Predicting the future is notoriously difficult. Heck, even as recently as 2007, Seth Porges of TechCrunch was positive that the iPhone would “bomb” upon release. Since many of you are probably reading this from an iPhone right now, it’s clear that the launch was far from a disaster.
But why did Porges think the iPhone was so ill-fated? Among other things, he predicted that software bugs, terrible battery life, and cracked screens would do it in. Sound familiar?
Here, we’ll examine nine predictions from history and see how they were comically wrong but also strangely (and sometimes concerningly) right.
Prediction, 1900: Humans of the of the future will be incredibly fit.
In December 1900, John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. of The Ladies’ Home Journal published a list detailing his predictions for what the year 2000 would hold. Watkins, informed by the "wisest and most careful men" of his time, managed to predict the rise of automobiles, color photography, instant news, and amazingly, his tenth prediction basically envisioned the internet.
But one prediction was both on and off the mark. “Gymnastics will begin in the nursery,” their third prediction read, “where toys and games will be designed to strengthen the muscles. Exercise will be compulsory in the schools. Every school, college and community will have a complete gymnasium. All cities will have public gymnasiums. A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.”
Reality: Obesity continues to rise despite gym memberships continuing to grow.
Ladies’ Home Journal wasn’t completely off base. Infant toys are designed to help babies increase their dexterity and motor skills, and physical education classes are required in all public schools. Even as adults, gyms are abundant. In fact, gym memberships have steadily increased since 2000, with over 55 million people paying for gym memberships in the US by 2015.
Sadly, the rise in gym membership is matched by a rise in obesity. Childhood obesity has steadily risen since 1999, according to a study published in the Obesity Research Journal. Despite all efforts to raise awareness around the issue, 33.4 percent of children were considered overweight, while 26.1 percent were considered obese in 2014.
It isn’t any better for adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37.8 percent of people over 20 can be considered obese in the US. The total percentage of adults considered overweight or obese is 70.4.
So, people are going to the gym, or at least paying for memberships, but rates of obesity keep going up. The people at Ladies’ Home Journal did not imagine such oxymoronic results for the future.
Prediction, 1905: The electric handshake will replace doctors’ appointments.
Popular Mechanics made a lot of predictions throughout the years, but one of the most outrageous was their idea of the “electric handshake.” No, not the little buzzer in a clown’s hand. The “electric handshake” was a prediction from 1905 that posited that doctors would be able to see patients from anywhere in the globe and diagnose them through a kind of online handshake.
The prediction envisioned a world with no doctor’s offices and physicians that could help patients from the comfort of their homes.
Reality: Doctors don’t diagnose from afar, but they can perform robotic surgeries from hundreds of miles away.
In 2017, waiting rooms are still very much a reality. Though you can email and sometimes text your doctor for advice, an in-person assessment is still the standard for proper treatment.
With all our advances in technology, would an “electric handshake” diagnosis ever be possible? Student and stem cell biology researcher at Harvard University, Henna Hundal, thinks not:
While it is easy to see the daily work in fields such as radiology, where diagnoses are essentially made by identifying abnormalities in images of the body, being eventually automated, it is less clear to imagine how artificial intelligence would benefit the complex diagnoses made by, for example, critical care specialists, who are tasked with rapidly identifying often-intermingled maladies in patients on the verge of death.
Though the “electric handshake” didn’t quite come to fruition, there have been incredible advances in surgical technology that come close to Popular Mechanics’ vision of the future. Advancements in robotic technology have enabled surgeons to perform from hundreds of miles away. These robotic surgeries are being used for minimally invasive procedures, though they’re becoming approved for more indications as time goes by. Telesurgery may not be the most common method, but as the technology grows, one may only meet their surgeon through Skype and feel their touch via robotic hands.
Prediction, 1861: No one will want to come to the Grand Canyon.
First Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives was one of the first white explorers to document the Grand Canyon. Though he found it to be an incredible natural wonder, he also wrote that “the region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave.”
Ives figured the desert climate and remote location would keep any non-native person away.
“It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way,” Ives wrote, “shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
Reality: The Grand Canyon was a hit, but not all natural wonders are popular.
Ives could have been right if it wasn’t for railroad tourism. In 1901, The Sante Fe Railroad added a line from Williams, Arizona, to what’s now known as Grand Canyon Village and built a hotel with an amazing view of the natural wonder.
