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At the dawn of the 20th century, chemists dreamed of extracting nitrogen from the air and turning it into a limitless supply of fertilizer. Sceptics thought they were crazy; it was possible in theory, but it was unclear if it could be done in practice. What happened next changed the course of 20th-century history—and provides inspiration to innovators pursuing a different dream today: sucking carbon dioxide out of the air to avert climate change. Might they not be quite so crazy after all?
Podcast production by Bart Warshaw and Kate Holland.
Journey into the past and you’ll discover the secret history of the future. From the world’s first cyberattack in 1834, to 19th-century virtual reality, the Economist’s Tom Standage and Slate’s Seth Stevenson examine the historical precedents that can transform our understanding of modern technology, predicting how it might evolve and highlighting pitfalls to avoid. Discovering how people reacted to past innovations can also teach us about ourselves.
Tom Standage is deputy editor of the Economist. He studied engineering and computer science at Oxford University and has written for other publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, and Wired.