Were They Right? Great Thinkers of 1931 Predict What 2011 Will Bring

The great thinkers of 1931 predicted 'aircars' for commuters in 2011.

ByJOHN BERMAN and JENNIFER METZ
January 03, 2011, 1:27 PM

Jan. 3, 2011— -- In 1931, the world's great thinkers were asked to predict what the future would hold in the year 2011. Some of their visions, printed in the New York Times, were eerily accurate, while others were off the mark.

Timothy Mack, the president of the World Future Society, looked back on the predictions from the 30s, and offered some predictions of his own for 80 years from now, in 2091.

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"They were living in a much different world" than we are today, Mack said.

Focusing primarily on social change, the earlier thinkers were optimistic. "They looked at things like how people are going to be, how social change is going to occur," Mack said. But their other ideas -- particularly those about the future of technology, were without context.

Take transportation, for example. "They talk about 'aircars,' but without any real idea of how 'aircars' might be created or managed," Mack said.

Willis Whitney, who founded the research lab at General Electric, was the mind behind the "aircar," or more particularly, the "aircar hangar," which he thought would be attached to every "electrically heated, air conditioned home" by now. At the time, 35 percent of American homes were heated by wood.

The "aircar" idea of 1931 didn't quite take off. In his prediction for 2091, Mack skips flight all together, and says in another 80 years, technology will allow for a virtual mode of transportation, "through holographic means."

"People will go to each other without moving from wherever they are," Mack says.

Technological leaps will not only allow people to move faster, but to live longer, according to the predictions made generations apart.

Advances in medicine by 1931 prompted William J. Mayo, one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic, to write "contagious and infectious diseases have been largely overcome, and the average life of man has increased to 58 years."

Progress would suggest that "within the measure of this forecast the average lifetime of civilized man would be raised to the biblical term of three-score and ten," Mayo said. Three-score and ten, 70 years, is in reality less than today's average life expectancy of 78 in the United States.

What Will The World Look Like in 80 Years?

Mack predicts by 2091, humans will be able to live much longer than that -- up to 120 years. "I think there's a cap. The oldest person now is around 120, and I think we'll see that no matter how much tinkering we do, there's still some natural shelf life," he said.

One thing the thinkers of the past and Mack share is a hope that the future will be better and brighter than the modern age. Henry Ford said that whatever 2011 produced would make 1931 "seem drab."

Mack shares the sentimenty, saying that by 2091, "in a lot of areas, we're going to be in a better place."

Sociologist William Ogburn perhaps was the closest of his peers in 1931 to accuratey predicting life today. Aside from declaring "the magic of remote control will be commonplace," he saw the role of government growing in the future, and said "the lives of women will be more like those of men, spent more outside of the home." In Ogburn's time less than a quarter of women were in the labor force -- now it's nearly 60 percent.

Then again, he also predicted an end to poverty. One in seven Americans are still living in poverty, though that is much better than the estimated 60 percent during the Great Depression.

Ogburn also forecast that the population of the U.S. -- then 124 million -- would be 160 million by now. He was off by a little more than 140 million.

Overall, Mack gives the predictors from 1931 a "C" for their efforts.

They were "people who were in business, people who were prominent because of one expertise and they were asked to suddenly assume an expertise in an area they hadn't thought much about."

The great thinkers didn't embarrass themselves," Mack said, "but this wasn't very helpful except for the New York Times. It was good copy."

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