n the December 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal, John Elfreth Watkins put together a collection of predictions for the future of the United States and the world by the end of the 20th century. In “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”, Watkins surveyed a group of “the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” about “will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001. Some of the predictions are uncannily accurate, yet others are more than a little wide of the mark. We’ve cherry-picked 14 enviro-related predictions and coupled them with a brief analysis of what actually happened. Enjoy.
1. Prediction: “Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. A one-pound motor in one of these vehicles will do the work of a pair of horses or more. Children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.”
What happened: Partially true. Generally speaking, horses cost less than new cars, excepting show and race horses. However, the gist of the prediction rings true. Cars, trucks, and buses have all-but replaced the horse in American society as a means of transportation and performing work.
2. Prediction: “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. In most cities it will be confined to broad subways or tunnels, well lighted and well ventilated, or to high trestles with “moving-sidewalk” stairways leading to the top. These underground or overhead streets will teem with capacious automobile passenger coaches and freight with cushioned wheels. Subways or trestles will be reserved for express trains. Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.”
What happened: Most cities in the U.S. dismantled their street car networks or converted the tracks to light rail in the middle of the 20th century. New Orleans and Toronto still run their streetcars networks along essentially the same principle and layout as they did 100 years ago, while cities like Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have rebuilt their streetcars into light rail networks.
3. Prediction: “Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour. To go from New York to San Francisco will take a day and a night by fast express. There will be cigar-shaped electric locomotives hauling long trains of cars. Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled. Along the railroads there will be no smoke, no cinders, because coal will neither be carried nor burned. There will be no stops for water. Passengers will travel through hot or dusty country regions with windows down.”
What happened: The top operating speed on France’s renowned high-speed TGV is 186 miles per hour. Which is actually closer to three miles a minute. Under special test conditions a TGV trainset has reached 320 mph. High-speed rail systems have proliferated in Europe and parts of Asia, but the U.S. has lagged. The only high speed train in the U.S., The Acela Express, which runs from Boston to Washington D.C. and points between runs at speeds up to 150 mph. Unfortunately, there is no “fast express” from New York To San francisco. In stead of taking “a day and a night” as suggested by Watkins, the trip would take you somewhere between 70 and 80 hours. Assuming a likely layover in D.C. or Chicago, we’re talking closer to three and half days. But they are cooled and they don’t run on coal. The trains do not need to stop for water, but they will often need to stop and give priority to a passing freight train one of the big four railroads who still own the vast majority of the tracks in the U.S.
4. Prediction: “There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. Some will transport men and goods. Others will be used by scientists making observations at great heights above the earth.”
What happened: Actually, “Air-ships” compete quite well with surface cars and water vessels for passenger and freight traffic. High-volume passenger air travel is often only competitive because of generous government subsidies, as airlines in the U.S. and elsewhere are well-known for going bankrupt because of the tenuousness of the industry. Air travel has still made very little mark on the short and medium length trips that automobiles and rail have dominated in. Air-ships, however, are indeed maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. And as the events of September 11, 2001 indicate, air-ships are also used as deadly war-vessels by non-military actors, too.
5. Prediction: “No Mosquitoes nor Flies. Insect screens will be unnecessary. Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated. Boards of health will have destroyed all mosquito haunts and breeding-grounds, drained all stagnant pools, filled in all swamp-lands, and chemically treated all still-water streams. The extermination of the horse and its stable will reduce the house-fly.”
What happened: Umm, no. An estimated 1.5 million people die every year from Malaria, a disease transmitted to humans exclusively by mosquitoes.
6. Prediction: “Black, Blue and Green Roses. Roses will be as large as cabbage heads. Violets will grow to the size of orchids. A pansy will be as large in diameter as a sunflower. A century ago the pansy measured but half an inch across its face. 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. Then may the pansy be given the perfume of the violet.”
What happened: The hybridization of flowers can produce virtually any flower in any color. As Michael Pollan so eloquently wrote in Second Nature, “Not that the modern rose lacks for novelty—indeed, novelty is a big part of their problem. Twentieth-century capitalism discovered the rose and decided what it needed after several millennia of successful cultivation was a full-tilt program of R&D, innovation, market research, positioning, and advertising. As gardeners are fond of pointing out, the modern rose industry appears to have modeled itself after Detroit. Each year it introduces a handful of ‘exciting’ new models, many of them in improbable neon and metallic shades better suited to a four-door than a flower…”
7. Prediction: “No Foods will be Exposed. Storekeepers who expose food to air breathed out by patrons or to the atmosphere of the busy streets will be arrested with those who sell stale or adulterated produce. Liquid-air refrigerators will keep great quantities of food fresh for long intervals.”
