A smarter planet, as predicted a century ago

Looking ahead to our current time, futurists in 1900 predicted wireless global communications, in which images could be transmitted almost instantaneously, air conditioning, bullet trains, renewable energy, and the decline of cities.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

It's always interesting to go back to writings from previous centuries and look at what people envisioned the world of today would look like. The science fiction author Jules Verne has some uncanny predictions about space flight from his time in the mid 1800s, and was truly astounding in his portrayal of modern-day city life in a lesser-known work called Paris in the Twentieth Century.

But nothing is more amazing that the collected predictions of John Elfreth Watkins Jr., published in December 1900 in an article in Ladies Home Journal. Many of these predictions are so spot-on that I even wondered if this article wasn't some kind of Internet hoax, but evidence points to this as the real thing. (A scanned copy of the original is posted here and here, a summary and analysis is posted in Scientific American. The article was also surfaced in posts around the year 2000 timeframe.)

Watkins wrote in the article that he spoke with leading thinkers of his time, and some predictions are dead-on (seen through the lens of available technology of the time), while others were off and even a little bizarre -- such as the extinction of the letters "C," "Q" and "X," but still interesting.

Here are a few of Watkins' uncanny predictions:

Near-instantaneous transmission of photos and images from around the world: "If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later....  Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theaters will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings of Europe of the progress of battles in the Orient..."

Wireless communications: "Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.  By automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a 'hello girl.'"

Trains at 150 miles an hour: (Oh well -- at least it's true for Europe and Asia.) "To go from New York to San Francisco will take a day and a night by fast express. There will be cigar-shaped locomotives hauling long trains of cars...  Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled."

Very highly centralized air conditioning and heating: Watkins predicted that municipal utilities would be delivering cool air in the summer through a piping network to homes and buildings, and these would be turned on and off with spigots, just as we do with water. Part of this prediction: "Homes would have no chimneys."

End of coal power, rise of renewable water power: "Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted. The earth's hard coal will last to the year 2100 or 2050... Man will have found electricity manufactured by water power to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water motors... along the seacoast will be numerous reservoirs continually filled by waves and tides washing in. Out of these the water will be constantly flowing over revolving wheels. All of our restless waters, fresh and salt, will thus be harnessed to do the work which Niagara is doing today; making electricity for heat, light and fuel."

Rising public health standards, and decline of cities: "The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present – for he will reside in the suburbs. The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare." (He didn't adjust for inflation too well.)

Fast food: "Ready cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to the bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholes quantities and sell the cooked food and  prices much lower than individual cooking." Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons...." Watkins also foresees a lot of machines being used for washing dishes and food preparation, in highly sanitized settings.

Mosquitoes, flies, roaches, rats and mice will have been eradicated: Oh well -- he missed big time on this one. But hey, there's always 2100 to look forward to!

As mentioned, Watkins compiled the thinking of leading futurists, scientists and innovators of his time -- just as my colleagues here at SmartPlanet do. So, as you read about new developments, remember that looking back 100 years from, any predictions made may not be so far off.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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