“In many ways, Santa Fe Railroad advertising, promotions, and travel packages opened the American west to tourism,” consultant and industrial historian Michael Montgomery says. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that auto tourism displaced railroad tourism as the go-to way to get there.
Railroad or highway, people have continued to flock to the national park. In 2016, nearly 6 million visitors came to see its wonders.
But not all national parks are so popular. Though one might think a national park would hold its status forever, if the park isn’t popular enough or the upkeep is too costly, its status can be dropped. This has happened multiple times, most notably with the Lewis and Clark Caverns of Montana.
Deemed a national park in 1908, it was home to natural limestone caverns of amazing beauty. Despite the cave’s natural wonders, the remote location kept it from gaining the popularity it needed to keep national funding. So, its national park status was revoked in 1937. Today, it’s a Montana State Park and offers guided tours into its depths.
Still, Ives’ idea of a natural wonder going to waste due to a remote location wasn’t completely crazy.
Prediction, 1929: Clothing will be made from asbestos.
After the Industrial Revolution, asbestos was considered a bit of a wonder material.
It was heat, water, and chemical resistant, and through the ‘60s it was used in everything from wiring insulation to concrete roads. Around Christmas, you could buy decorative snow for your home made almost entirely from asbestos. So, it’s not surprising that Popular Mechanics predicted that clothes would soon be made from the ubiquitous material.
Reality: Asbestos wasn’t safe, though scientists are now developing self-repairing clothing made from E. coli.
Sadly, the wonderful, fire-retardant material had terrible consequences. In 1960, the British Journal of Industrial Medicine first reported a link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. By the ‘80s, asbestos was removed from homes and buildings, and the material was no longer used in the U.S. So, we’re pretty lucky that asbestos dresses never came to be.
Still, the idea of using unconventional materials for popular fashion hasn’t gone away. In an effort to create super durable fabric, researchers at MIT used modified E. Coli bacteria to form a self-repairing biofilm. These “living materials” could be used to make fabric that grows and fixes itself on its own. Though one won’t be able to buy an E. Coli outfit in the near future, the living fabric would prove a lot weirder than an asbestos dress.
Prediction, 1946: TV will never catch on.
When TV first gained popularity, some movie studios were worried that television would harm the film industry. Not Darryl Zanuck.
In 1946, Zanuck, head of Twentieth-Century Fox, predicted that televisions “won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
Reality: TV is hugely popular, but the networks may collapse.
If the popularity of Netflix binging is any indication, people seem perfectly happy to stare at their “plywood box” each night. People were still happy to go to movies, but over time, more and more folks opted to get their entertainment at home, especially with the advent of the internet.
But now, with the increase of streaming options, cable channels and the major networks are struggling to retain the dominance they’ve held in the industry for the past 50 years. Cable companies are trimming away dying channels and offering more and more streaming options to try to lure people back to the traditional television.
All the while, the major networks’ ratings keep slipping away. New York Magazine published graphs of FOX, CBS, NBC, ABC, and the CW’s Nielsen ratings for the 2016-2017 season. Every returning show but one (The Bachelor) suffered from decreased ratings, with 18 shows declining over 30 percent. People might still be happy to watch a box every night, but the years of “Must See TV” are likely gone.
Prediction, 1888: Pneumatic tubes will be everywhere.
Pneumatic tubes held a place in futurism for nearly two hundred years.
In the 1850s, sci-fi author Jules Verne predicted that 20th century Paris would have pneumatic tubes that ran trains under the Atlantic Ocean. In 1888, futurist Edward Bellamy predicted that pneumatic tubes would handle all everyday deliveries:
“Through such tubes a householder will undoubtedly receive his letters, his readymade lunches, his laundry, his morning and evening paper, and even the things he may require from the department store, which will furnish at the touch of a button any essential solid or liquid that can be named.”
Reality: There are few pneumatic tubes, but we may get the Hyperloop.
Unfortunately, pneumatic tube systems were too complicated for widespread private use, though large companies, like banks and post offices, have made great use of them for inter-office communication.
The nation’s got pneumatic tube fever once again, but this time we’re calling it the Hyperloop. Elon Musk’s design for speedy underground transportation has captured the imagination of engineers across the world. Hyperloop One went into development in Los Angeles in 2013 and by 2017, they’ve run a few successful tests, with their pods reaching 190 mph.
Though the technology seems completely modern and new, the Hyperloop is really just an advanced pneumatic tube. We may not ever get our groceries via tube, but we might one day live in a world where pneumatic tube technology gives us the easiest way to travel.
