An Early Futuristic Conference – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

Lund (Sweden), 1956

The first Swedish SF Convention was held 18-19th of August 1956 in the city of Lund, named Luncon. However, almost a year before this there was a very serious “futuristic” conference held in Stockholm, though it was aimed at politicians and business life.

November 15-16th 1955, the Social Democratic party arranged a conference called “Technology and Society of Tomorrow” (in Swedish “Tekniken och Morgondagens Samhälle“), often referred to as the Rigoletto Conference as it was held in the Stockholm cinema theatre Rigoletto, which still exists.

Rigoletto Cinema, Stockholm

Hundreds of representatives gathered from science, business life, the trade unions and politics to discuss science, technology and how that would influence the society of tomorrow.

  

From left : Tage Erlander, Olof Palme, Hannes Alfvén

Among the delegates where the then Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander, his young crown prince  Olof Palme (later to be PM), Nobel laureate Hannes Alfvén (later author of “The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision”, sf novel from 1966) and many other Big Names.

It wasn’t a science FICTION conference, as literature was only occasionally referred to (the published proceedings have names like Orwell, Verne and Wells mentioned in the passing), but it was a conference about the future. Around 35 lectures were held by scientists, business and trade union leaders, and politicians. All those speeches were the year after printed by the publisher Tidens in the book “Tekniken och morgondagens samhälle (1956, 319 pages), available eg in the Stockholm City Library if you order it from their depot (which I did).

The topics covered were:

  * Atomic energy

  * Automatisation and electronics

  * Chemistry and organic synthesis

  * Genetics and plant breeding

  * Basic research and future society

Each topic would have a main speaker usually a specialised scientist, which would then be followed by a number of follow-up lectures with comments. Let’s have a look at what kind of futuristic visions we can find (as presented in the mentioned book).

Atomic energy was of course the big new thing. This topic started the conference. The plans for nuclear plants in the US and UK are described and Swedish politicians are urged to build Swedish reactors ASAP since “there are good reasons to assume that atomic power will be cheaper than coal and oil power”. It is also noted that Sweden has big deposits of uranium-bearing shale. A detailed plan is also presented about the first big Swedish atomic reactor, the Ågesta plant – which was later built just south of Stockholm. Before this, there was a smaller research reactor, R1, built on the premises of the Royal Technical institute, bordering the downtown. Neither Ågesta or R1 would have been allowed so close to a city in hindsight. Plans for even more advanced plants are presented, and Sweden would up to the 70’s and earlier 80’s start up to 12 full-scale nuclear reactors, producing ca half the country’s electricity need.

Automatisation is the next big topic. It’s about cybernetics and letting machines and factories being run by automatic programs, freeing us from manual labour. The technology shows great promise, and America is leading the way. Office automatisation is also covered, with punchcard machines and hints of early computers (the Swedish computer projects BARK and BESK aren’t mentioned, though). A representative for Ericsson talks about the new fast, automatic telephone switches which in the very near future wil benefit from this news fantastic invention called – the transistor.

Organic chemistry comes next on the conference. It is about how to synthesize new fantastic compounds. We learn how studies of rye and sugar beets lead Swedish scientists to discover and synthesize an important local anesthetic and a blood replacement fluid. New antibiotics are and promises of new medicines are also covered. Sweden has no coal or oil but lots of forests which also provides hydrocarbons  – though the need for paper will compete with the demands of chemical industries:

How that problem can be solved without obliterating the forests of the world is not easy to guess, even with an imagination like that  of Jules Verne or Walt Disney. Television will maybe fix the problem. Perhaps we will be able to lie in bed in the morning, press a button and read the favourite magazine on the wall. Or we may get newspaper on plastic on polyethene, which after use are scrubbed clean of printing ink, recast and reused.” Other new materials are mentioned, like Germanium for transistors (in reality, silicon became much more important).

