By Tom Geoghegan (lightly edited by David)
In the wake of the recent increase in geological activity, and the rather sobering prediction that there is a 70% chance of ‘the big one’ hitting Kanto within the next four years, I thought I would share the following more gentle predictions that were made a hundred years ago.
In 1900, an American civil engineer called John Elfreth Watkins made a number of predictions about what the world would be like in 2000. How did he do?
In December 1900, John Elfreth Watkins wrote an article that was published in the Ladies' Home Journal, entitled What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.
He began with the words: "These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible," explaining that he had consulted the country's "greatest institutions of science and learning" for their opinions on 29 topics.
Ten predictions that Watkins got right...
1. Digital color photography
Watkins did not, of course, use the word "digital" or spell out precisely how digital cameras and computers would work, but he accurately predicted how people would come to use new photographic technology.
"Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. 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.... photographs will reproduce all of nature's colors."
This showed major foresight because when Watkins was making his predictions, it would have taken a week for a picture of something happening in China to make its way into Western papers.
People thought photography itself was a miracle, and color photography was very experimental.
"The idea of having cameras gathering information from opposite ends of the world and transmitting them - he wasn't just taking a present technology and then looking to the next step, it was far beyond what anyone was saying at the time."
Patrick Tucker from the World Future Society, based in Maryland in the US, thinks Watkins might even be hinting at a much bigger future breakthrough.
"'Photographs will be telegraphed' reads strikingly like how we access information from the web," says Tucker.
2. The rising height of Americans
"Americans will be taller by from one to two inches."
Watkins had unerring accuracy here - the average American man in 1900 was about 66-67ins (1.68-1.70m) tall and by 2000, the average was 69ins (1.75m).
3. Mobile phones
"Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn."
International phone calls were unheard of in Watkins' day. It was another 15 years before Alexander Bell would make the first call, even from one coast of the US to the other. The idea of wireless telephony was truly revolutionary.
4. Pre-prepared meals
"Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishment similar to our bakeries of today."
The proliferation of ready meals in supermarkets and takeaway shops in High Streets suggests that Watkins was right, although he envisaged the meals would be delivered on plates which would be returned to the cooking establishments to be washed.
5. Slowing population growth
"There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America [the US]."
The figure is too high, but at least Watkins was guessing in the right direction. If the US population had grown by the same rate it did between 1800 and 1900, it would have exceeded 1 billion in 2000.
"Instead, it grew just 360%, reaching 280m at the start of the new century."
6. Hothouse vegetables
Winter will be turned into summer and night into day by the farmer, said Watkins, with electric wires under the soil and large gardens under glass.
"Vegetables will be bathed in powerful electric light, serving, like sunlight, to hasten their growth. Electric currents applied to the soil will make valuable plants to grow larger and faster, and will kill troublesome weeds. Rays of colored light will hasten the growth of many plants. Electricity applied to garden seeds will make them sprout and develop unusually early."
Large gardens under glass were already a reality, says Philip Norman of the Garden Museum in London, but he was correct to predict the use of electricity. Although colored lights and electric currents did not take off, they were probably experimented with.
"Electricity certainly features in plant propagation. But the earliest item we have is a 1953 booklet Electricity in Your Garden detailing electrically warmed frames, hotbeds and cloches and electrically heated greenhouses, issued by the British Electrical Development Association.
"We have a 1956 soil heater, used in soil to assist early germination of seeds in your greenhouse."
"Man will see around the world. 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."
Watkins foresaw cameras and screens linked by electric circuits, a vision practically realized in the 20th Century by live international television and latterly by webcams.
"Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of today."
Leonardo da Vinci had talked about this, but Watkins was taking it further. There weren't many people that far-sighted.
9. Bigger fruit
"Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren."
Lots of larger varieties of fruit have been developed in the past century, but Watkins was over-optimistic with regard to strawberries.
10. The Acela Express
"Trains will run two miles a minute normally. Express trains one hundred and fifty miles per hour."
Exactly 100 years after writing those words, to the very month, Amtrak's flagship high-speed rail line, the Acela Express, opened between Boston and Washington, DC. It reaches top speeds of 150mph, although the average speed is considerably less than that. High-speed rail in other parts of the world, even in 2000, was considerably faster.
... and four he didn't get right
1. No more C, X or Q
"There will be no C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary."
This was obviously wrong, says Patrick Tucker of the World Future Society, but also remarkable in the way that it hints at the possible effects of mass communication on communication itself.
2. Everybody will walk 10 miles a day
"This presents a rather generous view of future humanity but doesn't seem to consider the popularity and convenience of the very transportation breakthroughs [moving sidewalks, express trains, coaches] forecast elsewhere in the article," says Tucker.
3. No more cars in large cities
"All hurry traffic will be below or above ground when brought within city limits."
However, many cities do have pedestrian zones in their historic centers. And he correctly forecast elevated roads and subways.
4. No mosquitoes or flies
"Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been exterminated."
Watkins was getting ahead of himself here. Indeed the bed bug is making a huge comeback in the US and some other countries. Maybe the end of the mosquito and the housefly is something to look forward to in 2100?