In the introduction to his December 1901 Ladies' Home Journal article "What Will Happen in the Next Hundred Years," John Elfreth Watkins, a former civil engineer, says that he conferred with the "the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning" on the following predictions and simply transcribed what they reported. He doesn't mention who these great thinkers of the early 20th century were, but they had some remarkable hits and noteworthy misses when it came to anticipating life in 2001.
1. On population
There will be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions... Nicaragua will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next.
Watkins' experts actually overestimated population growth during the 20th century. According to U.S. census estimates, the population on July 1, 2001 was just 284,796,887. They also failed to recognize the eventual decline of imperialism sparked by the British Empire. In addition to Nicaragua and Mexico, the predictions imagine a number of South American countries voluntarily joining the U.S. to avoid being colonized by European powers.
2. On stature and life expectancy
The American will be taller by one to two inches... He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at present.
The article was right to think increased medicine and sanitation would have a salutatory effect. In fact, they underestimated the height evolution. Although not specific to America, worldwide the average man has grown four inches from 5'6" in 1900 to 5'10" in 2000. As for the life expectancy, not only did the article low-ball our modern life spans —74.4 years for men in 2001— it also under-reported the 1901 life spans which, these days at least, are estimated at 47.6 years.
3. On suburbanization
The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal.
This is a cut and dry case of getting it way wrong. In 1900, just as American urbanization was getting under way, about 30 percent of the total population lived in cities. It's been on the rise ever since, and by 2000, 79 percent of people in the U.S. lived in urban areas.
4. On language evolution
There will be no C, X or Q in every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary [sic]. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.
As you may have noticed, none of the 26 letters they were using back in 1901 have been banished from the alphabet—not even Q. But that doesn't mean the article was totally off base for imagining that language would get more streamlined and intuitive. As annoying as it may be to replace "you" with "U," that is "spelling by sound." (Although, contrary to these predictions, newspapers will probably remain the last bastion of correct spelling and grammar.)
It's hard to pin down specifics for international measures of language speakers, but a 2010 estimate from a Swedish encyclopedia puts English at third in the world, behind Mandarin and Spanish. Russian clocks in at number eight.
5. On temperature control
Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house ... Rising early to build a furnace fire will be a task of the olden times.
6. On animals and insects
There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct. Insect screens will be unnecessary. Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated.
We may only wish that rats, mice, and mosquitoes were extinct, but the experts cited in the article had valid reason to think that expanding human populations would relegate the remaining wild animals to zoos and other enclosures.
7. On convenience eating
Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of to-day. They will purchase the materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking ... The meal being over, the dishes used will be packed and returned to the cooking establishments where they will be washed ... These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like.
The premonition about the prevalence and convenience of takeout food is essentially spot-on. Sure, we don't return the dishes to be washed, but that's because we've since adopted the use of disposable utensils. And the list of mechanized kitchen devices maybe over-eager, but many have become totally standard, in restaurants and even home kitchens.
8. On food sanitation
No foods will be exposed. Storekeepers who expose food to air breathed out by patrons or the atmosphere of the busy street will be arrested with those who sell stale or adulterated produce.
Health codes are hardly as strict as the article anticipates—policing against "air breathed out by patrons" seems impossible—but now that they mention it, I should probably start washing produce from the vendors on the street.
9. On the depletion of coal and renewable resources
Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted ... Man will have found electricity powered by water-power to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water-motors, turning dynamos, making electricity.
Coal usage was certainly on the decline in the 20th century, hitting a low in 2006. But unfortunately, it has not been reliably replaced with renewable sources like water power. In fact, in 2010, hydroelectric sources made up just 6 percent of the total electricity production in the country. Instead, as coal use waned after the first two decades of the 20th century, it was replaced by oil. Mechanical needs propagated by World War II drove an increase in oil use and by 1950, oil had surpassed coal as the most prevalent energy source in America.
10. On the rise of public transportation
There will be no street cars in our large cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits ... Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.
So close! Below-ground traffic in the form of subways certainly has taken off in the past century, but as anyone with a street-facing window in New York City—or presumably any large metropolis—can attest to, that doesn't mean large cities ever "free from all noises."
11. On photography (and, unintentionally, the internet)
Photographs will be telegraphed 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.
It doesn't always make it to the newspapers first—Twitter, anyone?—but it also doesn't even take an hour.
12. On train travel
Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour... Cars will, like houses be artificially cooled.
Amtrak, which is not necessarily representative of all train travel but is widely used, reports top operating speeds of 150 mph. So, spot on.
13. On automobiles replacing horses
Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are to-day. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes ... Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known.