Stockholm, 1955

When it comes to genetics and plant breeding, both agriculture and forestry are expected to benefit enormously from new technology and  breeding methods. The 10 years before the Rigoletto conference, Swedish agriculture increased productivity by between 10 and 30% – depending on crops – due to new breeds. In real life, productivity would increase even more from the 1960’s and on, thanks to eg the work of one Norman Borlaug. Similar productivity increases were also expected for the forestry industry though it takes longer (trees grow slower). Paper, pulp and wood export was of huge importance for the country, representing 40% of all export income (with Swedish having 10% of the world market). New machinery will make cutting down trees and grinding them to pulp much more efficient. Automatisation plays a huge role here too.  A special form of plant breeding is induced mutation by bombarding plants with X-rays. One of the speakers claim new important crops and plants may be created 100 times faster that way. (One may hope they don’t happen to produce evil Triffids while at it…)

The importance of basic research is among the last topics covered. We learn how Alexander Fleming found penicillin by pure chance and how Otto Hahn discovered splitting the atom through basic research, leading to freeing atomic energy (in atomic bombs as well as power plants). And:

“Exploring space has hardly counted as a useful task, and astronomy as sometimes been considered the least ‘useful’ science. But studies of cosmic radiation has given us important information about the particles that make up the atomic nucleus and today we build huge constructions in the atomic science laboratories on Earth to produce and use atomic radiation. For producing energy we hope to also use the hydrogen bomb to reach and maintain temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees”.

Hannes Alfven talks about how basic research about the Aurora Borealis lead to constructing a new form of very fast electronic valve, “the Trokotrone”, which was needed for a model of a Aurora electric research device (transistors would soon be giving better performance). However, it is generally noted that Swedish basic research lags behind America, mainly due to a lower percentage of students in higher education, lower wages for scientists and less cooperation between universities and business – a gap that in coming years would be somewhat closed.

A speech that is rather chilling – I use that world deliberately – is by one Rudolf Meidner, titled “How to increase capital accumulation”. He talks about what he calls “collective saving”, which was later formalised into a plan for something called wagetaker funds, also called the Meidner funds, which became the centre for an extremely animated debate in the 1970’s! The plan was to impose an extra tax up on all private companies which would by up stocks in the companies to let the trade unions step by step take over the businesses. You bet that the non-socialist opposition parties fired heavy broadsides on this plan to virtually nationalize Swedish industry, and there was also a big debate within the Social Democratic party. Finally, the Social Democrats introduced a milder version of the wagetaker funds, but the debate didn’t stop. When the opposition took over in 1991 the new government Bildt quickly scrapped these funds, and the idea of giving away private business to the trade unions haven’t been heard of again. It was a lousy idea, but you could hear about it already in 1955.

Other topics covered are television (Sweden didn’t yet have regular TV broadcasting at this time) and the growth of the automobile industry and car ownership. In 20 years time, one of the speakers said, half of the households will be rich enough to own a car – it would go much faster than that!

Prime Minister Erlander closed the conference: “We have gotten rich material for our speculations about how the future society should be…a fantastic world of miracles presented. But it is not a world of magic.  … This conference has been about the future of technology and science. The path of technical development is intensely stimulating and imaginative.”

This Technology and Society of Tomorrow conference was obviously of great importance for the postwar development in Sweden. Many of the plans presented were realised. The nuclear reactors were built. The automatisation and new electronics appeared. Productivity in industry, agriculture and forestry increased. Education and researched were stepped up. The trade union funds were tried and (luckily!) abandoned.

But they missed a few things. Computers as such aren’t really anticipated (there is general talk about automatisation). The space age isn’t anticipated. The impact of television and the automobile society is hardly touched upon.

But it is fascinating that a bunch of leaders one weekend in 1955 sat down to thoroughly discuss…the future!

©Ahrvid Engholm

Swedish SF fans in the ’50s

SF Fandom in Sweden (“Sverifandom”) emerged in the 1949 (Club Meteor by  Dénis Lindbohm in Malmö).

The first Swedish science fiction fanzine was started in the early 1950s (Cosmos News, later modified title Cosmos Bulletin, published by the three Gothenburg fans Gabriel Setter Borg, Lars-Erik Helin and Hans Sidén). The oldest still existing club, Club Cosmos in Gothenburg, was formed in 1954, and the first Swedish science fiction convention, LunCon, was held in Lund in 1956.

©Simon Stålenhag

Swedish Science Fiction Monography (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) : http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/sweden

Sam J.Lundwall : http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/lundwall_sam_j

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*