How the Future Looked in 1899: Predictions: What the Seers Got Wrong-And What They Got Right

By Leland, John | Newsweek, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

How the Future Looked in 1899: Predictions: What the Seers Got Wrong-And What They Got Right


Leland, John, Newsweek


Looking back on the events of the 20th century, the economist John Bates Clark could scarcely count his blessings. War and poverty had been eliminated, of course. Electricity and aerial navigation had transformed the daily grind into a cornucopia of earthly delights. What once were slums were now "abodes of happiness and health," enlivened with parks and playgrounds many stories in height. Things were moving on up. Admittedly, there'd been a few iffy patches, like when the state of Saskatchewan, fired up by some hot-blooded New Zealanders, tried to draw the continent down the path of communism. But in all, as Clark saw it, the century had been a nearly pothole-free expressway of progress, which saw "Society take its present shape from one that was as far below it as a tree-climbing ape is inferior to a cultured man."

Such a vision! Here was a reckoning of the 20th century as it could be seen only from--well, from 1902, when The Atlantic Monthly published Clark's mock retrospective of the coming era. To Clark and other prognosticators of a hundred years ago, the future promised a technological idyll of pearly ease and prosperity--not to mention a lot of really cool gadgets. By the year 2000, they predicted, humanity would have it made in the electric shade. There'd be strawberries the size of apples, peas the size of beets, oranges blossoming in the tropics of Philadelphia, predicted John Elfreth Watkins Jr. in the December 1900 issue of The Ladies' Home Journal. Moving sidewalks and pneumatic tubes would whoosh people and stuff around the metropolis; the letters c, x and q would be abandoned in the name of that voguish pursuit, efficiency.

Like all predictions, those of a hundred years past tell as much about their own era as about the one to come. Writing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the futurists placed their faith not just in big technology but in the march of bigness itself. "The age of power and conquest," wrote the historian and educator John Clark Ridpath, "shall yield to an age of glory and enlightenment. Aluminum will be the shining symbol of that age... The houses and cities of men, built of aluminum, shall flash in the rising sun with surpassing brilliance." Most wondrous, wrote Watkins, our homes would be connected to networks of cameras and telephones, allowing us to see around the world from the comfort of our living rooms. Who knew that before the next century was over, Al Gore would have invented just such a network?

To run the electronic Eden, the visionaries predicted a benevolent bureaucracy on an unprecedented scale--bigger, even, than the great trusts of the time, and nicer to boot. Society would scrunch the very rich and very poor classes toward the bulging middle, wrote Sidney G. Brock, who ran the Bureau of Statistics in Benjamin Harrison's Treasury Department. "Wealth undoubtedly will be much more evenly distributed," with the comely effect that "the vice of intemperance will largely cease."

Of the three minds whose ideas were to rock the century to come, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud focused on the past. Karl Marx was the futurist. His manifesto, published in 1848, created the template of a centrally controlled new world order that future prognosticators played off--with optimism at the turn of the century, with horror by the time of George Orwell's "1984." H. G. Wells, in a 1901 series of essays published in The North American Review, anticipated a global New Republic governed by "a new class of intelligent and scientifically educated men. …

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How the Future Looked in 1899: Predictions: What the Seers Got Wrong-And What They Got Right
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