It Is Easy To Predict an Automobile in 1880; It Is Very Hard To Predict a Traffic Problem

Frederik Pohl? Robert Heinlein? Isaac Asimov? Connie Willis? Ed Bryant? George Zebrowski? Ben Bova? Robert J. Sawyer? Sam Moskowitz?

Dear Quote Investigator: Predicting the primary effects of a new technology is difficult but feasible. Anticipating all the secondary effects is nearly impossible. Here are two statements of a viewpoint that has achieved popularity amongst science fiction aficionados:

In the nineteenth century a machine enthusiast could have predicted the automobile, but an SF writer could have predicted the traffic jam.

It is easy to predict the automobile but difficult to predict the traffic jam.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in a 1953 essay by prolific science and SF author Isaac Asimov titled “Social Science Fiction”. Asimov discussed three different types of SF stories:[ref] 1953, Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, Edited Reginald Bretnor, Chapter: Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 157, Quote Page 171, Coward-McCann, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) [/ref]

Let us suppose it is 1880 and we have a series of three writers who are each interested in writing a story of the future about an imaginary vehicle that can move without horses by some internal source of power; a horseless carriage, in other words.

According to Asimov, gadget SF, the first type of tale, highlights the struggle to invent such a device and climaxes with its successful demonstration. Adventure SF, the second type, presents a romantic tale that hinges on using the device during action packed scenes. Social SF, the third type, explores the complex ramifications of the device as it is deployed within a society.

Asimov remarked that automobiles catalyzed the construction of suburbs. He also observed that vast networks of busy roadways resulted in large numbers of injuries and deaths. These indirect consequences of automobile usage would not have been easy to foresee. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1953, Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, Edited Reginald Bretnor, Chapter: Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 157, Quote Page 172, Coward-McCann, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) [/ref]

It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1965 Asimov revisited this topic in an essay published in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”. He asked readers to imagine attempting to craft a futuristic tale from the vantage point of 1880:[ref] 1965 June, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 29, Number 1, Science: Future? Tense! by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 100, Quote Page 106 and 107, Mercury Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Very well, then, you are going to write a science-fiction story in 1880 about the automobile and you are going to do something less trivial than merely to predict the automobile. You are going to pick your plot out of the fascinating changes the automobile is going to bring to society.

Asimov suggested that the following would be a perceptive high-quality tale:

A delightful satire about our hero spending all day looking for a parking spot and, in the process, meeting traffic jams, taxi-drivers, traffic cops, trucks, parking meters, filled garages, fire hydrants, etc. etc. A delightful satire, that is, in 1880. In 1965, it would bear more of the nature of stark, realistic tragedy.

In 1966 “The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein” included an essay by the SF grandmaster titled “Pandora’s Box”. Heinlein stated that many people correctly predicted the success of the horseless carriage, but the prognostications were crucially incomplete:[ref] 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Pandora’s Box by Robert A. Heinlein, (From The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, Ace, 1966), Start Page 238, Quote Page 253, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

But I know of no writer, fiction or non-fiction, who saw ahead of time the vast change in the courting and mating habits of Americans which would result primarily from the automobile—a change which the diaphragm and the oral contraceptive merely confirmed. So far as I know, no one even dreamed of the change in sex habits the automobile would set off.

In 1968 SF writer Frederik Pohl who was the editor of “Galaxy Magazine” penned the following in an editorial. He gave an anonymous attribution to a concise version of the saying:[ref] 1968 December, Galaxy Magazine, Editor: Frederik Pohl, Volume 27, Number 5, Editorial: The Great New Inventions by Frederik Pohl, Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Galaxy Publishing Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Somebody once said that a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. We agree. And so should good science.

In 1970 SF writer and editor George Zebrowski was quoted in an Associated Press article. His statement indicated that the saying was already well-known:[ref] 1970 November 23, The Robesonian, SciFi Writing Moves Onto College Campus by John Maginnis (Associated Press Writer), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Lumberton, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“It’s hard to define,” said Zebrowski, author of about a dozen short stories, “but one quote, a rather hackneyed one in the trade, usually explains it best to the layman: ‘The scientist would have predicted the automobile, the science fiction writer would have predicted the traffic jam.'”

In 1977 Isaac Asimov’s essay on “Social Science Fiction” was reprinted in the collection “Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction”. Thus, his quotation about traffic problems achieved further circulation.[ref] 1977, Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction, Edited by Damon Knight, Social Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov, (From Modern Science Fiction, Its Meaning and Its Future, ed. Reginald Bretnor, Coward-McCann, 1953), Start Page 29, Quote Page 40 and 41, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

In 1983 SF author and editor Ben Bova spoke about predictions during a keynote speech he delivered at Dickinson College:[ref] 1983 February 14, The Sentinel, Writer sees a brave new world of computers by Paul Riede (Associate news editor), Quote Page A5, Column 3, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Of course, science fiction has been wrong more often than it has been right, Bova admitted. No one predicted automobiles would produce traffic jams and pollution, while many writers predicted dirigibles would be a major form of transportation, and there would be a tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1994 SF author Connie Willis published a piece in the journal “Information Technology and Libraries”. She credited an extended version of the saying to another SF author:[ref] 1994 March, Information Technology and Libraries, Special Section: Future Possibilities in Information Technology and Access, Jurassic Park and Al Jolson: Thinking about the Information Revolution by Connie Willis, Start Page 51, Quote Page 51, Column 2 and 3, Published by the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA): A division of the American Library Association. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM) [/ref]

The job of a science fiction writer is to look for the unforeseen consequences, the problems and kinks and side effects that nobody has really thought about. Ed Bryant said it best. He said that if this were 1890, it would take an inventor to predict the automobile, and it would take a real visionary to predict highways and gas stations. But it would take a science fiction writer to predict the traffic jam.

In 1999 Canadian SF author Robert J. Sawyer attributed the saying to an SF historian:[ref] Website: Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer, Article title: Is There a Place for Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century?, Article author: Robert J. Sawyer, Article year: 1999, Description of article: A speech presented November 10, 1999, at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Website description: Website of science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer who was won Hugo and Nebula awards. (Accessed on October 22, 2019) link [/ref]

Years ago, Sam Moskowitz quipped that anyone could have predicted the automobile — but it would take a science-fiction writer to predict the traffic jam.

In 2009 “The Oklahoman” printed an advertisement that credited the saying to Pohl:[ref] 2009 October 14, The Oklahoman, Lesson 2: Today’s Science Fiction is Tomorrow’s Science, Quote Page 10A, Column 3, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”
— Sci-Fi Master Fredrik Pohl

In conclusion, the core of the saying was written and elaborated upon by Isaac Asimov in 1953. Robert Heinlein pointed to a different unanticipated ramification of the automobile in his 1966 essay. Frederik Pohl crafted a version of the saying in 1968, but he disclaimed credit.

Image Notes: Picture of a traffic jam from quinntheislander at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Noah Brier whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Brier located several citations including the remarks by Robert Heinlein, Connie Willis, and Robert J. Sawyer. He also noted that Frederik Pohl had received credit. Special thanks to Jesse Sheidlower who told QI that the 1953 collection “Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future” had been added to the Internet Archive Lending Library. This allowed QI to verify Asimov’s 1953 essay citation superseding the 1977 reprint citation.)

Update History: On November 22, 2021 the 1953 citation was added to the article. The 1977 reprint citation was retained.

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