1903: R.I.P. J. Elfreth Watkins, Prophet

Two years prior to his death in 1903, Smithsonian transportation curator John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. imagined “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years” in an article for the Ladies Home Journal.

He successfully predicted the mass use of central air conditioning and heating (“Central plants will supply this cool air and heat to houses in the same way as now our gas or electricity is furnished”); the popularization of electronic appliances, including stereo systems (“Automatic instruments reproducing original airs exactly will bring the best music to the families of the untalented”); and the modern telephone (“A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago”); as well as color photography, television, automobiles, genetically modified agriculture, globalization, x-ray technology and more.

The human life span, however, has increased considerably more than the 50 years he predicted; the English alphabet has retained the letters “C,” “Q” and “X,” and they are far from “unnecessary”; there are wild animals outside of “menageries;” our “air ships” do far more than successfully compete with “surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic”; and “huge forts on wheels” do not, in modern warfare, “dash across open spaces at the speed of [turn-of-the-century] express trains.”

I find it most curious that Watkins predicted free healthcare and amenities for the poor but not the end of poverty itself. Then again, maybe beet-sized peas are easier to imagine than the fall of the class system.

This catalogue of the astute and the ridiculous is worth reading in full, either via the original article or a more reader-friendly version.


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