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]
It’s easier to think about the fate of specific gizmos, especially ones that are well woven into the fabric of modern life, such as the automobile. This one sounds like you could plug it into your iPad:
Car of the Future
The car of the future won’t leave anything to be done by man power. In two or three years foot brakes will be things of the past except on cheap cars. Why should a man exert muscle to stop a car any more than to start it? What’s that great brute of an engine idling under the hood for? Now, jump three jumps more. If the engine starts and lights and pumps and stops itself, why shouldn’t it steer the car? Revolutionary? Nonsense!...The car of the future will have no such thing as a “driver’s seat.” All the seats in the car save the rear one will be moveable. Driving will be done from a small control board, which can be held in the lap. It will be connected to the mechanism by a flexible electric cable. A small finger lever, not a wheel, will guide the car.
[Scientific American, January 5, 1918]
Predictions can be quite bizarre. Perhaps that’s a value judgment. In this case, it starts out fine then really does get bizarre:
The next 75 Years
The construction of the North River Bridge, now assured, will be followed ultimately by the building of a few other long-span bridges of equal or greater magnitude, such, for instance as a 4,000-5,000-foot span across the waters of the Golden Gate at San Francisco.... Where bridging is impossible, resort will be had to tunnelling, and it is probable that the next decade will see the completion of the 21-mile Channel tunnel, to be followed by one between Scotland and Ireland....
Okay, we get it. Bigger bridges, longer tunnels, faster airplanes, all standard stuff. Any twit can figure that out. But here’s where this particular prediction goes off the rails:
....But the fact can hardly be escaped that there is a growing fund of well authenticated phenomena which are explained by no natural law yet formulated, and which seem to require that we postulate the existence of some force operated, consciously or unconsciously, by the human brain. Nobody, for instance, can deny the phenomenon of hypnosis. No careful person is going to deny categorically the accumulating evidence that there really is some sort of communication between individuals widely separated in space, to which the general name of mindreading or thought-transferance or telepathy has been provisionally applied.
We think we may, without being accused of having fallen victim to the post-war hysteria, suggest that when all cases of fraud and hypnosis have been ruled out, there is a residuum of material demonstrations of an as yet intangible force--things to which the hateful names of spirit-rapping, table-tipping, levitation, etc., must be applied until we get a more respectable term to take their collective place.
On all these grounds we are inclined to predict that there exists a force, operated through action of the human brain, that is capable of producing sensible effects and effects upon another brain. The science of tomorrow will tell us what this force is and will give us a control over it which may turn out to be as complete as our control over the electric impulses which today we shoot through the ether in utter defiance of all the experiment and all the knowledge and all the common sense of a generation ago.
[Scientific American, October 2, 1920]
Sometimes predictions are a little self-serving. This one from the president of the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, which went belly-up the following year:
The whole American business structure is based upon speed. Small inventories require fast deliveries, the many recent mergers have placed a great premium-on the time of business executives, the necessity for frequent changes in the design of products requires many consultations with high salaried consulting specialists, and present conditions require frequent personal contacts between salesmen and the home office. A survey recently conducted by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation Showed that approximately 180 companies now own one or more planes. At least 20 of these own two or more ships, and it is believed that this list will be increased to many hundred by the end of 1930.
[Scientific American, June 1930]
Predictions suffer from the mood of the times they were made. This gloomy outlook comes from a Scientific American issue published during the depths of the Great Depression in 1933:
For awhile, a year or two ago, it was the fashion to utter dire and gloomy predictions as to the future of civilization. Having, like the Roman Empire at its peak, become softened by a period of hitherto unbelievable prosperity and luxury, we were doomed never to recover from the ill effects of the capitalistic scheme of things, from our mechanization program, and our own stupid short-sightedness; it was the end of everything, and only plans, plans, and more plans would save us. Nowadays, the fashion has waned among the populace in general but has become more intensified in certain quarters. It now appears that, unlike the Roman Empire, we are to have no long period of decline, but, instead, are to fall plop! into oblivion. Statistics, graphs, intricate mathematics prove it! In one year, two years, three years, the number of unemployed in this country will number 20,000,000, or even 25,000,000.
[Scientific American, March 1933]
This prediction makes much of our ability to adjust to the environment (more recent articles seem to focus on our talent for making a mess of things):
The species Homo sapiens has about 50,000 years to its credit. If the average applies, we may expect nearly or quite a half million years more of existence for our kind and then either oblivion as we reach the end of a blind alley or progressive development into some type of descendant better adjusted than we to the total environmental factors of the time. But does the average apply? Must man exit from the scene through either of the doors, that which closed behind the dinosaurs and titanotheres or that which opened before the three-toed horses and notharctines ? Most creatures have gained security by specializing in adjustment of structure and habit to particular environmental conditions, whereas man is a specialist in adjustability of structures and habits to a variety of environments. No other vertebrate can live as can he on Antarctic ice cap, in Amazonian jungle, beneath the surface of the sea, or high in the air.
[Scientific American, April 1940]
Some technologies seem quite promising. The future for this one looked bright until 1977, when five people were killed on the rooftop heliport of the Pan Am building:
Mr. Igor Sikorsky has demonstrated the abilities of the helicopter to make vertical landings in enclosed areas, to fly backward and forward and sideways, to hover, and to deposit packages on and receive them from an inaccessible place while hovering near the spot. Predictions for the post-war decade were recently made by Mr. Sikorsky, based upon the two principal objectives for travel by air: High speed, and the ability to reach any spot on the surface of the earth or sea even though surrounded by obstacles.
[Scientific American, May 1943]
Entertainment and television. A cynic might say that “adequate programs” are as far off as they ever were, but entertainment has changed with the spread of video games and Internet distractions such as YouTube:
The Future of Television
Ralph R. Beal, Research Director for the Radio Corporation of America, has recently stated that television will be ready for every family's use "immediately after the war." The difference between "technically ready" television and satisfactory television programs day in and day out is a factor in the whole television situation which must not be overlooked. Science and industry will be ready to produce receivers as soon as they are permitted to do so when peace comes. However, the time when adequate programs will be available seems still to be far off on the horizon.
[Scientific American, October 1943]
It’s unthinkable to claim to know what people ten years or a thousand years from now will be doing. But I suspect they’ll still think and fear and hope and communicate with other people. And make predictions.