24 Strange Predictions For the 21st Century

Personal airplanes aren't quite reality yet—and sadly, neither are personal space ships!
Personal airplanes aren't quite reality yet—and sadly, neither are personal space ships! / GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Everyone from chocolate-making companies to some of history's greatest minds (think Ben Franklin and Nikola Tesla) weighed in on what they thought life would be like in the 21st century. Check out what they got right and wrong (mostly wrong!) below, in this piece adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. We Wouldn't Drink Coffee

Inventor Nikola Tesla thought that, by the 21st century, people would no longer be drinking coffee. In a 1935 article in Liberty magazine, Tesla predicted it simply wouldn’t be cool to poison our systems with what he considered to be harmful stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. He thought alcohol, on the other hand, would withstand the test of time. Tesla called it an “elixir of life.”

2. News Headlines Wouldn't Focus on Crime or Politics

Tesla was way off about coffee. He also misjudged what we’d consider headlining news in the 21st century, predicting that newspapers would, quote, “give a mere ‘stick’ in the back pages to accounts of crime or political controversies.” Tesla believed the front pages would mostly cover scientific hypotheses.

3. Meat Would Be Less Common

In a 1952 issue of Galaxy Magazine, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein posited that fish and yeast would be our main sources of protein, and that beef would be a luxury. Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov took it even further. In 1964, he imagined that the 2014 World’s Fair would feature an Algae Bar with “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak,” saying, quote, “It won’t be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices).” So it seems the Impossible Burger wasn’t exactly impossible to predict (though it does not contain algae).

4. Fruits and Veggies Would Be Huge

Others thought our food’s content would be more or less the same, but that its scale would change dramatically. In 1900, John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. wrote [PDF] in The Ladies’ Home Journal that we’d sink our teeth into strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries “as large as apples,” and peas and beans would be as big as beets. And that was nothing compared to what George Serviss dreamed up. In a 1956 article from the Independent Press-Telegram’s magazine Southland, Serviss imagined a farm from the year 2000 where hydrogen bombs caused the soil to produce 3-foot-long carrots, 4-foot-wide turnips, and basketball-sized tomatoes.

5. Some Letters in the English Language Would Be Eliminated

Watkins, Jr. also believed that we’d completely get rid of the letters C, X, and Q. Instead, spelling would be based on sound alone, so those three letters would presumably be replaced by S’s and K’s. As bizarre as this may seem, Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster had advocated for spelling reform in the 18th and 19th centuries. And just six years after Watkins Jr. published his 21st-century predictions, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie created the Simplified Spelling Board to revamp the English language. Despite then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s best efforts, English spelling remains largely un-simplified today.

6. We'd Be Able to Make It Rain ...

On January 6, 1910, Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette published an article that predicted people would be able to make it rain within the next century—which we actually can kind of do. Through a process called cloud seeding, silver iodide particles are injected into clouds, and water collects around them to form precipitation. Its effectiveness is debated, however, and it’s still a far cry from where futurists thought we’d be by the 21st century.

7. ... And Eliminate Hurricanes

In a 1950 article from Popular Mechanics, Valdemar Kaempffert imagined that hurricanes would be a nonissue by the year 2000. Upon spotting one over the ocean, Kaempffert thought we’d ignite a large oil fire across the water, drawing air from the surrounding region and putting an end to the hurricane … somehow. He believed we’d be able to divert storms, putting an end to flight delays. Oh Waldemar, would that it were so simple.

8. We'd Build Machines To Generate Weather

Other fantasies of controlling the weather were even more vague and less scientifically sound. In 1900, a German chocolate company called Theodore Hildebrand unt zoon released a series of illustrated cards with its best 21st-century predictions. One of them depicted a “good weather machine” simply blowing a storm back over the ocean. That same year, The Boston Globe suggested that we’d be able to generate a nice easterly wind whenever it got too hot outside.

9. People Would Live Underground ... And Underwater

Asimov didn’t think we’d be able to conquer the elements, but he did think we’d do a better job of avoiding them. He envisioned vast underground cities where advanced light technology could mimic outdoor ambiences, and the earth’s surface would be used for agriculture, grazing grounds, and parks. He was a bit off the mark, but an underground park dubbed “the lowline” is supposedly set to debut in New York at some point. Asimov thought we could be well on our way to living underwater by the early 2000s, too, which he felt would especially appeal to those who enjoy water sports.

10. We'd Ride On Fish For Sport

Predictions about 21st-century water sports went far beyond the traditional sailing, surfing, and swimming you’re probably picturing. Between 1899 and 1910, French artist Jean-Marc Côté and his contemporaries produced almost 100 highly fanciful illustrations of the year 2000. On one, deep-sea divers ride giant seahorses. Another depicts a whale pulling a bus full of people through the sea. Yet another shows a crowd of onlookers cheering as jockeys race by on the backs of enormous fish. Côté and his fellow artists might be disappointed if they knew we weren’t yet spending all our free time underwater, but they’d probably give Aquaman a five-star review.

11. We'd Travel In Unusual Flying Machines

During the early 20th century, many people predicted a future that saw air travel as the primary mode of transportation. This probably wasn’t a coincidence, since the earliest planes were taking off around this time. The Wright brothers’ famous first flight happened on December 17, 1903. About 10 years later, the first commercial flight carried a whopping one passenger from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Tampa. The flight only covered around 20 miles, but that didn’t deter some people from dreaming big about 21st-century aviation.

