When our recent past was the future

It’s always interesting to see what our ancestors thought their future–our present–would be like. I recently came across a fascinating list of predictions for the 20th century made in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1900. It’s interesting to see how close they came. Consider:

Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Tough one to calculate, but I did my best, with Google’s help. In 1900, a horse in England cost around £50. By 2000, according to the Royal Mint, 100 pence only bought the equivalent of what two pence bought in1914. Remembering that in 1900, pounds had 240 pence, that 1900 horse cost the equivalent of £6000 pounds today–which is certainly enough to buy some kind of car. So count this one as close.

Liquid-air refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals. Liquid-air refrigerators exist, but aren’t widely used. Nevertheless, refrigeration was one of the great technological advances of the 20th century.

Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of today. Nailed that one. We call them tanks.

Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house. I love the image of turning on the cold-air tap to cool the house. That’s not quite how we do it, but the effect is the same.

Man will see around the world. By both television and from space, we do indeed.

Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electronically with screens at the opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. Good one! (Although if they’d predicted the rise of reality television I’d really be impressed.)

Electric currents applied to the soil will make valuable plants grow larger and faster, and will kill troublesome weeds. Um, no. This was not what was meant by “rural electrification” in Saskatchewan 50 years ago, sad to say. Nor do we electrocute weeds.

Rays of colored light will hasten the growth of many plants. Nope. Plants need a full spectrum of light for optimum growth (although photosynthesis is most sensitive to the red and blue wavelengths). If anything, colored light is more likely to reduce plant growth, since it restricts the available wavelengths.

Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. Got that one!

There will be no street cars in our large cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above the ground…These underground or overhead streets will teem with capacious automobile passenger coaches and freight wagons with cushioned wheels….Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises. Well, there aren’t as many street cars as there used to be, but otherwise…oops. More’s the pity.

Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. Yes, especially if you count e-mail as a kind of telegraph.

Not only will it be possible for a physician to see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it. This work will be done with rays of invisible light. Another good one!

Fast electric ships, crossing the ocean at more than a mile a minute, will go from New York to Liverpool in two days. There will be Air-Ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. Not being someone who really enjoys flying, I’m rather sorry they missed this one, but they did. But then, the airships they were envisioning weren’t much faster than the “mile a minute” surface ships they predicted. They didn’t envision jet aircraft.

Grand Opera will be telephoned to private homes, and will sound as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theater box. I love the idea of grand opera being telephoned to your house. “Honey, could you get that? It’s probably La Traviata. Just put it on the speakerphone.” Again, the details were off, but the general idea was right on. (They also failed to envision rap music, but that’s just as well: it would have given them nightmares.)

Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. Another great image, but not to be.

Looking at old predictions is not just fun, but a useful reminder: whenever we take aim at the future, our best guesses will rarely hit the mark, only sometimes even come close, and most often will miss the target altogether.

I wonder who will be making fun of my science columns a century from now?

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2005/06/when-our-recent-past-was-the-future/

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