April 24, 2013
When I was in second grade I made a diorama of a city of the future. This was the early 1990s and the diorama was supposed to represent the year 2000—somehow still lightyears away for a young kid during the George H. W. Bush administration. My little diorama city had cars that ran on a magnetic track, some tall awkwardly-shaped buildings, and a way of recycling rainwater that supposedly (at least in my juvenile mind) was great for the environment.
Children of the 20th century (present bloggers excluded, perhaps) had some fascinating visions for the future. They tended to be pretty optimistic, but each generation betrays its own fears for the world of tomorrow. In the 1960s, kids imagined flying cars and jetpacks, tempered by fears around the Cold War. In the 1970s, kids expected their future to be filled with robot maids and vacations to Mars, but they also worried about violence, the price of gas and skyrocketing unemployment.
In this film from 1983 we hear from American kids about their visions for cities of the future. The kids have constructed and drawn cities that include peoplemovers run by computer, underground shops and even horse-drawn transportation. The end of this clip shows a kid who warns that humanity will be destroyed if we don’t find an alternative to gasoline soon—a fear that made a lot of sense to children of the 1970s and 1980s, but maybe less so to children of the 1960s or 1990s.
What did you envision the world of the future looking like when you were a kid? How do you think the time in which you grew up influenced your outlook?
April 19, 2013
In the 1930s journalists from publications like the New York Times and Time magazine would regularly visit Nikola Tesla at his home on the 20th floor of the Hotel Governor Clinton in Manhattan. There the elderly Tesla would regale them with stories of his early days as an inventor and often opined about what was in store for the future.
Last year we looked at Tesla’s prediction that eugenics and the forced sterilization of criminals and other supposed undesirables would somehow purify the human race by the year 2100. Today we have more from that particular article which appeared in the February 9, 1935, issue of Liberty magazine. The article is unique because it wasn’t conducted as a simple interview like so many of Tesla’s other media appearances from this time, but rather is credited as “by Nikola Tesla, as told to George Sylvester Viereck.”
It’s not clear where this particular article was written, but Tesla’s friendly relationship with Viereck leads me to believe it may not have been at his Manhattan hotel home. Interviews with Tesla at this time would usually occur at the Hotel, but Tesla would sometimes dine with Viereck and his family at Viereck’s home on Riverside Drive, meaning that it’s possible they could have written it there.
Viereck attached himself to many important people of his time, conducting interviews with such notable figures as Albert Einstein, Teddy Roosevelt and even Adolf Hitler. As a German-American living in New York, Viereck was a rather notorious propagandist for the Nazi regime and was tried and imprisoned in 1942 for failing to register with the U.S. government as such. He was released from prison in 1947, a few years after Tesla’s death in 1943. It’s not clear if they had remained friends after the government started to become concerned about Viereck’s activities in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Tesla had interesting theories on religion, science and the nature of humanity which we’ll look at in a future post, but for the time being I’ve pulled some of the more interesting (and often accurate) predictions Tesla had for the future of the world.
Creation of the EPA
The creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was still 35 years away, but Tesla predicted a similar agency’s creation within a hundred years.
Hygiene, physical culture will be recognized branches of education and government. The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2035 than the Secretary of War. The pollution of our beaches such as exists today around New York City will seem as unthinkable to our children and grandchildren as life without plumbing seems to us. Our water supply will be far more carefully supervised, and only a lunatic will drink unsterilized water.
Education, War and the Newspapers of Tomorrow
Tesla imagined a world where new scientific discoveries, rather than war, would become a priority for humanity.
Today the most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education. The twenty-first century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle. The discovery of a new scientific truth will be more important than the squabbles of diplomats. Even the newspapers of our own day are beginning to treat scientific discoveries and the creation of fresh philosophical concepts as news. The newspapers of the twenty-first century will give a mere ” stick ” in the back pages to accounts of crime or political controversies, but will headline on the front pages the proclamation of a new scientific hypothesis.
Health and Diet
Toward the end of Tesla’s life he had developed strange theories about the optimal human diet. He dined on little more than milk and honey in his final days, believing that this was the purest form of food. Tesla lost an enormous amount of weight and was looking quite ghastly by the early 1940s. This meager diet and his gaunt appearance contributed to the common misconception that he was penniless at the end of his life.
