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See Inside February 2008

Remembrance of Things Future

In 1900 the future looked bright and well ventilated



Matt Collins

It’s well known that pre-diction is fraught with peril, especially when it’s about the future. But if the future is past, then analyzing predictions about that past future is like an unwrapped present. (Tense yet?) A friend recently sent me an article from the December 1900 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal, in which one John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., listed a series of predictions for the year 2000. (See www.tinyurl.com/3yuaxx for the complete list.) Let’s look at some of those prognostications now that 2000 is as gone as Watkins.

“There will probably be from 350,000,­000 to 500,000,000 people in America.” A bit on the high side of our current population of about 304 million. But not a bad estimate, especially given an American population in 1900 of a mere 76 million. Still, Watkins was way off the mark by then predicting that Nicaragua and Mexico would seek admission to the Union after the Panama Canal was finished. Actually, if Mexico did join the U.S. the fence some Americans want to build on the Latin American border could be reduced from about 2,000 miles down to only the approximately 400 border miles that Mexico shares with Guatemala and Belize. It’s called thinking outside the boundaries.

“There will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.” A quixotic notion.

“Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated.” Unless “practically exterminated” meant prag­matically slamming a shoe heel on the insects, this one is obviously way off. As is:

“Rats and mice will have been exterminated.” I didn’t even kill the cartoon-cute little house mouse I found jumping around in my sink a few weeks ago. (I didn’t let it move in with me rent-free either.) And if you’re ever bored waiting for a New York City subway, you can pass the time playing find-the-rat-on-the-tracks. (Although somebody usually wins inside of 10 seconds.)

“Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of to-day.” Correct. “Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons.” Partly correct—hot food is delivered cold by automobile wagons. “The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed.” A bachelor’s dream that is, alas, unrealized. Fortunately, in 1904 some genius invented the paper plate.

“There will be no street cars in our large cities.” Mostly true, with the notable exceptions of San Francisco’s trolleys and Boston’s Green Line. Although anyone actually waiting for a Green Line train might indeed conclude that they no longer exist. “All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits. In most cities it will be confined to broad subways or tunnels, well lighted and well ventilated.” Granted, the lighting and ventilation are good enough to play find-the-rat-on-the-tracks. “Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.” Rendered erroneous by the then unforeseen invention of automobile sound systems with super bass subwoofers. And by legions of pedestrians yelling into cell phones.

“The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.” For two bucks, I can go the 12 miles between the Bronx and midtown Manhattan during the morning rush in only a little over an hour. (“Hurry traffic” is less a description than a fervent prayer.)

“Automobiles will be cheaper than horses.” Mostly true, with the notable exception of Frolic N My Dreams, which be­came worthless to me by finishing dead last in the sixth race at Aqueduct on December 2.

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