1900 Predictions of the 20th Century

1900 Pundits Dreamed of 20th Century Possibilities

By MICHAEL S. JAMES

Dec. 31, 2000 —

As The New York World observed on Dec. 29, 1900, “When the last week of the year is also the last week of the century and when anticipation is free to extend itself along the limitless vista of the coming 100 years, we all become, instinctively and irresistibly, 20th century prophets. Nobody is thinking of anything else now.�

Possibilities seemed “like dreams of paradise,� according to The Philadelphia Press. Such thoughts persisted despite contrarians like Ambrose Bierce, who billed his column in as “a record of individual opinion and dissent,� and seemed to think 1900’s forecasters of the future would look silly, if they were remembered at all in 2000.

Scientists thought we’d talk with Martians, and that perhaps they’d resemble giant dragonflies with 72-foot wingspans. Andrew Carnegie hoped warfare would “become the most dishonorable� profession, and Secretary of the Navy John D. Long held the common belief that war would be abolished.

Papers told New Yorkers their city would have 30 million citizens, with more commuting daily from as far as 500 miles away via submarine, electric cars, super-fast trains and personal airships.

The French artist Carolus Duran expected humans to go from “hideously malconformed� to beautiful, with help from natural selection and a selective ban on reproduction. Feminists thought women’s rights would blossom. Others expected an end to slang, unjust monarchies and materialistic Christmases.

Following are some of the predictions. All from December 1900 or January 1901, except as indicated.

Flights of Fancy

“Locomotion in the air [will be] as common as bicycle riding is now.� — Alfred E. Henschel, New York Herald

“The owner of a [flying] machine, or even the man who did not own one, by patronizing the express lines, could live 500 miles away and yet do business in the city day by day, going by air line to his home each night.� — Theodore Waters, New York Herald

“Aerial cars will ply between great centers of population, arriving and departing on fixed schedules and carrying their human cargoes.� — Henry Litchfield West, Washington Post

A Prosperous Future

“I look for a nobler man living in a nobler environment — a man two inches taller, living longer, gentler in mind and manners, in every way an improvement over the past.� — Henry Davies, Yale professor, San Francisco Examiner

“In a hundred years, the average of life will be raised to sixty years, and … centenarians will be plentiful and hearty along the shady broad streets of the next century.� — M. Elie Mechnikoff, “famous French savant,� New York World

“That there will be drunkards is probably out of the question. … Cancer, which is rapidly passing tuberculosis in the race for the human race, would be stamped out, because its first appearance could be guarded against. The same would apply to other maladies. Ennui might be the principal disease.� —Theodore Waters, New York Herald

“The majority of people will go from ‘hideously malconformed’ to beautiful. … Already the present adult generation is, as a whole, more handsome than the one that proceeded it; and again, the children of today are a far more comely lot than those of thirty years ago. Another hundred years and no imperfect being will be allowed to reproduce itself and inflict upon society a spreading perpetuation of his taints.� — Carolus Duran, French artist, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Slang, American or Anglican, is doomed to ultimate extinction.� — Edward Paxon Jackson, Philadelphia Inquirer

Television?

“One hundred years from now perhaps moving pictures may be sent by wire, in which case it would be merely necessary for the billionaire to turn on one of many electric switches connecting with the various theatres and immediately the stage scene would be thrown on a screen and would appear as real as though the spectator were in the theatre. Every word spoken or sung by the players would be reproduced by long distance phonograph or by an improved telephone. … The New Yorker of 2001 may sit at home some rainy night and both see and hear a speech made in the House of Lords, or watch with interest a Henley bumping race.� —Theodore Waters, New York Herald

Bad News For Bad Boys

“It would not be a good idea to wish to be a bad boy in [2000]. … The teachers in the schools will have won-der-ful in-stru-ments on their desks that will record the name of ev-er-y boy that whis-pers and all the teacher will have to do to bring swift pun-ish-ment to the mal-e-fac-tor will be to press a cer-tain but-ton on the desk, and a cur-rent of el-ec-tric-i-ty will shoot through the vic-tim, and make him think he is a hu-man pin-cush-ion.� — Uncle Richard, children’s columnist, Chicago Tribune

Wonder Women

“Twenty years ago, when I first entered the ranks of New York journalists, I knew of but one other woman who was engaged in the same sort of work. … Now I should say there are as many women engaged in all branches of journalism as there are men. This will lead the statistician to reckon that in 100 years men will be wielding the sword or the pickaxe, while women will hold the pen.� — Jeanette L. Gilder, New York Herald

Kinda Fruity

“The way will be found of growing strawberries as large as fine apples, and raspberries and blackberries will be produced of such dimensions that one will suffice for the fruit course of each person. Cranberries, gooseberries and currants will be as large as oranges. One cantaloupe will supply a large family. Melons, cherries, grapes, plums, apples, pears and peaches will be seedless. … [Electric] currents will be passed through the soil to make plants grow faster and larger, and also to exterminate weeds and to destroy bacteria; while plants will be bathed all night in electric-light, to stimulate their progress.� — Hudson Maxim, inventor, Women’s Home Companion, circa 1903

Getting Colder, But Figuratively Getting Warmer

“Man will take food and heat for a year in his wallet and penetrate the polar regions. He will annihilate with liquid air the summer’s torrid heat as steam now rids us of the winter’s cold.� — Antonio M. Molina, New York Herald

War and Peace

“It is a fact that war on a great scale is becoming obsolete. Business and humanity combined are growing too powerful to permit the peace of the world to be seriously endangered except for very grave cause.� — anonymous, circa 1900

“I fear that as long as man remains a hot blooded, omnivorous, if not carnivorous, animal he will continue to fight, and I also believe that when there is not much fight in a man there is not much that is useful in him in the hurly burly world of to-day or that of the next succeeding century.� — Naval Rear Admiral G.W. Melville, New York Herald

Nyet

“I have never been impressed with the idea which seems to oppress or gladden many minds that the Russian government was destined to crumble and finally disappear - perhaps, as some writers have suggested, in a second ‘terror,’ surpassing the awful days of the French Revolution. Such talk appears to me to be wild, absurd, ill-informed. There is nothing more interesting or useful at present for Americans than the study of Russia, Russian history and government. The Russian government is singularly elastic, remarkably progressive.� — U.S. Sen. Albert J. Beveridge, Saturday Evening Post, June 9, 1900

Mind Meld

“Some more direct medium between the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader may be invented by some Edison of the future; some marvelously delicate instrument, not impossible to imagine, by which, on the one hand, the writer could record his thought without the medium of words at all, and by which, on the other, the reader could receive them equally without words or print.� — Richard LeGallienne, San Francisco Examiner

“If the passenger wished for seclusion, he might go to Europe via the submarine line, made to operate 100 feet beneath the surface and famed for its freedom from seasickness and the wonderful views it provided of sea monsters.� — Theodore Waters, New York Herald

On hypothetical radio contact with Martians in 1920: “When the first photographs of the Martians were obtained a corps of mathematicians was employed upon making measurements. The results show that the average Martian man is 18 feet 2 inches in height, while the distance from tip to tip of his wings is 72 feet.� — New York World