In 1911, Thomas Edison Predicts What the World Will Look Like in 2011: Smart Phones, No Poverty, Libraries That Fit in One Book


The end of 2015 has been dom­i­nat­ed by crises. At times, amidst the dai­ly bar­rage of fear­ful spec­ta­cle, it can be dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of the years around the cor­ner in ways that don’t resem­ble the next crop of blow-em-up action movies, near­ly every one of which depicts some vari­a­tion on the seem­ing­ly inex­haustible theme of the end-of-the-world. There’s no doubt many of our cur­rent chal­lenges are unprece­dent­ed, but in the midst of anx­i­eties of all kinds it’s worth remem­ber­ing that—as Steven Pinker has thor­ough­ly demon­strat­ed—“vio­lence has declined by dra­mat­ic degrees all over the world.”

In oth­er words, as bad as things can seem, they were much worse for most of human his­to­ry. It’s a long view cul­tur­al his­to­ri­an Otto Friedrich took in a grim sur­vey called The End of the World: A His­to­ry. Writ­ten near the end of the Cold War, Friedrich’s book doc­u­ments some 2000 years of Euro­pean cat­a­stro­phe, dur­ing which one gen­er­a­tion after anoth­er gen­uine­ly believed the end was nigh. And yet, cer­tain far-see­ing indi­vid­u­als have always imag­ined a thriv­ing human future, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the pro­found­ly destruc­tive 20th cen­tu­ry.

In 1900, engi­neer John Elfreth Watkins made a sur­vey of the sci­en­tif­ic minds of his day. As we not­ed in a pre­vi­ous post, some of those pre­dic­tions of the year 2000 seem pre­scient, some pre­pos­ter­ous; all bold­ly extrap­o­lat­ed con­tem­po­rary trends and fore­saw a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent human world. At the height of the Cold War in 1964, Isaac Asi­mov part­ly described our present in his 50 year fore­cast. In 1926, and again 1935, no less a vision­ary than Niko­la Tes­la looked into the 21st cen­tu­ry to envi­sion a world both like and unlike our own.

Sev­er­al years ear­li­er in 1911, Tesla’s rival Thomas Edi­son made his own set of futur­is­tic pre­dic­tions for 100 years hence in a Cos­mopoli­tan arti­cle. These were also sum­ma­rized in an arti­cle pub­lished that year by the Mia­mi Metrop­o­lis, which begins by laud­ing Edi­son as a “wiz­ard… who has wrest­ed so many secrets from jeal­ous Nature.” We’ve con­densed Edison’s pre­dic­tions in list form below. Com­pare these to Tesla’s visions for a fas­ci­nat­ing con­trast of two dif­fer­ent, yet com­ple­men­tary future worlds.

1. Steam pow­er, already on the wane, will rapid­ly dis­ap­pear: “In the year 2011 such rail­way trains as sur­vive will be dri­ven at incred­i­ble speed by elec­tric­i­ty (which will also be the motive force of all the world’s machin­ery).”

2. “[T]he trav­el­er of the future… will fly through the air, swifter than any swal­low, at a speed of two hun­dred miles an hour, in colos­sal machines, which will enable him to break­fast in Lon­don, trans­act busi­ness in Paris and eat his lun­cheon in Cheap­side.”

3. “The house of the next cen­tu­ry will be fur­nished from base­ment to attic with steel… a steel so light that it will be as easy to move a side­board as it is today to lift a draw­ing room chair. The baby of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry will be rocked in a steel cra­dle; his father will sit in a steel chair at a steel din­ing table, and his mother’s boudoir will be sump­tu­ous­ly equipped with steel fur­nish­ings….”

4. Edi­son also pre­dict­ed that steel rein­forced con­crete would replace bricks: “A rein­forced con­crete build­ing will stand prac­ti­cal­ly for­ev­er.” By 1941, he told Cos­mopoli­tan, “all con­struc­tions will be of rein­forced con­crete, from the finest man­sions to the tallest sky­scrap­ers.”

