The man who saw the future

A civil engineer's 1900 vision of life in 2000 turns out to be astonishing
January 29, 2012 12:00 am

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Given the dystopian view of the future favored by politicians in an election year -- The sky will fall if you don't vote for me! -- I thought I'd pass along some predictions that are a bit more optimistic.

They were penned in 1900 by the forward-thinking John Elfreth Watkins Jr. and published by the Ladies' Home Journal. Reading them with hindsight, it's astonishing how many things he got right.

Mr. Watkins was a civil engineer who worked on the railroads and then as a transportation curator at the Smithsonian Institution. At the turn of the century, he interviewed all manner of scientific experts and put together a list of prognostications for the magazine. It ran under the headline, "What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years."

The World Future Society's website (wfs.org) refers to Mr. Watkins as "the seer of the century... who successfully forecasted advancements in twentieth-century warfare ('aerial warships and forts on wheels').

"He was fairly prescient about transportation (subways, elevated roadways), food preparation and storage (ready-cooked foods, refrigerated preservation), communications (international long-distance telephone), and central air conditioning and heating, among other innovations."

Some of his predictions are utopian in nature, but his vision of modern warfare is all too accurate. Of course, he was a bit wide of the mark some times, but even those are fascinating to read.

And in case you're wondering if this was a prank, I called the magazine to confirm its authenticity. Which they did. Here's a condensed version of the list:

• Nicaragua will ask for admission to the United States "after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people."

• Americans will be up to two inches taller due to better health, reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. (No mention that they will also be 20-30 pounds heavier on average.)

Sally Kalson is a staff writer and columnist for the Post-Gazette ( skalson@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1610).
First Published 2012-02-09 20:16:12
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