Minds of the early 20th century were already theorizing that we would one day have to quit our fossil fuel habit. Image: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
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People in the early 20th century were hopeful about the future innovation might bring. The technology that came out of World War I, and the growing potential brought by electricity (half of all U.S. homes had electric power by 1925) had many looking ahead to the coming century. Futurists of the early 1900s predicted an incredible boom in technology that would transform human lives for the better.
In fact, many of those predictions for the future in which we live weren’t far off, from the proliferation of automobiles and airplanes to the widespread transmission of information. Of course, the specifics of how those devices would work sometimes fell broad of the mark. Yet these predictions show us just how much our technology has progressed in just a century — and just how much further more innovation could take us.
Calling the Future
On a cool February day in 1917, storied inventor Alexander Graham Bell gave the graduating class of McKinley Manual Training School a rousing speech that would later sound a bit like prophecy.
“Now, it is very interesting and instructive to look back over the various changes that have occurred and trace the evolution of the present from the past,” Bell said, after recalling the incredible transformation wrought by electricity and automobiles alone. “By projecting these lines of advance into the future, you can forecast the future, to a certain extent, and recognize some of the fields of usefulness that are opening up for you.”
In 1876, Bell himself had patented the device known as the telephone, which used wires to transmit the sound of human speech. As this device spread, its capabilities allowed voices to cross enormous distances. In 1915, one such “wireless telephony” system had allowed a Virginia man to speak to another in Paris while a man in Honolulu listened in — a distance of 4,900 miles (about 7,886 kilometers), setting the record for the longest distance communication at that time.
Bell marveled at this achievement and the change it had already created, predicting that “this achievement surely foreshadows the time when we may be able to talk with a man in any part of the world by telephone and without wires.” At the time of Bell’s speech, the U.S. had an estimated 11.7 million working telephones; by the year 2000, that number had risen to nearly 103 million.
Extrapolating forward, Bell predicted a future in which this technology allowed people to pretty much anything remotely: “We shall probably be able to perform at a distance by wireless almost any mechanical operation that can be done at hand,” he said. And he wasn’t wrong.
Transportation of the Future
People a century ago were obsessed with the travel of the future. By 1914, the Ford Motor Company had developed the first moving assembly line, allowing the company to produce 300,000 cars in a single year. With transit beginning to transform society, futurists began imagining a world in which every person from Miami to Moscow could own their very own automobile. In that regard, they weren’t too far off — 95 percent of American households own cars, according to a 2016 government report. But those imagined automobiles looked a bit different from the ones we know today.
On January 6, 1918, the headline of an article in The Washington Times announced that the “Automobile of Tomorrow Will Be Constructed Like a Moving Drawing Room.” The author was writing about a prediction in Scientific American that described the car of the future. It would be water-tight and weather-proof, with sides made entirely of glass, and seats that could be moved anywhere in the vehicle. It would be decked out with power steering, brakes, heating, and a small control board for navigation. A finger lever would replace the steering wheel. Other designs imagined that cars would roll around on just three wheels, or on air-filled spheres to remove the need for shocks.
Future-forecasters of the early 1900s were enthralled by the idea that our everyday travel would not be confined to land. Take, for example, the series of postcards produced between 1899 and 1910 by French artist Jean-Marc Côté and his collaborators, who seemed confident that by the year 2000, we would have already colonized both sky and sea — and recruited some of their residents for our transit purposes.
Air travel was foremost in people’s minds: The Wright brothers made their first successful flight of a powered airplane in 1903, spurring other inventors and engineers to test innumerable aircraft designs before World War I. As such, it’s not surprising that Côté’s minute works imagined that, by the year 2000, nearly every form of transportation would be via air. Aerial taxi services, floating dirigible battleships, a flying postman, and air-based public transportation all appear in the whimsical depictions of our predicted current day.
Some craft, like an aerial rescue service or planes outfitted for warfare, are now an everyday part of military forces (though we don’t yet have the “French invisible aeroplane” that Scientific American promised was forthcoming in 1915).
Indeed, personal flying machines are a prominent feature of the 21st century as envisioned from the 19th and 20th — particularly the concept that personal flying cars would become commonplace. Forward-looking Victorians, such as artist Albert Robida in 1882, assumed the skies would be thick with flying cars by 2018.
In the May 1923 issue of Science and Invention, science fiction writer Hugo Gernsback described his vision for these flying cars, which he dubbed the “helicar,” as a solution to the automobile traffic he already saw jamming the streets of New York City:
The only practical solution is to combine the automobile with an airplane and this no doubt will happen during the next few decades. The Helicopter Automobile or, for short, the helicar, will not take up very much more room than the present large 7-passenger automobile, nor will it weigh much more than our present-day car, but instead of rolling down the avenue, you will go straight up in the air, and follow the air traffic lines, then descend at any place you wish.
We might not yet have a flying machine parked in every garage, but organizations such as Uber and NASA, the Russian defense company Kalashnikov, Toyota for the 2020 Olympics, and numerous smaller companies are developing personal flying cars, so this too may not be far off.
Alexander Graham Bell addressed the possibility of transportation by air, noting that travel by boat was cheaper than travel by rail, because no tracks had to be laid. Bell suggested that a “possible solution of the problem over land may lie in the development of aerial locomotion.” He continued: “However much money we may invest in the construction of huge aerial machines carrying many passengers, we don’t have to build a road,” — a sentiment echoed by one of his fictional successors.
