When I was about 12 years old I visited an uncle in hospital. Being bored I was given some cash and sent off to the hospital to buy a comic book by the adults who clearly had had enough of me. The only thing I could find was a science fiction magazine with a short version of Edgar Rice Burroughs-type fantasies of alien battles on Mars. These were great and I spent the next year of my life caught up in daring tales of Barsoom with John Carter.
However, the thing that really caught my attention that day was a middle-page spread of a city of the future. Like a cartoon version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it was a cityscape of technological marvels. There were airships, hover cars, monorails and anti-gravity tubes instead of elevators. The gravity tubes scared me and I couldn’t sleep that night trying to work out what would happen if there was a power cut.
If I was on the way down I guess the sudden lack of electricity would mean I would just keep going the same way, albeit a bit faster than planned. But if I was going upwards I wondered if I would keep going, crash through the top of the tube and plummet to earth. Either scenario scared me and in my overactive imagination and I decided not to use anti-gravity tubes unless I had no alternative.
I was much keener on the moving walkways. Based on Robert Heinlein’s concept of bands of moving walkways with each band travelling faster than the one adjacent to it, I imagined myself skipping to the fastest and flying through the air with all the grace, speed and recklessness of a ballet dancer in low gravity. Again though, I did worry about the mess that a thousand people coming to an abrupt stop would make.
Best of all were the personal jet packs. All you needed was a couple of tanks of high-octane oxygen fuel strapped to your back and the world was your oyster. Oh, and a safety helmet. Not because it protected you, but because with an opaque silvered face guard it made you look cool, daring and mysterious.
I imagined that jet packers would be above dull rules such as traffic regulations – those would be for the air shippers and monorailmen. Us jet packers would point in the direction of travel and with a press of a button just blast off leaving a whirlwind of pavement dust and admiring onlookers behind us.
Strangely I had no safety concerns at all about jet packs. To burn out and crash in a Neo-Norton Night Jumper would be romantic and thrilling. To fall out of the bottom of an anti-gravity tube would just be embarrassing.
For a while I ached for a jet pack. I tried painting exhaust pipes and planetary images on my space hopper. The handles were converted into missile launchers and I inflated it to the max at my local garage to give it hyper bounce capability. My attempts to spice up my space hopper were ultimately in vain and it soon proved to be a poor substitute for a jet pack.
Ironically, later in life I learned that bouncing around aimlessly on an inflatable ball with no means of controlling your direction or speed was excellent training for a job in IT management. So, I guess the whole episode wasn’t entirely a waste of time.
I’m older now and feeling more than a bit disappointed that I still don’t have my jet pack. At the age of 12 the nearest large town to where I lived was Kilmarnock in Scotland and, you know, nearly 40 years later there isn’t a single monorail in Kilmarnock let alone a place to park my Night Jumper. Hard to believe, I know.
Instead of abundant fuel based on nuclear fission we have gas guzzlers and road tax. Instead of speedy walk ways we have pavements clogged up with chewing gum. Instead of anti-gravity tubes we have escalators. All a bit disappointing really.
However, maybe things have turned out better than I imagined. Instead of jet packs we have broadband, the Web, social networking tools, tablet computers, interactive games, and immersive, real-time applications. I wanted to travel the world and learn about strange exotic places on my jet pack. Now new knowledge is just a click away. Not as romantic, but less wearing on the wallet and joints.