An interview with Paul Hernandez
Walking through the main hall of the University
of California at Berkeley’s mammoth Doe Library in the summer
of 2004, you encounter real world science fiction on display among
the aging photos of water polo squads. Transportation Futuristics:
Visionary Designs in Transportation Engineering exhibits dozens
of failed innovations, from personal
flying saucers to monorails, helicopter buses to pilotless cars
guided from below by a radio signal in the roadway. Designed by
utopian engineers, these creations are alternately crackpot and
visionary, as brilliant in conception as they are startlingly impractical.
And like science fiction, they reflect their times as much as any
Paul Hernandez, a library assistant at the Institute
of Transportation Studies, curated the exhibit and its accompanying
(Rahul Kamath’s brilliant website design has been nominated for the Leab
award given annually by the Association of College & Research Libraries.)
He spoke to The High Hat about the exhibit.
What sort of responses have you been
The online version of the exhibit has turned out to be far more
popular than I ever would have thought. One morning about three
weeks after the site was announced, we estimate that it received
close to a hundred thousand hits within just a couple of hours.
I got a frantic phone call right after that spike from our server’s
manager who was in a panic because she thought there was something
wrong with the HTML coding.
People generally love the site. This
month I’ve been contacted by Exhibit Builder magazine, PIG Magazine (People
In Groove —
an Italian fashion and lifestyle magazine), Disney Imagineering,
and a few engineers who were actually involved in the projects
represented in this exhibit. The only negative feedback I’ve
had has been from a couple of people who have current projects
on the site who don’t like their proposals being associated
with so many failed proposals.
Leonardo Da Vinci sketches plans
for a helicopter 500 years ago, and he’s considered a visionary.
Why do we revere him
as a prescient
genius who laid the groundwork for future breakthroughs while
we dismiss the engineer who patented a personal flying saucer
as a crank? Where, exactly, does the line between crackpot
and genius lie?
Paul S. Moller has probably built more flying saucers than
anyone, and I’m sure many consider him a crank. But there are
some people who believe enough in his vision to give him a
lot of money (or not — he’s
also been accused by the SEC of selling unregistered stock).
He’s been building visionary personal flying machines for 40
years now and has yet to be successful with any of them. He
has gotten some of them off the ground, but has yet to build
really practical. The technology just hasn’t been there. At
least once he has even had to design his own engine: the Rotapower
that’s currently being used in the Skycar. This latest design
actually seems promising. We’ll see.
So what differentiates
a genius from a crank? A genius succeeds and a crank does not.
Although Leonardo’s helicopter never
got off the ground and some of Moller’s craft have, by the
of his day, Leonardo’s helicopter was a success. He didn’t
have to build a working prototype – in his day, men of
letters did not sully their hands doing practical tests. If
seemed logical, then that’s all that mattered. Today, however,
a design that seems logical on paper isn’t enough. Now we have
to demonstrate that a design is practicable and
inherently limited by available technology. When the Wright
brothers were building their first motorized airplane there
an engine light and powerful enough, so they had to get someone
to design a totally new engine for their craft. In 1968, Moller’s
disc-shaped flying machine the XM-3 was unable to get more
than about a foot off the ground. He needed engines with a
power to weight ratio than was available at the time. With
lighter, more powerful engines it probably would have worked
was your attitude towards this work? How did you fight the
temptation to turn this material into science fiction kitsch
— to make fun
of failed experiments and experimenters?
Making fun of something isn’t conducive to education. I learn
a lot from the mistakes I make, and so I think people can learn
a great deal from the mistakes of others. It’s easy to laugh
at the Rollerboat as
an utterly ridiculous contraption, but I’ve included an entire
seven-page contemporary article which explains the rather well-reasoned
principle behind the concept lest anyone merely seeing the
photos think the people who built it were total idiots. Futuristic
usually demanded a huge investment in time and money. People
don’t enter into these ventures lightly, nor are they uneducated.
think looking at these designs and learning about them is fun,
but they’re not to be ridiculed. These engineers are a lot
smarter than me, after all. They just don’t (or didn’t) have
information they need. The designer of the quarter-mile-long,
submarine could not predict containerization — which would
make his submarine obsolete. The designer of the X-L1014 did
not predict asphalt roads. Back in 1911, roads were typically
dirt. The best roads were paved with cobblestones, but that
was too expensive
for long stretches across rural areas. Engineers in 1911 figured
that you would need enormous tires to achieve high speeds,
and that within 50 years engines would be powerful enough to
automobiles to reach speeds high enough to require these big
Do you see a future for any of these proposals?
I know you’re the curator of an exhibit, not a transportation
theorist or engineer, but I’m curious if anything you found
struck you as something that might come to look less like a failure
and more like the underpinnings for a future technology?
We’ll almost certainly have a commercially successful supersonic
transport some day. There are a lot of talented
people working on that one. The Concorde flew for many years and
many consider it a success, but there is conflicting information
as to whether the plane made money for Air France or British Airways.
And even if it did, a ticket price of over $4,000 for a one-way
transatlantic flight makes it more of a novelty than a viable form
of public transportation.
Ground effect machines are horribly impractical
replacements for conventional automobiles, but they serve quite
nicely as ferries. Operating costs are comparable to conventionally
hulled ships, they don’t require a pier at which to dock, and they
produce virtually no wake and so they don’t pose the same danger
to smaller boats which can be capsized by the wake of a conventional
Super capacity airliners are a pretty safe bet
for our future. The Airbus A3XX is already in production and will
be able to handle up to 960 passengers. Bigger designs look promising
But improbability is what makes something futuristic.
The vast majority of new designs make only incremental advances
over established technology. The real departures from existing
designs are inherently riskier and so less likely to make it to
“mature technology” status. Radical concepts require
changes in infrastructure. One simple example is hydrogen fuel
cell cars. You can build a
car with a hydrogen fuel cell power plant, but you’d be hard pressed
to drive it across the country with the expectation that you’d
be able to fill it up whenever you’d need to. That requires a great
investment in infrastructure. Not just hydrogen tanks and dispensers
at existing gas stations, but a lot of people will need to be trained
in handling and transporting hydrogen, people will need to be trained
in producing hydrogen, and several large facilities will need to
be built to produce it. I guess the more unlikely something is
to succeed, the more futuristic it is.