By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
If predictions about the future always came true, we would have spent 1999 refinancing our space pods.
We’d be complaining about battery prices for our personal jetpacks and hoping the Federation government can do something about cutting the Interstellar Travel Tariff.
For centuries, the year that debuts tomorrow has been a target for dreamy predictions, guesses at how the present day might change into something new and strange. Looking back, some seem visionary; most seem silly.
“The coasts of history are strewn with the wrecks of predictions,” the British historian James Bryce wrote in 1893. “All we can ever say of the future is that it will be unlike the present.”
Not surprisingly, when 1900 rolled around, people across America took a special interest in what the world would be like in the new century. And Toledoans were no exception.
Predictions were slow at the end of 1899 because people figured that the 20th century would not formally begin until Jan. 1, 1901. It is the same debate that persists today between advocates of 2000 and 2001.
But on Dec. 31, 1900, city leaders gathered downtown for a ceremony sponsored by the local American Red Cross to ring in the new century – and to offer their own guesses at what it might hold.
On that night, the main speaker was the mayor, Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones. An eternal optimist, his thoughts turned to the future, and a vision of happier days.
“Looking forward into the distant yonder, in my visions I see the people of Toledo of 100 years hence, assembled for a purpose similar to that which called us together tonight,” he said.
“In fancy I listen to their speeches and hear their songs. The white dove of peace spreads her beneficent wings over the nations of the earth, for they shall ‘learn war no more.’ I listen intently to the music of their voices and I find that they have learned the lesson of life. Its key note is harmony and the words of their song are ‘Peace on earth, good will towards men.'”
Of course, Mr. Jones had no way of knowing about two world wars, the atom bomb, or the myriad other horrors that have made the 20th century civilization’s bloodiest – but it was a noble prediction nonetheless.
After the mayor spoke (and a rousing rendition of his campaign song, “Industrial Progress”), Negley Cochran, editor of the Toledo Bee newspaper (later to become the News-Bee), said that the 20th century would bring “a universal language and the abolishment of competition.”
Nice ideas, but attempts to make Esperanto the universal language haven’t lived up to the hype, and the defeat of communism has put a serious dent in the anti-competition argument. Perhaps Mr. Cochran was saying that money might become a universal language, which, some would argue, it has.
Not far away on that night, at the First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. William A. Powell was making his own, more accurate, predictions about the future.
“The Pacific Ocean has taken the place held by the Mediterranean Sea in olden times, and of the Atlantic Ocean in modern times, as the gateway to the world’s future,” he said in his midnight sermon. The rise of the Pacific Rim in the world economy has been one of the century’s most important events.
He further predicted that “there will never be serious trouble again between the United States and England.” Britain has been America’s strongest ally throughout the century, and with the possible exception of nanny Louise Woodward, there hasn’t been a meaningful disagreement between the two countries in decades. But present-day Americans probably would not give Dr. Powell much credit for predicting “more government ownership” of industry.
Across town, at the First Congregationalist Church, the pastor, whose name is recorded only as “Dr. Hyde,” said the new century would bring “a higher standard of morality.” In a world of Jerry Springer and professional wrestling, that’s open to question.
Toledoans were not alone in thinking the 20th century would bring new wonders. In 1901, at the inauguration of Canton native William McKinley as President, the inaugural program included a half-joking prediction about America in 2000.
It predicted that the United States would have conquered the entire continent: 118 states across both North and South America. The president would be from the northern state of Ontario. This fictional president – middle name “McKinley” – would propose in his inaugural address a most urgent order of business: shifting the direction of the Arctic current off Labrador’s eastern coast “to allow the Gulf Stream to change the climate.”
Today, mysterious invocations of the Y2K bug and apocalyptic doom make the coming of 2000 more than a little frightening for some. But in 1899, few were filled with anything but optimism.
About as depressing as it got were the comments of New York Sen. Chauncey Depew, who feared that all the coming century’s new inventions would create a massive surplus of time and wealth “which endangers the health, happiness, and lives of the people of Europe and America.”
But most saw an idyllic future. “It is hardly necessary to inform you that life in those times will be as nearly a holiday as it is possible to make it,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Dec. 30, 1899. “Work will be reduced to a minimum by machinery. Nobody who is anybody 100 years hence but will have his automobile and his air yacht.”
As always, some prognosticators were closer to the zeitgeist than others. Some of the best guesses:
* “The two most powerful forces in the new century will be Russia and the North American republic,” guessed the Munich newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung in 1901. “Of these two colossal empires, the American republic occupies a favored position. In population, it indeed does not equal Russia, but it surpasses that country in energy and practical intelligence.”
* Systems of rapid transit will lead to the development of large suburbs, the Brooklyn Eagle predicted. It also guessed right about the end of the horse and buggy, the rise of vegetarianism, and the ubiquity of telephones.
* “Cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house,” according to Ladies Home Journal in December, 1900. Along with air conditioning, the article also nailed wireless phones, sending photos over the Internet, and home stereos.
* Writer Edward Bellamy successfully predicted the advent of credit cards – which would be as accepted “as gold used to be” – in his book about the year 2000, Looking Backwards.
* “A gymnasium in every school,” according to John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., a futurist before the word futurist was invented, in 1900. He was also right about the coming of direct dialing, live video broadcasts, and snowmobiles.
But more often than not, the view of the future was more fuzzy than clear. People predicted bigger impacts for the obsessions of the day – things such as electrical fields, moving sidewalks, and pneumatic tubes – than actually happened. Some of the worst predictions:
* Mr. Watkinswasn’t right about everything. He predicted that the letters C, X, and Q would be dropped from the English alphabet by 1999. “They will be abandoned because unnecessary,” he said.
Or perhaps he meant “be*ause unne*essary.”
* “Radio has no future,” British scientist William Thomson said in 1899. Indeed, he was a veritable font of bad guesses: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
* “Liquid air” will “banish poverty from the earth,” the Brooklyn Eagle predicted. The Eagle was also wrong about mail being delivered via pneumatic tubes in every home, scientific reincarnation, the disappearance of the housefly, and a dramatic reduction in crime thanks to “artificial light.”
* “Rats and mice will have been exterminated,” the Ladies Home Journal predicted. “Cities will be free from all noise,” and – again – pneumatic tubes will be everywhere.
* “Books, as they are printed now, will not be in use,” predicted an unsigned 1900 editorial in the Knoxville Journal. “The wisest sayings of the wisest men of the preceding centuries will be preserved on metal tablets or plates.” Books are still around, but the writer might have been predicting the coming of CD-ROMs.
* The Knoxville editorial writer also had great hopes for this newfangled electricity, saying that in 2000, “fighting cats … disagreeable mothers-in-law, scolding wives, squalling babies are now kept quiet and pleasant by this wonderful agent known as electricity…. Drunken, wife-beating husbands who fail to provide for their families … in the same way are promptly drawn into submission.”
Outside death row, electrocution as discipline hasn’t caught on.