Moon Colonies and Flying Firemen: Predictions for the 2000s from the Last Century

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Image courtesy of The National Library of France

Visions of the 21st century 100 years ago.

If you sat down right now and predicted what the world will look like one hundred years in the future, what would you envision? Flying cars? Robot maids? Essentially, The Jetsons?

Mankind has long attempted to predict its own future, both in literature and cinema as well as through scientific deduction and reasoning. As today marks the exact date in the film Back to the Future that Marty McFly (played by Canuck Michael J. Fox) visits when he travels ahead in time, we decided to look back at five real-life scientific minds and their predictions for what the year 2000 and beyond would look like – all of which were written 50 to 100 years ago.

John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. – 1900

John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., a civil engineer and the son of an important American railroad engineer, wrote an article in December 1900 in the Ladies Home Journal titled “What May Happen in the Next 100 Years.” He predicted heating and cooling systems in homes, wireless telephones, the rise of photography, the affordability of cars over horses, the availability of pre-cooked meals and, you could argue – yes, this is, admittedly, stretching it – the Internet when he noted the opera will be transmitted to homes through the telephone.

However, he was rather off-base when he predicted the demise of the letters “C,” “X,” and “Q” and that Russian will be the second most spoken language in the world, that “mosquitoes, house flies and roaches will have been permanently exterminated” and that stores will deliver purchases to homes via pneumatic tubes. Still, for a guy writing this in 1900, he was surprisingly accurate. You can read all of his predictions in their original form here.

Villemard – 1910

The French artist Villemard predicted what life in the year 2000 would look like through – what else? – a series of illustrations. Most of them are hilarious and completely ridiculous in hindsight but, hey, you try predicting what the world will look like 100 years from now. Villemard’s images can be seen here and include visions of flying firefighters and police with bat-like wings, homes heated by radium, electric trains, mini cars that you wear on your feet (think automated roller skates), a barber with a number of mechanical arms doing the cutting for him and an “air ship” that is basically a steamship attached to two blimps.

Some of his predictions, to be fair, aren’t bad. “Phonographic messages,” “hearing the newspaper” and “correspondence cinema” could all be viewed as precursors to the cellphone, Internet and television.

Robert Heinlein – 1949/52

Robert Heinlein, dubbed the “dean of science fiction writers,” made his predictions for the year 2000 in 1949 and then published them in a 1952 edition of Galaxy magazine. As for his accuracy? It’s not bad. He also went out on a limb and predicted things that both would and wouldn’t happen.

As for the things that would happen, he foresaw a “personal telephone [that] will be small enough to carry in your handbag,” which, as the Wall Street Journal shows, came true with the first smartphone – the Ericsson R380 – arriving in the year 2000.

He was wrong when he said that, “Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered” but his assertion that “the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish ‘regeneration,’ i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg rather than fit him with an artificial limb” is very accurate.

You could also argue “Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure” could refer to things like condoms and birth control and the results of the sexual revolution. As well, “Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door” could refer to modern “space tourism.” We’ll give him that one.

However, many of Heinlein’s predictions failed to materialize … so far. That includes:

“[by] the end of this century, mankind will have explored this solar system” and “Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.”

As for what wouldn’t happen by the year 2000, it wasn’t hard to get most of them right. They include time travel, the “ ‘radio’ transmission of matter” and “a permanent end to war.”

Waldemar Kaempffert – 1950

Waldemar Kaempffert was a science writer for the New York Times in 1950 when he wrote a story in Popular Mechanics magazine’s February issue that boasted the headline Miracles You’ll See in the Next 50 Years. To illustrate his prediction, he created a family, called the Dobsons, and he used their life to show readers what the year 2000 will look like. This included standard models for homes that can be built in a few days with concrete and a pre-made mold of the house, a chemical that removes whiskers and eliminates the need for men to shave, the development of food and beverages “delivered in the form of frozen bricks,” dishes made of plastic that melt in hot water and therefore don’t require washing and waterproof furniture that makes cleaning the house literally as easy and getting the garden hose and spraying the living room down.

It’s all here in a fantastic slideshow of the original magazine, including illustrations.

Isaac Asimov – 1964

The 1964 New York World’s Fair served as a crystal ball of sorts for acclaimed academic and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who gleaned visions of the year 2014 from his experiences there and published them in the New York Times, which you can read in its entirety here. Sure, some of his predictions didn’t exactly come true, such as kitchens that basically make meals for you, moon colonies and that “Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets, though local ordinances will discourage the practice.”

But some of Asimov’s ideas were actually pretty accurate given the time in which he made them. For example:

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica.”

He’s basically describing FaceTime or Skype as well as cell/smartphones. Then there’s “The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries.” But perhaps one of his most prescient predictions is also one of the most perceptive and forward thinking, as you could argue it relates to both mental illness and our growing preoccupation with social media/our online lives:

“[M]ankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.”