More people die or grow sick from polluted water than from coffee, tea, tobacco, and other stimulants. I myself eschew all stimulants. I also practically abstain from meat. I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue. Alcohol, however, will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life. The abolition of stimulants will not come about forcibly. It will simply be no longer fashionable to poison the system with harmful ingredients. Bernarr Macfadden has shown how it is possible to provide palatable food based upon natural products such as milk, honey, and wheat. I believe that the food which is served today in his penny restaurants will be the basis of epicurean meals in the smartest banquet halls of the twenty-first century.
There will be enough wheat and wheat products to feed the entire world, including the teeming millions of China and India, now chronically on the verge of starvation. The earth is bountiful, and where her bounty fails, nitrogen drawn from the air will refertilize her womb. I developed a process for this purpose in 1900. It was perfected fourteen years later under the stress of war by German chemists.
Tesla’s work in robotics began in the late 1890s when he patented his remote-controlled boat, an invention that absolutely stunned onlookers at the 1898 Electrical Exhibition at Madison Square Garden.
At present we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age. The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.
Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons. At this very moment scientists working in the laboratories of American universities are attempting to create what has been described as a ” thinking machine.” I anticipated this development.
I actually constructed ” robots.” Today the robot is an accepted fact, but the principle has not been pushed far enough. In the twenty-first century the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. There is no reason at all why most of this should not come to pass in less than a century, freeing mankind to pursue its higher aspirations.
Cheap Energy and the Management of Natural Resources
Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power and will dispense with the necessity of burning fuel. The struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.
Tesla was a visionary whose many contributions to the world are being celebrated today more than ever. And while his idea of the perfect diet may have been a bit strange, he clearly understood many of the things that 21st century Americans would value (like clean air, clean food, and our “thinking machines”) as we stumble into the future.
October 12, 2012
The February 26, 1977 edition of the Herald-Star in Steubenville, Ohio published dozens of predictions for the year 2000 made by the people of Steubenville, a working class town in eastern Ohio (and the birthplace of Dean Martin). Some of these letters came from local middle school kids 10-12 years old and they provide a fascinating snapshot of the era; unique in their ability to reflect the pessimism stirred by a down economy and shaken faith in government in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era, while also laying bare the irrational optimism of youth.
Many of the predictions are clearly influenced by the energy crisis, with many kids predicting there will be tough times ahead without access to cheap energy. However, there’s also optimism about space exploration and more than one reference to women as astronauts. Even though Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, the first American woman (Sally Ride, who died this past summer) wouldn’t become an astronaut until 1983 — a full six years after these kids were making their predictions.
Interestingly, for being middle schoolers these kids sure seem concerned about high taxes. All of these kids are now between 45 and 48 years old and if you happen to be one of them, I’d love to hear from you. How do you feel reading your predictions from the vantage point of “the future”? How do you feel about the years to come?
Some of the letters from the February 26, 1977 Herald-Star appear below:
New Great Depression
I think that by the year 2000 we will be in a great depression. People are saying that we are running out of fuel. People will be using machines to do everything. And machines run on fuel. If we run out of fuel we won’t be able to run the machines and people will be out of jobs. So we can save fuel. Everybody should try to save by turning their heat to 68 degrees.
Debbie Six, 12 (Harding School)
We’ll Find More Oil
My view of the future is that we will find more gas and oil. No one will be poor and we all will live in peace! Also in the future, I think they will find some mechanical device that could make kitchens, dining rooms and etc. You’d just push a button and WHAM!! An instant living room or WHAM!! an instant milkshake. And that’s my view of the future!
Emma Conforti, Age 11 (Harding School)
Robot Maids, Robot Teachers
In the year 2000, we will have all round buildings. We will have a robot teacher, a robot maid, and all workers will be robots, too. We will have a pocket computer that has everything you can name. We will even be able to push a button to get anything you want!
Marty Bohen, Age 10 (Harding School)
Electric Cars and Ladies on the Moon
The year 2000 might have everybody walking instead of riding in their cars because there might be a gas shortage by then, and the cars give out a lot of pollution. Or there might even be electric cars instead of gas cars. The year 2000 may send ladies to the moon to explore and look and see if there are people living on the moon. And when you work you will push buttons and robots will come out and do the work for you. And there will be lower prices and taxes, I hope.
Tim Villies, 10 (Harding School)
Cures For Every Sickness
In 2000 I will marry a doctor and maybe have kids. I would like my husband to be a doctor because he would be helping people and would still want to be close to my family. As for a job for me I would help the crippled boys and girls. I would still like to have my same friends. And the most important thing for there to be is no wars and killings. I hope they could find cures for every sickness. And everybody will care for each other.