What happened: Refrigeration along all points of the food distribution chain is now ubiquitous in the U.S. Ironically, however, many foods that are refrigerated are still exposed to open air as they are displayed in your grocer’s food-case. While not an unhealthy practice, per se, because the foods are largely over-wrapped in layers of virtually impenetrable plastic, saying it is energy inefficient would be an understatement.
8. Prediction: “Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted. The earth’s hard coal will last until the year 2050 or 2100; its soft-coal mines until 2200 or 2300. Meanwhile both kinds of coal will have become more and more expensive. Man will have found electricity manufactured by waterpower to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water-motors, turning dynamos, making electricity. Along the seacoast will be numerous reservoirs continually filled by waves and tides washing in. Out of these the water will be constantly falling over revolving wheels. All of our restless waters, fresh and salt, will thus be harnessed to do the work which Niagara is doing today: making electricity for heat, light and fuel.”
What happened: Coal is (by and large) not directly used for heating and cooking any more in the U.S. Indirectly, however, coal is still used for heating and cooking in about half of the nation’s homes via the electric grid. As part of the total energy mix, coal provides about 22% of our energy needs, but that includes transportation fuels as well. In terms of the U.S. electricity mix, coal provides about half of the country’s capacity, though that number reaches as high as three quarters in some areas.
9. Prediction: “Vegetables Grown by Electricity. 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. At night his vegetables will be bathed in powerful electric light, serving, like sunlight, to hasten their growth. Electric currents applied to the soil will make valuable plants grow larger and faster, and will kill troublesome weeds. Rays of colored light will hasten the growth of many plants. Electricity applied to garden seeds will make them sprout and develop unusually early.”
What happened: Growing plants indoors under electric lights has become commonplace in the United States and elsewhere. But exactly what is being grown under lights may not have been what Watkins had in mind.
10. Prediction: “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 will suffice for the fruit course of each person. Strawberries and cranberries will be grown upon tall bushes. Cranberries, gooseberries and currants will be as large as oranges. One cantaloupe will supply an entire family. Melons, cherries, grapes, plums, apples, pears, peaches and all berries will be seedless. Figs will be cultivated over the entire United States.”
What happened: There is no question that fruits and vegetables are bigger than they used to be. One trip into the modern supermarket one will see not only huge strawberries, but also enormous apples, giant bananas, and so on. But what we have gained in size, we have lost in taste, as the larger fruits and vegetables are bred for commercial success and to survive long journeys from farm to table.
11. Prediction: “There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct. A few of high breed will be kept by the rich for racing, hunting and exercise. The automobile will have driven out the horse. Cattle and sheep will have no horns. They will be unable to run faster than the fattened hog of today. A century ago the wild hog could outrun a horse. Food animals will be bred to expend practically all of their life energy in producing meat, milk, wool and other by-products. Horns, bones, muscles and lungs will have been neglected.”
What happened: This prediction starts off weak and finishes with a flurry. There are plenty of rats and mice; horses are not nearly extinct, but they are used mostly for recreational purposes, as Watkins suggested.
12. Prediction: “To England in Two Days. 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 the sleigh. These runners will be very buoyant. Upon their under sides will be apertures expelling jets of air. In this way a film of air will be kept between them and the water’s surface. This film, together with the small surface of the runners, will reduce friction against the waves to the smallest possible degree. Propellers turned by electricity will screw themselves through both the water beneath and the air above. Ships with cabins artificially cooled will be entirely fireproof. In storm they will dive below the water and there await fair weather.”
What happened: Design-wise, Watkins was pretty spot-on with this one. But the ocean-going vessels he wrote of are used more often for short-run ferry trips (i.e London-Amsterdam).
13. Prediction: “There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century. Nicaragua 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.”
What happened: As I write, the Census Bureau reports the U.S. population to be 305,740,570. The number falls short of what Watkins predicted, but not by much. Watkins’ prediction would have been closer if: A) The rate of population growth not slowed substantially, and; B) Had we not been involved in several long wars/conflicts/occupations/etc., taking the lives of close to a million Americans.
14. Prediction: Hot and Cold Air from Spigots. Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. Central plants will supply this cool air and heat to city houses in the same way as now our gas or electricity is furnished. 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.
What happened: Yes and no. We usually only have one ’spigot’ that delivers both hot and cold air. Central heating and cooling is something that has not caught on in the U.S. as it has elsewhere. Iceland, for example, has an excellent geothermal network that meets the heating and hot water requirements for around 87% of the nations’ housing.