Trying to fact-check the cost of a horse—a widely variable commodity—over a hundred years ago and account for inflation is not an exact science, but here are some numbers to help with the comparison: The average price of a horse in 1895, according to one New York Times article, was around $60; and $60 in 1901 translates to roughly $1166 in 2000. The average price of a new car in 2000 was $20,355. Which, for what it's worth, is about $1029 in 1901. So no, by no matter what metric you use, cars are still not cheaper than a horse was in 1901. But the rest of the prediction is accurate. Regardless of expense, automobiles have fully replaced horse vehicles.
14. On admirable exercise habits
Gymnastics will begin in the nursery, where toys and games will be designed to strengthen the muscles. Exercise will be compulsory in the schools. Every school, college and community will have a gymnasium. All cities will have public gymnasiums. A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.
It's difficult to gauge the progress we've made in fulfilling our forefathers' predictions for fitness. A childhood emphasis on exercise is certainly noticeable in the current culture, but I fear they'd find a number of "weakling[s]" walking (but not for 10 miles at a time) about. Of course, public gymnasiums might help the cause.
15. On the swiftness of sea travel
Fast electric ships, crossing the ocean at more than a mile a minute will go from New York to Liverpool in two days. The bodies of these ships will be built above the waves. They will be supported upon runners somewhat like those of a sleigh. These runners will be very buoyant. On their undersides will be apertures expelling jets of air. In this way, a film of air will be kept between them and the water's surface.
We definitely don't have hovercraft sail boats or ocean liners as expected, and a trans-Atlantic trip will still take you at least a week, but that's because this next prediction turned out a little differently as well.
16. On air travel
There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic.
Unfortunately for the accuracy of this prediction, not only do boats fail to cross the Atlantic in under two days, air-ships have mastered the trip in a matter of hours.
17. On developments in warfare
Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, and will hurl anywhere within such a radius shells exploding and destroying whole cities ... Fleets of air-ships, hiding themselves with dense, smoky mists, thrown off by themselves as they move, will float over cities, fortifications, camps or fleets. They will surprise foes below by hurling upon them deadly thunderbolts. These aerial war-ships will necessitate bomb-proof forts, protected by great steel plates over their tops as well as their sides.
And this only scratches the surface of modern warfare.
18. On increased viewing capabilities
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. American audiences in their theatre will view upon huge curtains before them the coronation of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient.
In fact, we don't even need to go to the theatre to witness the wonders of television technology anymore.
19. On telephones
Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world ... We will be able to telephone China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.
I'm actually not convinced that international fees aren't so exorbitant as to be prohibitive but technically, this one is true.
20. On hearing the opera anytime you want
Grand opera will be telephoned to private homes, and will sound as harmonious as though enjoyed from a theatre box. Automatic instruments reproducing original airs exactly will bring the best music to the families of the untalented.
This prediction actually seems to conflate several modern technologies. The emphasis seems to be on both consistent access to high quality music—a burgeoning but still flawed experience at the time—and the ability to witness live events, which has become a regular experience in the modern era.
21. On education, and enforced social equality
A university education will be free to every man and woman ... Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses. Medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children free eyeglasses, free dentistry and free medical attention of every kind ... In vacation time, poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world. Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools.
While the United Kingdom offers state-funded higher education (or at least it did back in 2001), far from fulfilling this prediction, America seems mired in a crisis surrounding the cost of higher education, and the loans it forces students to take on. The thought of social services picking up the tab for not only medical fees but also educational trips seems overly idealistic but an eased financial burden for students with both need and merit is the motivation behind many scholarships.
But we've definitely nixed housekeeping and etiquette from any curriculum I know.
22. On home deliveries
Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes.
Speaking as someone who always misses the delivery guy, I wish!
23. On electrically-grown veggies
Winter will be turned into summer and night into day by the farmer. In cold weather he will place heat-conducting electric wires under the soil of his garden and thus warm his growing plants. He will also grow large gardens under glass.
We don't even need electric wires under the soil because "gardens under glass" —greenhouses—work so well.
24. On other means of eating fruit in February
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, South Africa, Australia and the South Sea Islands, whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods which cannot be grown here.
Add in air-borne refrigerators and this prediction is alarmingly accurate.
25. On the oddities we will grow and eat
Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large ... One cantaloupe will supply an entire family ... Peas and beans will be as large as beets are today ... Roses will be as large as cabbage heads...There will be black, blue and green roses. It will be possible to grow any flower in any color and to transfer the perfume of a scented flower to another which is odorless.
Sadly, giant fruit has remained the stuff of children's fiction. (That link is not just peaches.)
26. On medical improvements
Few drugs will be swallowed or taken into the stomach unless needed for the direct treatment of that organ itself. Drugs needed by the lungs, for instance, will be applied directly to those organs through the skin and flesh. They will be carried with the electric current applied without pain to the outside skin of the body...Not only will it be possible for a physician to actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it.
Sure, electricity didn't turn out to be the panacea that the article predicted. But at least our x-ray and imaging capabilities wouldn't disappoint.