At least since that 17th century architect of the scientific revolution, Sir Francis Bacon (who was mostly right), people have been making predictions about the technologies and social advancements of the future. And since Bacon, scientists and futuristic writers have been especially in demand during times of great change and uncertainty, such as at the turn of the last century. In 1900, civil engineer John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. in Ladies’ Home Journal claimed to have surveyed “the most learned and conservative minds in America… the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning.”
Specifying advances likely to occur 100 years thence, “before the dawn of 2001,” Watkins culled 28 predictions about such things as travel and the transmission of information over great distances, biological and genetic mutations, and the domestic comforts of the average consumer. Several of the predictions are very Baconian indeed—as per the strange list at the end of Bacon’s science fiction fragment New Atlantis, a text obsessed with altering the appearance of the natural world for no particular reason other than that it could be done. Watkins’ list includes such predictions as “Peas as Large as Beets,” “Black, Blue, and Green Roses,” and “Strawberries as Large as Apples.” Some are Baconian in more sinister ways, and these are also a bit more accurate. Take the below, for example:
There will be No Wild Animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct. A few of high breed will be kept by the rich for racing, hunting and exercise. The automobile will have driven out the horse. Cattle and sheep will have no horns. They will be unable to run faster than the fattened hog of to-day. A century ago the wild hog could outrun a horse. Food animals will be bred to expend practically all of their life energy in producing meat, milk, wool and other by-products. Horns, bones, muscles and lungs will have been neglected.
I would defer to ecologists and meat industry watchdogs to confirm my intuitions, but it does seem that some of this, excepting the extermination of vermin and horns, has come to pass or is very likely in regard to several species. Another prediction, this one about our own species, is laughably optimistic:
Everybody will Walk Ten Miles. Gymnastics will begin in the nursery, where toys and games will be designed to strengthen the muscles. Exercise will be compulsory in the schools. Every school, college and community will have a complete gymnasium. All cities will have public gymnasiums. A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.
We’re much closer to the future of Pixar’s Wall-E than anything resembling this scenario (unless you live in the world of Crossfit). Another prediction is both dead on and dead wrong at once. Claiming that there will be “from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in the Americas and its possessions by the lapse of another century” did in fact turn out to be almost uncannily accurate—current estimates are somewhere around 300,000,000. The “possessions” alluded to, however, display the attitude of blithe Monroe doctrine expansionism that held the nation in its sway at the turn of the century. The prediction goes on to say that most of the “South and Central American republics would be voted into the Union by their own people.” A few more of Watkins’ predictions, some prescient, some preposterous:
Telephones Around the World. Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world.
Store Purchases by Tube. Pneumatic tubes instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles.
Hot and Cold Air from Spigots. Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times.
Ready-Cooked Meals will be Bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of to-day [see the above Wall-E reference]
There will be No C, X, or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.
Aeriel War-Ships and Forts on Wheels. Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, and will hurl anywhere within such a radius shells exploding and destroying whole cities.
How Children will be Taught. A university education will be free to every man and woman.
Ah, if only that last one had come true! To read all of Watkins predictions in detail, click on the image above for a larger, readable, version of the full article.