Futurist from 1901 Describes the World of 2001: Opera by Telephone, Free College & Pneumatic Tubes Aplenty

Just shy of 120 years ago, “the wis­est and most care­ful men in our great­est insti­tu­tions of sci­ence and learn­ing” told Amer­i­ca what would change by the far-flung dawn of 2001. C, X and Q gone from the alpha­bet; “Air-Ships” in the skies, strict­ly for mil­i­tary pur­pos­es (pas­sen­ger traf­fic being han­dled by “fast elec­tric ships”); straw­ber­ries as large as apples; uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion “free to every man and woman”: these are just a few of the details of life in the com­ing 21st cen­tu­ry. We for whom the year 2001 is now firm­ly in the past will get a laugh out of all this. But as with any set of pre­dic­tions, amid the miss­es come par­tial hits. We don’t get our “hot and cold air from spig­ots,” but we do get it from air-con­di­tion­ing and heat­ing sys­tems. We don’t send pho­tographs across the world by tele­graph, but the device we all keep in our pock­ets does the job well enough.

Writ­ten by a civ­il engi­neer named John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. (pre­sum­ably the son of Smith­son­ian Cura­tor of Mechan­i­cal Tech­nol­o­gy John Elfreth Watkins, Sr.), “What May Hap­pen in the Next Hun­dred Years” ran in the Decem­ber 1900 issue of that renowned futur­o­log­i­cal organ Ladies’ Home Jour­nal. You can hear it read aloud, and see it accom­pa­nied by his­tor­i­cal film clips, in the Voic­es of the Past video above.

A few years ago the piece came back into cir­cu­la­tion on the inter­net (which goes unmen­tioned by its experts, more con­cerned as they were with pro­lif­er­a­tion of tele­phone lines and pneu­mat­ic tubes) and its pre­dic­tions were put to the test. At the Sat­ur­day Evening Post, Jeff Nils­son gives Watkins (once a Post con­trib­u­tor him­self) points for less out­landish prophe­cies, such as a rise in human­i­ty’s life expectan­cy and aver­age height.

Watkins describes his sources as “the most learned and con­ser­v­a­tive minds in Amer­i­ca.” In some areas they were too con­ser­v­a­tive: they fore­see “Trains One Hun­dred and Fifty Miles an Hour,” but as Nils­son notes, today’s “high-speed trains are trav­el­ing over 300 mph. Just not in the Unit­ed States.” Amer­i­cans did lose their street­cars as pre­dict­ed, but not due to their replace­ment by sub­ways and mov­ing side­walks — and what would these experts make of the street­car’s 21st-cen­tu­ry renais­sance? When Watkins writes that “grand opera will be tele­phoned to pri­vate homes,” we may think of the Met’s cur­rent COVID-prompt­ed stream­ing, a sce­nario that would have occurred to few in a world yet to expe­ri­ence even the Span­ish flu pan­dem­ic of 1918. But then, the future’s defin­ing qual­i­ty has always been its very unknowa­bil­i­ty: con­sid­er how much has come to pass since we last post­ed about these pre­dic­tions here on Open Cul­ture — not least the end of Ladies Home Jour­nal itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1900, Ladies’ Home Jour­nal Pub­lish­es 28 Pre­dic­tions for the Year 2000

1902 French Trad­ing Cards Imag­ine “Women of the Future”

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

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

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned Life in the Year 2000: Draw­ing the Future

9 Sci­ence-Fic­tion Authors Pre­dict the Future: How Jules Verne, Isaac Asi­mov, William Gib­son, Philip K. Dick & More Imag­ined the World Ahead

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.


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