In a December 1857 issue of the Victorian magazine The Leisure Hour, recently spotlighted on the Public Domain Review, an unnamed author wrote at length about the world he imagined for the 20th century. He described a vision in which he flies over London in 1957, cataloging all the ways it has changed. Here are five of his predictions, from the off-base to the pretty accurate.
1. THE ENVIRONMENT WOULD BE CLEANSED.
The Thames of the 20th century would be much cleaner, the author predicted. He imagines that “the mud, the slime, the poisonous filth of the past century, had all disappeared, and the finny tribes had come back to their old domain; and as I looked, the trout sported and the salmon leaped under the arches of London Bridge, as their progenitors had done in the far feudal days.”
And the air would be cleaner, too. At the time the author was writing, London and other industrial towns were covered in a layer of thick black smoke from coal-burning homes and factories. The 19th century was the peak for air pollution in the UK, but by 1957, he wrote, “London had no longer not only any fog, but also not any smoke.” Pollution levels have indeed dropped significantly since the 19th century, and London air is now cleaner than it was in the 16th century.
However, 20th century air isn’t quite as clean as this author might have imagined. In 1952, a five-day pollution event known as the Great Smog blanketed the city in air filled with historic and deadly levels of soot. In 1956, the British Parliament finally passed a Clean Air Act—pretty close to this author’s description of the fates of heavy smoke producers in the future. Parliament “by a summary law compelled the recusants to conform” after clean air technology was invented, he wrote.
2. THERE WOULD BE NO MORE FOG.
In the author’s vision, “that old phthisicky nuisance the Fog had had long ago his orders to decamp, and had decamped accordingly. He had packed up to go … he curled himself up under a puff of westerly wind and rolled off into the German Ocean, never to return.” While cleaner air means London no longer has quite so many pea-soup fog days, the occasional cloud still descends upon the city.
3. PEOPLE WOULDN'T GO TO BARS.
The author dreamt of a world without bars and pubs, where people chose to read rather than drink:
the gin-shops declined in popular estimation; as a consequence, they declined in splendour of appearance, and assumed by degrees a rather dingy and draggled aspect. Then, said the working-man to the gin-spinner: ‘We don’t want you any longer; your day is past, and you may go your way. We want to get knowledge; we don’t want to get drunk; so off with you, my friend.’ And so the gin-spinner had to step out, and then incontinently the schoolmaster stepped in, and he hung out his banner on the walls, and his cry was not, ‘Come and get drunk, to fill my pockets, O swinish multitude;’ but, ‘Men and brethren, come and get instruction, and perish no longer for lack of knowledge.’ Thus Wisdom lifted up her voice in the streets, and I could see plainly enough that she had not spoken in vain.
4. SOCIAL CLASSES WOULD DISAPPEAR.
This writer had high hopes for the social barriers of the 19th century being eradicated in the future:
The old walls of separation which had formerly shut out rich from poor and poor from rich, had crumbled beneath it, and were fast falling to decay. I knew that by unmistakeable signs. I saw lords and labourers mingling together in manly sports; the recreation-grounds were numerous; holidays were of weekly occurrence; the artisan bowled out the gentleman at cricket, and the gentleman never thought of his gentility in returning the compliment. The nobles had thrown open their beautiful galleries of art to the people; and the people; imbued with the love of the beautiful and the true in nature and imagination, grew refined and gentle under the influence of art.
While British social classes aren’t what they once were, they do still exist in slightly different forms. London is actually more unequal now than it was in the 19th century, some argue, with huge disparities in wealth.
5. DISEASES WOULD BE ERADICATED.
He may have been a little overly optimistic, but our fearless futurist did essentially forecast vaccines. Describing a hospital of the future, he writes:
Smallpox and fever had vanished; gout, rheumatisms, lumbagos, had taken themselves off; asthmas and consumptions were things of the past; cholera was a tradition to be read of in old books, along with black plague and gaol distemper; and the scourge of typhus had been banished from the city … The cases I saw under treatment were cases mostly of a surgical kind, and were the results of accident…The reason was, that for the past generation or two the sources of disease had, on the one hand, been removed; and, on the other, the medical faculty, having less to do in the cure of such ills, had taken up with the business of prevention, in which they had finally succeeded so well as to reduce the amount of preventible deaths, which a hundred years before had been some thousands per annum, almost to nil ...
Granted, he didn’t see cancer coming, but cholera has, for Londoners, been confined to the history books. While it’s still a major issue in developing countries, there hasn’t been a case of cholera that originated in England for a century. Typhus, spread by lice, disappeared as urban hygiene improved over the early 20th century, and an effective vaccine was developed a few years before World War II.
Read the whole piece on The Public Domain Review.