Prediction, 1900: Roofed cities will outsmart the weather.
In 1900, a German chocolate factory printed cards with predictions for 100 years out. One of the seemingly simplest ideas was a way to control the weather.
The card shows a city in the year 2000 encased by a glass roof. It’s raining on the outside, but all the city’s citizens stay sunny and dry.
Reality: While we don’t live under domes, green and white roofs may help combat rising heat.
The chocolate factory’s idea of covered cities never came to be, but we’re still battling for control of the climate. Except now we aren’t trying to “fix” nature, we’re trying to undo some of the damage the industrial world has caused.
Instead of cities sealed in glass, some cities are now adding “green” or “cool” roofs to their buildings to battle climate change. Green roofs are simply roofs covered in plants, making a little garden in the sky. Cool roofs are roofs painted white to reflect away the heat.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested the use of green, cool, and hybrid roofs in large cities or “megapolitan” area. “For all megapolitan areas, the trio of adaptation approaches entirely offsets urban-induced warming,” the study found.
Though we may never roof off our cities, by changing the roofs we have, we may be able to reduce urban temperatures and help fight climate change.
Prediction, 1900: Say goodbye to C, Q, and X.
Enter John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. once again. In the same issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal as the first prediction on our list, he wrote this:
There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary [sic]. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.
Reality: All the letters are there, but emoji are becoming a new form of written language.
Watkins was onto something when he thought we’d simplify our written language. Though we still have all 26 letters, spelling by sound has become popular. It’s not properly accepted in newspapers or academia, but online language tends towards simplified words with phonetic spellings.
Sometimes, we actually do away with letters completely and use emoji instead. According to Wired, 92 percent of people online use emoji. It makes sense—one little symbol can sometimes convey a feeling that would take sentences to express.
Linguist Gretchen McCulloch explained this on the podcast Lexicon Valley.
“We can communicate with emoji," McCulloch said, "and in some senses emoji are a more universal way of communicating because happiness and sadness and cats are [universal].”
So, we may still have C, X, and Q, but sometimes all you need is a little picture of an unhappy cat to fully express yourself.
Prediction, 1900-1910: Students would be taught by a book-eating machine.
From 1900-1910, Jean-Marc Côté drew pictures of how he thought life would be in 2000. Most of them involve people flying around with wings or riding seahorses, but he also had a fairly grim prediction of 2000s era schooling.
One illustrated prediction shows rows of school children listening through headphones to a large machine in the corner. The teacher feeds books into the machine, which then sends its information to all the silent students.
Reality: No book grinders, but computers are moving more and more into the teacher role.
Thankfully, we don’t have any book grinders in our schools, but the idea of teaching by machine is coming closer and closer to reality.
Since computers are a part of daily life for nearly every American, there’s a push to use this technology in schools, even at a young age. Though most everyone agrees that students need to be computer literate to function in the workplace, there’s great debate over how much technology should be incorporated into grade school education.
The Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) rolled out a massive iPad program, but faced a huge array of problems. In 2013, the district spent $1.3 billion to give every student an iPad with a preloaded curriculum, and by 2015, they deemed the curriculum “unusable” and asked Apple for a refund.
Though LAUSD had poor results from their technology program, some educators believe tablet technology is necessary in the classroom. Bailey Morres, data and assessment coordinator of the Warrensville Heights City School District, says that every student has a Chromebook in their district, and it has worked well in supplementing the work of a dedicated teacher:
When used appropriately, technology in the classroom serves as a useful tool for scholars and enhancing the educational experience.
But others find the rise in technology to be a hindrance to well-rounded education. Teru Clavel, a comparative educational expert, writes that American reliance on technology in the classroom is leaving students behind:
“Elementary school children write stories on iPads, where they use spell/grammar check rather than memorize the spelling and grammar rules. Social media use in the classroom begins before children form their own identities or are able to maturely advocate their opinions. Walk the halls of any public U.S. high school and peer into the classrooms to see students immersed in alternate reality via smartphones, ChromeBooks, or iPads. Students are not learning from one another through human interaction and they're lacking focus.”
Similarly, one elementary school teacher wrote in the Washington Post that iPads in her third grade classroom immediately made students disconnect from their peers and the teacher.
Student may not learn solely through a book eating machine, but it seems we’re getting ever closer to a technologically dominated form of education.