Predictions from 100 years ago


Optimism: Bedazzled by machines and electricity, sages peered into the future and imagined a nearly perfected society. They missed the mark on some of the details.

May 01, 1999|By Rick Montgomery | Rick Montgomery,KANSAS CITY STAR

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's 1999 and, yes, rats still exist.

A century ago the futurists figured otherwise. An optimistic and self-assured bunch, they issued papers, gave speeches and sketched diagrams that dared to portray life "a hundred years hence," at the close of the century they were entering.

When Ladies' Home Journal joined the chorus in December 1900, it predicted this for the year 2000:

"Insect screens will be unnecessary. Mosquitoes, house flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated. The extermination of the horse and its stable will reduce the house fly. There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated."

It is worth noting that this report and several others of the era proved accurate, if rather clumsy, in forecasting the advent of TV, airships, mass-produced cars, air conditioning -- "cold air from spigots" -- skyscrapers, school buses and the physical-fitness phenomenon.

Many envisioned America at the dawn of the third millennium as an electric utopia void of hunger and wars.

"Life in those times will be as nearly a holiday as it is possible to make it," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle asserted on the last Sunday of 1899. "Work will be reduced to a minimum by machinery. Nobody who is anybody [will lack] his automobile and his air yacht."

The dreams defined the times. People were just learning the complex art of telephoning. A burst of other innovations had them bedazzled: electric lights, moving pictures, phonographs, the earliest motor cars. By 1903 the Wright brothers' flying machine would bolster the argument that anything was possible by the end of the 20th century.

"What these forecasters ended up with was a picture of their own community perfected," says Carolyn Marvin, author of "When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Communication in the Late 19th Century."

Skeptics had their say, too.

`Radio has no future'

In 1899 the British scientist William Thomson declared: "Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax." As for the submarine, even science fiction author H. G. Wells said he couldn't imagine such a vessel "doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea."

Yet the era belonged to optimists. John Bates Clark was one.

He wrote an essay, "Recollections of the Twentieth Century," that appeared in the January 1902 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Assuming the role of a toastmaster at millennium celebrations in the year 2000, Clark imagined city streets and storefronts stacked high upon each other, "translating the whole life of the people, in a literal way, to a higher plane."

He rejoiced at the end of poverty. He described the "unfamiliar sight" of a parade displaying obsolete weapons of war. "The quick-firing cannon and the machine guns made [spectators] shudder, by showing them to what purpose much of the ingenuity of our people was formerly devoted."

These turn-of-the-century soothsayers hailed electricity as society today hails the personal computer. Electricity would change everything, they believed, and they were right. But on the details, some strayed off the mark.

A columnist for the Knoxville Journal suggested that electrical currents "will silence squalling babies" and that "drunken, wife-beating husbands who fail to provide for their families [will be] promptly drawn into submission" by a few well-placed jolts.

`Joyful' housekeeping

Furthermore, by century's end "a lady can touch a button and thoroughly clean a room within 15 minutes." Credit the columnist for predicting the vacuum cleaner, but deduct points for overdoing it. Housekeeping today, he insisted, would be "fun a real, joyful picnic."

"One of the most bizarre predictions," says historian Marvin, "was that electricity could be used to make everybody's skin white. Naturally, these were white people doing the predicting, and to them, everyone desired to be white."

Some forecasters spoke of racial equality by century's end, but hardly any predicted the rise of women in business. Instead, women homemakers would benefit from electrical appliances, allowing them more time to nurture children.

In 1900, John Elfreth Watkins Jr. consulted "the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning." He concluded:

C, X and Q would be dropped from the English alphabet by 1999. "They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted."

A gymnasium in every school. This good guess offsets Watkins' bad guess: "A man or woman unable to walk 10 miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling."

Pneumatic tubes would deliver packages and groceries to homes.

The 2000 federal census would record between 350 million and 500 million Americans. In fact, only about 270 million people live in the United States today.

"The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare."

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