Côté's early 20th-century French illustrations, for example, were big on air travel. The images show just about every type of aircraft you can possibly imagine. There’s one that looks like a hot air balloon basket attached to a helicopter propeller, and another is just a ship attached to two Zeppelin-like aircrafts. There’s also a number of individual flying machines for police, firefighters, and regular citizens, which look like they have actual animal wings attached to them.

12. We'd All Have Personal Airplanes

In 1930, Frederick Edwin Smith—Britain’s former Lord Chancellor and a close personal friend of Winston Churchill—published a book called The World in 2030 A.D., in which he imagined that each person would own a small airplane ideal for weekend trips. He wrote that, “Skiing parties in Greenland will be made up in London clubs on Saturday mornings, and translated into action before the same evening.”

13. We'd Water the Sahara Desert

Personal planes were one of Smith’s more mundane predictions. He also thought we might build a canal to funnel water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahara Desert. Because portions of the desert are below sea level, this would create what he called a “new Riviera” with “fertile charm” to rival Florida and the beaches of southern France.

14. We'd Only Have Three Sets of Clothing ...

By 2030, Smith hoped that men would have revolted against what he considered farcical, excessively complicated, and unhygienic clothing. Instead, they’d have only three simple outfits: one for work, one for recreation, and a third for formal occasions.

15. ... Or We'd Mostly Walk Around Naked

Heinlein thought clothing would be on the outs altogether. Covering up would be reserved for strangers and conservative old relatives, and psychiatrists would actually recommend casual nakedness around the house.

16. There Would Be No More State Lines

Heinlein also predicted that by the 1990s, the United States would have passed a constitutional amendment that completely abolished state lines.

17. Most of the Eastern Seaboard Would Be One Mega-city

Asimov thought that Boston, Washington, D.C., and the area in between would have merged into one giant city, with a population of more than 40 million people. That hasn’t happened, but the population of the Boston to Washington corridor did clock in around 50 million people in 2010.

18. Moving Sidewalks Would Be Everywhere

You’ve likely seen moving sidewalks in airports and train stations, but they never became quite as popular as people of the past expected they would. The Columbian Movable Sidewalk Company debuted the first one at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It still holds the Guinness World Record for “longest moving walkway ever.” Paris’s Exposition Universelle featured another (shorter) moving walkway in 1900. Subsequent attempts to install them in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston all failed, due to maintenance concerns, weather issues, and also, possibly, the simple fact they’re just not very efficient. They have to move slowly so that people can hop on safely—more slowly, in fact, than normal walking speed. And, as Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out, people tend to just stand there like it’s a ride.

And if you think it’s frustrating to stand behind people on a moving sidewalk at the airport, you might have had a tough time with those early iterations. The version at Chicago’s World’s Fair had benches to sit on. The one in Paris didn’t have seats built in to the moving part of the sidewalk, but as Electrical World said in a 1900 feature, “visitors are beginning to find this out and take their own stools and camp chairs.” So these moving sidewalks acted kind of like a train, but slower, and without protection from the elements.

19. We'd Live to Be Really, Really Old

In a 1788 letter to Reverend John Lathrop, Benjamin Franklin shared his theory that within a few centuries, we’d be living as long as the biblical patriarchs [PDF] from the Book of Genesis. Noah, of ark fame, supposedly lived to be 950 years old. And his grandfather, Methuselah, is said to have died when he was 969.

20. There Would Be Nursing Homes On the Moon

As for what a 900-year-old person might look or feel like, Franklin didn’t speculate. Heinlein, on the other hand, imagined that nursing homes on the moon could slow signs of aging. Because the moon has just 17 percent of the gravity found on earth, Heinlein thought frail joints would ache less and weak hearts wouldn’t have to work so hard. By Heinlein’s best estimates, moon-dwellers would be able to reach a cool 120 years old.

21. Houses Would Be Dusted Automatically

Speaking of not having to work so hard, Heinlein also dreamed up a much easier way to clean houses. He called it a “whirlwind,” which would automatically whisk dust right out of the house at regular intervals. If you’re thinking that might bother you while you’re sleeping, eating, or doing anything else, Heinlein had an answer to that, too. The machine would only operate when it didn’t detect any masses radiating heat at body temperature.

22. Everything In Homes Would Be Waterproof

Kaempffert thought we’d be able to clean our houses simply by turning the hose on. He predicted that everything from the furniture to the drapes would be manufactured from synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After rinsing everything down the water would disappear through a drain, and then a blast of hot air would dry it all off, kind of like a car-wash.

23. We'd Create a Man-Made Star

An Associated Press article from 1950 made the bold claim that we’d have our first man-made star in space by the year 2000. Its surface would reflect sunlight, and it would orbit the Earth from 400 to 500 miles away. To put that in perspective, the moon maintains an average distance from the Earth of almost 240,000 miles. But the article also describes the star as a spaceship, so maybe the writer just didn’t understand what a star actually is. In that case, their predictions weren’t quite so outlandish—the International Space Station orbits Earth from around 248 miles away.

24. There Would Be 4-D Movie Theaters

That article also anticipated “four-dimensional,” dome-shaped movie theaters with the action unfolding on screens all around you. If a character stepped into the street on the screen in front of you, you’d have to look behind you to see if a car was coming. Virtual reality experiences continue to move in the direction of this type of 360-degree immersion, but the 3D glasses we use in theaters today don’t really have the same effect.