The Predictor Who Got It Right (Mostly)

There must be good money in making predictions because no one would go into the business for job satisfaction.

If you correctly foresee events a century before they occur, none of your contemporaries will still be alive to remember your predictions. Furthermore, the marvels you forecast—manned flight, say, or the internet—will seem inevitable and obvious after the fact, robbing you of any credit for foresight. And if you’re wrong, you’ll probably sound ridiculous.

Yet each new year, a new batch of predictors offer us their forecasts for the future. Most are promptly forgotten. One who deserves to be remembered, though, is John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., a Post writer in the early 20th Century.  Back in December 1900, he wrote his ideas about “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” for the Post’s sister publication, the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Where he was wrong, he was very, very wrong:

A cynical view of the future from 1898, entitled "A Sunny Day in 1910."

Nicaragua (i.e. Panama) will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people.

There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.

Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated… There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct.

A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.

A university education will be free to every man and woman.

Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes… The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed… These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles.

But this selection is hardly fair to Watkins. Some of his predictions were only partly wrong.

Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour.

High-speed trains are traveling over 300 mph. Just not in the United States.

Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today.

This is just barely true. In 1900, work horses sold for $225 to $250. Adjusting for inflation, that price is approximately $6400, which will buy a new, low-end, import, budget car.

[The future American] will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present.

In fact, the overall life expectancy in 1900 was 47.8 years. And in 2000, it was 77.

There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century.

The figure is high, but at least Watkins was guessing in the right direction. America’s population had grown 14000% between 1800 and 1900. If that rate had continued, the total would have exceeded 1 billion in 2000. Instead, it grew just 360%, reaching 280 million at the start of the new century.

Where Watkins was correct, however, he was unusually far-sighted.

Americans will be taller by from one to two inches.

The average American male in 1900 was 66-67” tall. By 2000, the average was 69”.

Photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colors… [They will be transmitted] from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.

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.

Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.

Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.

Refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals.

Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days. The farmers of South America… whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods which cannot be grown here.

There is one last peculiarity to Watkins’ article.

Every one of his predictions involved an improvement in the lives of Americans. He saw only positive change in the new century. Today’s predictors don’t see the future so optimistically, but will they see it as clearly as Watkins?