By Stephen Knapp
John Elfreth Watkins Jr. was a man ahead of his time.
A civil engineer and sometimes-columnist, J Elfreth’s vision of life in the year 2000 appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in December of 1900.
“These prophecies will seem strange,” he began, “even impossible.”
Engineers are cautious creatures, and Watkins took pains to build his brave new world using the best materials at hand.
“To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001.”
Laid out in black and white, Watkins’ future reads a whole lot like our own here and now.
“The American will be taller by from one to two inches.” Bam! In 1900 the average American male stood 66.6 inches tall, the average female 62.4 inches. Today, men average 69 inches, women 64.
“Trains will run two miles a minute…express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour.” Not all of them, maybe, but many.
“Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of to-day” Behold the supermarket deli counter!
“Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of to-day” in what “are now known as cavalry charges,” and “aerial war-ships will necessitate bomb-proof forts.” Tanks and bombers, of course.
“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.” And to produce wheat with 400 percent more gluten and tomatoes that fight cancer. GMOs are nothing if not versatile.
“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance.” Neither Watkins nor his subcontractors had yet conceived of digital photography, but that’s exactly what they were talking about. “Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world,” he continued. “Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span.” With these he accurately predicted television, the smartphone and satellite communications.
Pretty good prognosticating, huh? Then again, Watkins also said, among other less-than-prescient things, that flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats and mice will have been eradicated by the year 2000 and that no wild animals will exist outside of zoos, that cars will be cheaper than horses and public transportation will have pushed cars completely out of major cities, that everybody will walk 10 miles a day, and that the letters C, X, and Q will have been scrubbed from the alphabet.
Even so, well over half of Watkins’ forecasts have panned out well enough to count, and that’s head and shoulders above a certain 16th century French astrologer whose vague and open-dated quatrains are as widely acclaimed as they are utterly meaningless. If not tied to the calendar, any mook can spout about how “an evil cloud will cover the land when an incontinent prince assumes his throne” and be reasonably sure that sometime, somewhere, somebody will find a way to shoehorn that gibberish into current events. Giddy cable TV analyses notwithstanding, Nostradamus never got anything right, ever.
Watkins, on the other hand, may be the most capable prophet on record. If 55 percent would rate an F in grade school American history, it gets an A-plus-plus-gold-star-smiley-face in American future. A virtually infinite number of unknowable variables wait in ambush along the road ahead, each one capable of turning the march of history onto an unexpected path. Researchers into the art of augury consider 20 percent accuracy good and 40 percent outstanding. “Prediction is very difficult,” they like to say, “especially about the future.” They’ve also identified a few of the habits of particularly proficient prognosticators.
It helps to know the ground, and scores go way up when “futurologists” confine their predictions to their specific fields of expertise. When venturing outside their province, savvy seers ask around. Collaborative foresight is almost always more successful than solitary soothsaying.
They don’t hurry. The future is a complicated place, and hasty predictions are usually wrong. Predictions based on personal biases or interests are usually wrong, too, which makes maintaining a constant and objective view of yesterday’s trends and events an essential skill for those trying to anticipate tomorrow’s. And, like most every area of endeavor, prophecy improves with practice. But perhaps the most important asset of the forward thinker is an open mind, a willingness to entertain possible outcomes that might “seem strange” and “even impossible.”
Trying to predict the future may be a fool’s errand, but there’s no shortage of fools eager to cast the chicken bones and speculate on our fate. Those proposing to describe the world as it will be can do so confidently, knowing that few of us will be around to judge their judgments.