The One Rule For Making Predictions

The first decade of the 21st Century ends today. Most Americans, I think, will be glad to see it go. It brought us an unending war on terrorism, a political stalemate in Washington, and a struggling economy that’s left almost all of us poorer. It’s no wonder that Time magazine called this “The Decade of Broken Dreams,” and “The Decade From Hell… the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through [since] the World War.”

The “Aught Years” were so discouraging, Americans have lowered their expectations for the coming decade. The future, once considered a territory of the United States, has become a place we enter with wary caution. We’ve come a long way from the early 20th Century, when the future seemed so inviting, so full of new ideas and opportunities.

That faith in the future is captured in “Around The World In The Twentieth Century” from the December 2, 1899 Post. The author, Arthur P. Greeley, was an expert in new technology, being the Assistant Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. He saw a future of incredible mobility, in which science would enable Americans to travel swiftly and comfortably across the nation and around the world.

Let us imagine, for the sake of illustration, that it is the year 1950, AD, and that you and I are going on a trip around the world, proposing to accomplish it in twenty-five days— a length of time which, I think, may possibly be sufficient for the purpose at that date.

Of course, no one could circle the globe in 25 days without radically new technology, such as the high-speed electric locomotive he imagined for 1950.

The locomotive resembles… a cannon-shell magnified. In fact, to all intents and purposes it is a projectile, formed to pierce the air as effectively… as possible. Being run by electricity, it has no boiler and no smokestack such as encumbers the old-style “iron horse,” and of course no tender is required for carrying fuel. The engineer and his assistant occupy fairly comfortable quarters inside the body of the engine, and the machinery under their charge is so simple as to require very little attention.

By the mid-century, Greeley enthuses, Americans would travel from New York to San Francisco in just forty hours!

Railways have certainly improved enormously since 1900. See the landscape fly by the car window? We must be going ninety miles an hour at least, and this train, a “limited express,” often “does” one hundred miles an hour for considerable distance.

We left the Eastern metropolis at exactly ten o’clock this morning, Wednesday September 7, and we shall arrive at the Golden Gate at 2 AM on Friday. The distance has been made in thirty-three hours by a special train carrying the President of the United States, but we are ordinary folk, and must be content with an every-day rate of travel.

In his travelogue of the future, Mr. Greeley stops to wander through the “brilliantly lighted streets” of Chicago. “What a wonderful town it is, to be sure! I understand that this year’s census is likely to credit it with a population of nearly six millions.” He is so entranced that he misses his train, but catches up with it by taking a liquid-air taxicab to the next station in Iowa.

The man in charge of the vehicle demands an extortionate price for his services, but we are not in a position to haggle, and so agree to pay him what he asks.

Greeley races across Illinois along a “boulevard one hundred feet in width and lined on both sides with tall poplar trees… brightly illuminated with electric lights. So smoothly does the carriage glide over it on rubber-tired wheels that we seem almost to be flying, and the pace being steadily accelerated, we soon begin to realize that we are actually traveling at a rate exceeding one hundred miles an hour.”

In his vision of 1950, travelers speed across the Pacific on swift ocean liners, race through China, Russia, and Europe by rail, and eventually reach the English Channel, which is now crossed by tunnel!

What an odd sensation it gives one to think that one is actually traveling under so great a body of water! I understand that some old-fashioned people even at this day are afraid to venture through the tunnel for fear lest the water of the sea will break through and drown them. It is certainly the greatest engineering work ever accomplished, this tunnel beneath the English Channel, and I confess that we have nothing in America to approach it.

The Calais-Dover tunnel is one of the few things Greeley got right. Public rail and automotive travel never reached 100 mph. The population of Chicago seems to have peaked at 3 million, not Greeley’s 6.  But on one point, he was particularly wrong.

Fifty years ago it was popularly imagined that transportation problems sooner or later would be wholly altered by the invention of dirigible aerial machines, and yet to-day, in 1950, the puzzle of human flight is apparently no nearer to a practical solution than it was then. We have produced flying toys of considerable size and of various patterns, but the dream of the airship to carry men through the atmosphere as vessels sail over the water — an aerostat navigable at will and safe — bears no promise of realization.

Working at the Patent Office, Greeley must have seen hundreds of patent applications for experimental aircraft. They would have been crude, light-framed, underpowered machines, but he should have recognized where things were heading.

We can forgive his “liquid-air automobile.” It’s a minor point. The future can be so unreliable. But he broke the one rule a prophet must always observe:  never say something won’t happen. Never rule out a possibility, no matter how improbable. Humans just might learn how to fly. And the American economy just might turn around in 2011.