Saturday, July 30, 2011

Past futuristic

In the December 1900 edition of Ladies Home Journal, writer John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. wrote what at the time must have been a startling collection of predictions:

These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 — a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.

As far as I know, none of the predictions involved returning the subject and verb to the beginning of the sentence. (I can hear Yoda saying a couple of those lines; picky I am). However, let’s take a lighthearted skip through the rest of their forecasts:

  • Five hundred million people: Watkins’ experts predicted 350 to 500 million people in the US and its possessions, including Nicaragua and other South and Central American nations that would want admission to the Union to fend off European imperialism. As of April 1, 2000, the population of the US was 281,421,906; counting in Puerto Rico and the island areas adds another 4,199,169. The population experts obviously didn’t figure that rising health and standard of living would be coupled with a decrease in the birth rate.
  • Taller, longer-lived: The experts predicted Americans would be taller by 1-2”, and that the average lifespan would be fifty years. In fact, the average male in 1900 was 5’6”; now he is 5’9”. In 1900, the average life expectancy of a male was 49.24 years; as of 2001, it had increased to 76.83.
  • Hot and cold air spigots: If you ignore the bizarre mental image, the actual prediction was for central air and heating, though they thought city plants would provide the actual mechanics.
  • Ready-cooked meals: Here is a prediction that was actually pretty close … except for the idea of having to return the dishes to the store. Also predicted were electric stoves, coffee grinders, meat saws and dishwashers; some of the functions predicted were taken on by the handy kitchen mixer.
  • Photographs: Watkins et al. predicted that photos would be printed on newspapers within an hour of being taken.
  • High-speed trains: This prediction came true … but for Japan, not the US.  However, there were a couple of better predictions: that the engines would no longer run on coal, and that there would be air-conditioned passenger cars (although the air conditioning still requires closed windows).
  • Automobiles cheaper than horses: Yes and no. The upfront cost for a horse is cheaper, but it can cost as much if not more in maintenance. Still, the prediction was accurate that a horse in harness is pretty much a museum piece.
  • Everybody will walk ten miles: I nearly had a coronary from laughing at this. The full prediction was for a general level of fitness the Spartans could envy. Watkins and his advisors certainly never anticipated Ray Kroc, Colonel Sanders and the throngs of out-of-shape people sucking down chili dogs, chips and beer while watching a well-compensated minority of superbly-trained athletes damage themselves and each other.
  • Air Ships: The thinkers of 1900 predicted that air ships would carry people and freight to great distances and heights. However, they didn’t believe they would replace cruise liners (which they thought would cross the Atlantic in two days). Still, though, they did predict air ships would become weapons of war, as would “forts on wheels” … the first vague vision of the tank.
  • Man will See Around the World: This was really a very good prediction of television, though again the mechanical process turned out to be different; especially eerie for this child of the ‘70s was the prediction that Americans would be able to witness “the progress of battles in the Orient”.
  • Telephones Around the World: Predicted instant access world-wide, anytime, anywhere, “without the intervention of a ‘hello girl’”. Unfortunately, this proved to be 100% accurate.
  • Music transmission: “Grand opera will be telephoned to private homes, and will sound as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theatre.” Twenty years later, radio would revolutionize entertainment. Watkins speculated that musicians in New York would be able to play musical instruments in San Francisco or New Orleans through electric keys; though this capability isn’t used, the development of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) has made it possible since the 1980s. One spot-on prediction called for opera houses supported by a combination of philanthropists and government subsidies in many major cities.
  • Oranges growing in Philadelphia: While climate and soil conditions still limit the zones where many foods are grown, the article did forecast the rise of refrigerated transport making available and affordable foods from around the world. Strawberries still aren’t as large as apples, nor are peas as large as beets. But advances in agriculture and horticulture have created hardier strains of foods, as well as some limited ability to mix and match tastes among fruit and create new colors of roses.

There were other predictions that were way off. Man hasn’t succeeded in killing off wild animals or insects, which is just as well. Many drugs still have to be taken in pill form. Autos are still pretty much confined to street level, while subways are the toys of very large metropolitan areas. While coal is no longer used in homes, it still powers much of our electricity production. Moreover, Watkins et al. never truly foresaw spaceflight, or the splitting of the atom.

In all, though, this story reminds me that, while technologists can see general trends, they can’t necessarily detect specific shapes. It also reminds me that what is foreseeable isn’t always inevitable. It’s handy to remember when self-proclaimed visionaries predict the technological creation of an immortal Man 2.0 by 2045.

Just think to yourself, “Somebody left the hot air spigot on.”