5. Like many futur­ists of the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, and some few today, Edi­son fore­saw a world where tech would erad­i­cate pover­ty: “Pover­ty was for a world that used only its hands,” he said; “Now that men have begun to use their brains, pover­ty is decreas­ing…. [T]here will be no pover­ty in the world a hun­dred years from now.”

6. Antic­i­pat­ing agribusi­ness, Edi­son pre­dict­ed, “the com­ing farmer will be a man on a seat beside a push-but­ton and some levers.” Farm­ing would expe­ri­ence a “great shake-up” as sci­ence, tech, and big busi­ness over­took its meth­ods.

7. “Books of the com­ing cen­tu­ry will all be print­ed leaves of nick­el, so light to hold that the read­er can enjoy a small library in a sin­gle vol­ume. A book two inch­es thick will con­tain forty thou­sand pages, the equiv­a­lent of a hun­dred vol­umes.”

8. Machines, Edi­son told Cos­mopoli­tan, “will make the parts of things and put them togeth­er, instead of mere­ly mak­ing the parts of things for human hands to put togeth­er. The day of the seam­stress, weari­ly run­ning her seam, is almost end­ed.”

9. Tele­phones, Edi­son con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict­ed, “will shout out prop­er names, or whis­per the quo­ta­tions from the drug mar­ket.”

10. Antic­i­pat­ing the log­ic of the Cold War arms race, though under­es­ti­mat­ing the mass destruc­tion to pre­cede it, Edi­son believed the “pil­ing up of arma­ments” would “bring uni­ver­sal rev­o­lu­tion or uni­ver­sal peace before there can be more than one great war.”

11. Edi­son “sounds the death knell of gold as a pre­cious met­al. ‘Gold,’ he says, ‘has even now but a few years to live. They day is near when bars of it will be as com­mon and as cheap as bars of iron or blocks of steel.’”

He then went on, aston­ish­ing­ly, to echo the pre-sci­en­tif­ic alchemists of sev­er­al hun­dred years ear­li­er: “’We are already on the verge of dis­cov­er­ing the secret of trans­mut­ing met­als, which are all sub­stan­tial­ly the same mat­ter, though com­bined in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions.’”

Excit­ed by the future abun­dance of gold, the Mia­mi Metrop­o­lis piece on Edison’s pre­dic­tions breath­less­ly con­cludes, “In the mag­i­cal days to come there is no rea­son why our great lin­ers should not be of sol­id gold from stem to stern; why we should not ride in gold­en taxi­cabs, or sub­sti­tut­ed gold for steel in our draw­ing rooms.”

In read­ing over the pre­dic­tions from shrewd thinkers of the past, one is struck as much by what they got right as by what they got often ter­ri­bly wrong. (Matt Novak’s Pale­o­fu­ture, which brings us the Mia­mi Metrop­o­lis arti­cle, has chron­i­cled the check­ered, hit-and-miss his­to­ry of futur­ism for sev­er­al years now.)  Edison’s tone is more stri­dent than most of his peers, but his accu­ra­cy was about on par, fur­ther sug­gest­ing that nei­ther the most con­fi­dent of tech­no-futur­ists, nor the most bale­ful of doom­say­ers knows quite what the future holds: their clear­est fore­casts obscured by the bias­es, tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions, and philo­soph­i­cal cat­e­gories of their present.

via Pale­o­fu­ture

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Niko­la Tesla’s Pre­dic­tions for the 21st Cen­tu­ry: The Rise of Smart Phones & Wire­less, The Demise of Cof­fee, The Rule of Eugen­ics (1926/35)

In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Inter­net, 3D Print­ers and Trained Mon­key Ser­vants

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

Stephen Hawk­ing Won­ders Whether Cap­i­tal­ism or Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Will Doom the Human Race

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Chase says:

    Most of what Steven Pinker says is point­less. Despite the total pro­por­tion of vio­lence going down, on an absolute scale it has risen, espe­cial­ly in recent years. And even if vio­lence had remained sta­t­ic, infor­ma­tion avail­abil­i­ty has risen dra­mat­i­cal­ly, mak­ing it appear as if there is more vio­lence com­pared to ear­li­er years.

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