Technology Gets Personal
In 1900, Smithsonian curator and writer John Elfrith Watkins, Jr., penned an article titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for The Ladies’ Home Journal. Looking forward at the fresh new century, Watkins imagined a world in which technology wasn’t left in the hands of industry or the military — instead, it would be redirected to entertain and convenience everyday people.
Though he didn’t foresee television in its current form, Watkins predicted that technology would one day bring distant concerts and operas to private homes, sounding “as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theatre box,” and that “persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.” He also predicted that color photographs would one day be quickly transmitted around the world, and that “if there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.” One can only guess what he would have thought of the selfie.
Watkins imagined that technology would transform our homes and diets. Though the mechanically-cooled refrigerator wasn’t invented until 1925, and wouldn’t become widely used until the 1940s, Watkins correctly predicted that “refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals,” and that “fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea” would deliver fruits and vegetables from around the world to provide produce out-of-season. He even called the development of fast-food delivery, anticipating “ready-cooked meals… served hot or cold to private houses.” He believed these meal deliveries would replace home-cooking entirely (for some city-dwellers with Seamless accounts, that’s not too far off), and might arrive by pneumatic tubes as well as by “automobile wagons.”
Some of Watkins’ predictions might have been close to reality, but he was pretty far off about other aspects of life in the 21st century. He thought that man would have exterminated pests like roaches, mice, and mosquitoes, as well as all wild animals, which would “exist only in menageries.” This prediction was surprisingly common in the early 1900s, and might have been a reaction to then-recent extinctions like that of the quagga (1883), the passenger pigeon (1914), and the thylacine (1934). Though we are now going through another global extinction caused by human activity, we can be grateful that we haven’t quite reached the level of extinction most Victorian futurists expected.
Watkins also thought that we would have eliminated the letters C, X or Q in the everyday alphabet, as they were “unnecessary;” that humans would essentially make ourselves a into super-species, with physical education starting in the nursery, until “a man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.” Unfortunately, our global obesity problem shows the reality was, in fact, quite the opposite.
Thematically, though, these predictions are sound: As the use of electricity spread, and technology like automobiles and telephones became more affordable to use, Watkins could envision an age in which technology was entirely integrated into our lives. To futurists of the early 1900s, it seemed obvious that robots and automation would be essential to 21st century people, serving as our chauffeurs, cleaning the house, scheduling the laundry, and even electrically transmitting handshakes.
Alexander Graham Bell also predicted this trend, and he thought it heralded something particularly promising for the McKinley graduates he addressed in 1918. Foreseeing the rise of an industry centered around technology and an exploding need for scientists and engineers, he told them: “It is safe to say that scientific men and technical experts are destined in the future to occupy distinguished and honorable positions in all the countries of the world. Your future is assured.”
A Future of Clean Energy
Perhaps the most surprising predictions from the past century regard fossil fuels and the environment. Yes, today some people still resist transitioning away from fossil fuels and ignore the scientific consensus on climate change. But bright minds of the early 20th century were already theorizing that we would one day have to quit our fossil fuel habit.
As early as 1896, scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise Earth’s temperature between 8 and 9 degrees Celsius. Arrhenius was inspired by the startling discovery of his friend Arvid Högbom, who realized that human activities were releasing carbon dioxide at roughly the same rate as natural processes. Because of the rate at which industrial countries burned coal in 1896, Arrhenius believed human-caused warming wouldn’t reach problematic levels for thousands of years. But by the time he published his 1908 book Worlds in the Making, an attempt to explain the evolution of the universe to a popular audience, that rate had increased so much that Arrhenius was convinced that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double within a few centuries.
Scientists as a whole wouldn’t come around to Arrhenius’ ideas, or recognize that burning carbon-based fuels had an adverse effect on our planet, for at least a century. Yet even before scientists understood the climate effects of fossil fuels, futurists were predicting that we would have to drop our use of coal and oil before long. “Coal and oil are going up [in usage] and are strictly limited in quantity,” Alexander Graham Bell said in his February 1917 speech. He continued:
We can take coal out of a mine, but we can never put it back. We can draw oil from subterranean reservoirs, but we can never refill them again. We are spendthrifts in the matter of fuel and are using our capital for our running expenses. In relation to coal and oil, the world’s annual consumption has become so enormous that we are now actually within measurable distance of the end of the supply. What shall we do when we have no more coal or oil!
He went on to note that hydropower was, at the time, limited, and implied that one day it might be possible to generate energy from the tides or waves, or “the employment of the sun’s rays directly as a source of power.”
Bell wasn’t the only one who was sure we would have to find a new source of energy in the next century. In 1917, when a severe coal shortage in the U.S. caused people to call for the resource’s conservation, one writer for the Chicago News asserted that stockpiling coal would ultimately be foolish. He insisted that worrying about the supply of coal would soon be like fretting over the supply of tallow candles: pointless.
“These gifted lunatics who are worrying about the coal supply are in the same class,” the Chicago News writer insisted. “It doesn’t occur to them that in a hundred years people will be saying, ‘Our grandfathers, the poor boobs, actually used coal for heating purposes!'”
We’re not laughing quite yet. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. still gets 17 percent of its energy from coal. Another 28 percent comes from petroleum products, and 33 percent from natural gas; we get only 12 percent of our electricity from the renewable sources that the Chicago News writer — who was sure we’d find a way “to put the sun’s energy in storage, and pump it into people’s houses thru pipes” — predicted by now. Globally, coal makes up about 27 percent of the world’s energy production, and renewable energy about 24 percent.
The good news is that this distribution is changing as renewable energy becomes cheaper than fossil fuels, edging us ever closer to the bright future that 20th century minds thought we’d be living in. Fingers crossed the whale-bus will be next.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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