Sunday, August 15

The Grand and Distant Future

Much of what we discuss here at eInvite revolves around the world of print, both its aesthetics and history. Most people are aware that, in many areas of the print world, there are serious and wrenching changes occurring as the world changes and business models adapt. We tend to relish history and art here on eInvite's Insights, but often look to the future to see "what's next."

However, it's often just as interesting to go into the past and discover the visions of the future that our ancestors had. Futurism has been an area of discussion for as long as there has been language, and in particular the past two centuries have provided a wealth of predictions for modern humanity, from the sublime to the absurd.

An engineer by the name of John Elfreth Watkins published an article in an issue of Ladies' Home Journal in 1900. Watkins was apparently instrumental in preserving the John Bull locomotive, and though I couldn't find much information in a cursory investigation, it's reasonable to assume that he understood the relationship between past and future development.

This article was a testament to that in particular. Watkins made a litany of predictions for the "next hundred years", many of which were startlingly accurate. Here is the list:

1. America will have a population between 350 and 500 million.
2. Americans will be taller by 1-2 inches.
3. There will be no "c", "x", or "q" in common use.
4. Hot and cold air will be turned on from "spigots" to regulate the temperature of a house.
5. There will be no more mosquitos or flies.
6. Ready cooked meals will be bought from the grocery.
7. No foods will be "exposed" (the open air market).
8. Coal will not be used for heating or cooking.
9. There will be no streetcars in large cities (rather, they will become subways).
10. Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance (and they will be in color).
11. Trains will travel at 150 mph (from New York to San Francisco) and will have similar cooling to the futuristic house).
12. Automobiles will be cheaper than horses.
13. Everybody will be able to walk ten miles in a single stretch.
14. Fast ships will make travel to England occur in less than two days (by using "apertures expelling jets of air").
15. There will be air-ships (it's reasonable to assume he meant dirigibles and not planes).
16. Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, there will be armored moving forts.
17. There will be no more wild animals.
18. Man will see around the world by means of cameras connected electrically by circuits.
19. Wireless telephones will allow you to communicate from anywhere on earth, and the "hello girl" (operator) will be obsolete.
20. Grand opera will be telephoned to private homes via robotic instruments.
21. A university education will be free to every man and women. Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in public schools.
22. Store purchases will be made by tube.
23. Vegetables will be grown year-round with electrical assistance.
24. Oranges will grow in Philadelphia and portable refrigeration will make fruit available anywhere in the union, year-round.
25. Strawberries will be grown as large as apples.
26. Peas will be grown as large as beets.
27. Black, blue, and green roses will exist.
28. Few drugs will be swallowed and a physician will "actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest [and] he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it. This work will be done with rays of invisible light."

Well, consider me astounded. Not only are a vast majority of these predictions close to modern technology, but some of them are startlingly accurate. Most of them are common practice today.

1. Population - Close. The United States has a population of approximately 307 million as of July 2010

2. Height - Close. Though I had to use "industrialized world" averages, a report by Joerg Baten suggests that the average in 1900 was 168 cm, and is 176 cm today. That's about 3" of change.

3. Alphabet - wrong.

4. Central Air Conditioning / Central Heat - Correct. Though not as mechanistic as Watkins imagines, it's common in many households and phenomenally accurate as a prediction.

5. Insects - wrong.

6. Culinary - the "TV dinner" is a staple of modern American life and exactly on-point.

7. Grocery - Close. The street-side, open air market is rare in the United States, particularly outside of major cities. When I lived in NYC, I adored the Greenmarket, but in more rural areas, the mega-super-market is king now, and the open air market is long dead.

8. Home Energy - Partially Correct. Coal's use in the home has been all but abandoned in the United States. However, its industrial use for producing electricity is still all too common.

9. Transportation - Essentially Correct. Most above-ground trains are part of a subway system and not actually streetcars, with a few exceptions (namely San Francisco).

10. Communication - Correct. Watkins imagined full-color electronic and digital communication half a century before it was common-place.

11. Transportation - Correct. Sadly, mostly incorrect for the United States, but correct around the world. The U.S. did not invest in public infrastructure as other countries did, and while we have a few high-speed trains, they do not meet Watkins' vision. Nonetheless, he was spot-on for many industrialized nations.

12. Transportation - Correct. Automobiles are indeed cheaper than horses, as any horse-owner can tell you. Moreover, Watkins predicts a future where "Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known." This couldn't be more accurate.

13. Transportation - Close. Watkins inaccurately imagines water-bound transportation, but still imagines the jet-propelled vehicle, the staple for transcontinental travel today.

14. Transportation - Wrong. After the Hindenburg Disaster, dirigibles have been abandoned for all but specific scientific and entertainment uses.

15 / 16. Warfare - Unclear. Watkins' vision of how war will be waged is highly accurate, but his nouns (particularly his reliance on dirigibles) make the narrative inaccurate. Still, modern warfare indeed resembles his description, and he has many specifics correct.

17. Biology - Partially Wrong. Though we haven't exterminated all wildlife yet, we're well on our way. Since 1900, forty-five known species have gone extinct, mostly due to human behavior.

18. Communication - Correct. Watkins' anticipates the peer-to-peer digital communication revolution by a century.

19. Communication - Correct. Watkins' anticipates present-day global communication by about a century.

20. Communication - Wrong. Sadly, we do not have any robot operas (outside of the university lab, arts, or Matt Groening cartoons).

21. Education - Wrong. Watkins' grossly over-estimated our collective generosity, unfortunately.

22. Commerce - Wrong.

23. Agriculture - Partially Correct. Though shipping is now preferable to special agricultural methods, we have the capacity to grow vegetables year-round, and in some cases, do.

24. Agriculture - Correct. "Fast-flying refrigerators" do indeed exist, though most of the United States relies on refrigerated trucking, and fruits are available around the year.

25. Agriculture - Partially Correct. Strawberries are often grown to enormous size, as large as apples in 1900.

26. Agriculture - Partially Correct. Though some of his specifics are off, sugar cane has indeed replaced the sugar beet as a source of sugar.

27. Agriculture - Partially Correct. Black and green roses exist (without dyes) though blue roses do not.

28. Medicine - Close. Watkins anticipates the common use of radiographic and nuclear medicine by decades.

All said and done, what an extraordinary set of predictions! It makes me wonder who today's most accurate futurist may be. Scientist-philosophers like Ray Kurzweil? Writers like William Gibson? Will we take into account our humanitarian and ecological failures against our technological successes? As Watkins demonstrates, accurate Futurism requires an understanding and respect for the past. It will be interesting to see if our own future is fulfilled through hope or desiccated through failure.

1 comment:

Sprout said...

I'm going to dispute the black roses. We may call them black - "Black Beauty", "Black Magic", "Black Baccara", etc., but they are really just a dark burgundy.