount of misplaced ingenuity, but in the days before YouTube, Nintendo, and cable TV, people had time for that kind of thing.

I just made a stab at some blank verse in which all the letters in odd-numbered lines are vertically asymmetrical, while those in even-numbered lines look the same upside-down. The best I can come up with, after 15 minutes of thought, is something cryptic and wholly inappropriate such as

LAZY LUNGS WAFTING A GASP

IKE CHOKED — HE DIED —

TURNING WAN, NOW MANGY

ICED — BOXED

Maybe someone else can do better. The letter “I” in lines 1 and 3 is a cheat, but since all the other letters in those lines are vertically asymmetrical, maybe a legible “I” here and there wouldn’t be noticed.

Incidentally, the guy sitting on a wooden chair in the photograph seems well equipped to ride to the edges of the atmosphere, with lace-up gauntlets and boots constricting his extremities to protect him from low air pressure. But I think he would have been more likely to make his adventure in a balloon than in the airplane behind him.