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The Future: A History of Prediction from the Archives of Scientific American

Futurology has always bounced around between common sense, nonsense and a healthy dose of wishful thinking



Scientific American

For a thousand years people consulted the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece in an attempt to know what the future held [see “Questioning the Delphic Oracle,” by John R. Hale Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, Jeffrey P. Chanton and Henry A. Spiller; Scientific American, August 2003]. The Oracle was a priestess in a cave who became disoriented by volcanic fumes and babbled incoherently. These days we don’t believe any of that nonsense. Instead we can see the future because we consult thinkers and scientists and journalists and, well, all sorts of clever people. On second thoughts, perhaps the Oracle at Delphi was more reliable. Here is a small sampling of articles on prediction, all from the archives of Scientific American.

As far back as 1879 we realized the impossibility of prediction:

We can readily imagine a being, possessing sufficient knowledge and ability, to calculate the orbits of every person now living. Such a being must know all that is to be known in regard to our mental and physical organisms, and the circumstances under which we are and will he placed. Having thus the initial stage and being able to trace succeeding events as logical sequences of the present, such a being could predict exactly what each of us will decide to do, under the present and all succeeding circumstances--could predict how far we will be physically and mentally able to carry our resolutions into effect. But how awful must be the mind which could perform such a task!

[Scientific American Supplement, March 22, 1879]

Some predictions were more...“concrete”:

Thomas A. Edison holds interesting opinions with regard to the methods and materials that will be used in the future for building purposes:

Q. Is it your opinion that cement is to be the building material of the future?

A. Yes, that and steel. That is to say, cement combined with steel.

Q. Will you cite some examples of present building materials, which, in your opinion, will be displaced by cement?

A. My impression is that the time will come when every contractor will have standard forms of houses, twenty or thirty varieties. The forms will be made of wood, and a contractor using one of the standard shapes will simply go out and "pour" a house. There will probably be hundreds of designs.

[Scientific American Supplement, June 29, 1901]

Some predictions sound impressive as a headline. This one sounds good until you come to the fact that it’s just for figuring out tides around the country for the upcoming year. It’s very useful. Just not quite the imagination-grabbing prediction we salivate over:

A Great Brass Brain

A Unique Engine, on the Accuracy of Which Depend Millions of Dollars and Thousands of Lives

You can be very sure that the machine which prophesies is an accurate if complicated machine. That it is a wonderful machine may be imagined. It has over 15,000 parts, but so carefully is it made that lost motion is reduced practically to zero. Unlike the human brain, this one of brass cannot make a mistake.

[Scientific American, March 7, 1914]

Some writers say “the heck with prediction!” Let the future take care of itself:

I believe that the centuries of human history which are available show that each successive generation has become better able to force its dictates upon nature rather than to be subservient to the unrestricted action of natural forces. In other words, subsequent generations will be better able to care for themselves than the present generation and there is no need to waste good time and effort in trying to solve their problems for them with a smaller stock of knowledge and a narrower vision.

[Scientific American, July 24, 1915]

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