Visions of Today in 1900

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How has society changed since 1900? In 1900, an American civil engineer called John Elfreth Watkins made a number of predictions about what the world would be like in 2000 – but how did he do?

As is customary at the start of a new year, the media have been full of predictions about what may happen in the months ahead. But a much longer forecast made in 1900 by a relatively unknown engineer has been recirculating in the past few days. In December of that year, at the start of the 20th Century, John Elfreth Watkins wrote a piece published on page eight of an American women’s magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, entitled What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years. He began the article 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. Watkins was a writer for the Journal’s sister magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, based in Indianapolis. The Post brought this article to a modern audience last week when its history editor Jeff Nilsson wrote a feature praising Watkins’ accuracy. It was picked up and caused some excitement on Twitter. So what did Watkins get right – and wrong?

The ones he got right:

  • Digital colour photography
  • The rising height of Americans
  • 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 the first call was made, by Alexander Bell, even from one coast of the US to the other. The idea of wireless telephony was truly revolutionary.

  • Pre-prepared meals
  • Slowing population growth
  • Hothouse vegetables
  • Television
  • Tanks (Army Tanks)
  • Bigger fruit
  • The Acela Express

But he did get some wrong like…

  • No more C, X or Q in the alphabet
  • Everybody will walk 10 miles a day
  • No more cars in large cities
  • 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 house fly is something to look forward to in 2100…?

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