Monica Katsaros, Age 10 (Harding School)
The Last Five Years Haven’t Been So Good
I think 2000 will be a good year. I hope so because the last five years haven’t been so good with people dying and getting shot and murdered. I will be a grown man by then and will be married. I’ll probably have kids. I hope it will be a good America.
Michael Beal, Age 10 (Harding School)
In the year 2000, I think there won’t be any crimes of any kind. Shorter school days and lower taxes. I hope there will be lower taxes and no crimes because I’ll be 33 years old and I am sick of crimes and high taxes. I hope woman can be astronauts. I also hope there won’t be any pollution. And I also hope there will be town in space, where people live in space capsules.
Lora Ziarko, Age 10 (Harding School)
Cars That Float On Air
I think the future will be better than it is now. The pollution problem will be solved and there will be cars that float on air. I will be 34 in the year 2000. I will have a good job designing modern houses with push-button controls for everything to make it easier on everyone.
You could push a button and a bed would unfold from the wall. Everything would run on solar energy so you wouldn’t have to worry about the fuel shortage. You wouldn’t have to go to school. It would be on TV and living would be much easier for everyone.
John Vecchione, Age 11 (Harding School)
Young People Unemployed
I think by the year 2000 we will be riding bikes or driving solar-energized cars. By then more younger people will be unemployed. The price of gas will go up and so will the price of coal, silver, gold and oil.
Pietro Sincropi, 10 (Harding School)
Living on Mars
I think it is going to be an all-new world. People are going to be able to live on the moon and on Mars. Man is going to have computers to do the work for him. It is going to be a computer run world.
Tracy McCoy, Age 12 (Harding School)
Most of the World Will Be The United States of America
In the year 2000 I will be 34 years old. And actually I don’t think kids will have to go to school, because I believe that families will have computers to educate students. That’s all for education. I also believe that most of the world will all be the United States of America. I also believe that business and industry will be up 75 per cent. And as for culture, the Model T will be an old artifact. And, if you have children or grandchildren, they’ll all be more interested in culture than ever.
Mike Metzger, Age 10 3/4 (Harding School)
I Hope By Then Things Will Get Better
I think that everything by the year 2000 will be different. I hope the violence will all be stopped. I hope that the computers don’t take over people’s jobs. I hope by then things will get better.
Mary Gallo, Age 12 (Harding School)
February 29, 2012
The February 8, 1952 Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS) ran a piece from Henry C. Nicholas titled “Cheer Up! World Will Be Wonderful Fifty Years From Now!” Nicholas reports on the International Congress of Astronautics in London and the convention of the American Chemical Society in New York, saying that the predictions described in the article are not those of imaginative writers of science fiction, but rather the “sober conclusions of our greatest scientists, including many of our most famous Nobel laureates.”
This style of laying out fantastical advances of the future and proclaiming that they represent the conservative opinion of incredibly smart people is one of the most popular formulas of non-fiction futurism writing, dating back at least to John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. and his article for the December, 1900 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” And this 1952 article is a terrific example of the techno-utopian thinking that so many people today consider the Golden Age of Futurism.
There will not be another world war during this century. The next 50 years will witness an amazing increase in wealth and prosperity, with a continuous rise in the world standard of living. The threat of world overpopulation will disappear with ample space for everyone, thus removing one of the long existing causes for wars and revolutions.
By the year 2000 cures for most of the diseases of man will have been discovered. The average age will be about 100 years. Journeys through space in rocket ships will be an established form of transportation, with regularly scheduled trips to the various planets. A number of man-made moons will be circling around the earth.
The article quotes Dr. James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University, about the future of atomic war. Interestingly, the article claims that atomic energy will have proved a failure, making way for solar energy as an “inexhaustible source of new power.” This hope for the future of solar power actually wasn’t a new idea, as similar predictions were made during WWII about the prevalence of solar power after the war (should the world continue to exist at all).
An atomic world war was averted in the 1950s, though by the “narrowest of margins,” according to Dr. James Bryant Conant, world famous chemist and president of Harvard.
The Communist world and its opponents, which then controlled most of the world, became somewhat mellowed by “time and local conditions” and the startling new revelations of the mysteries of the universe.
Atomic energy had been a disappointment, both as a destructive weapon of war and its constructive peacetime development. In the 1970s atomic energy was replaced by solar energy as an inexhaustible source of new power.
With this development, which was fully established by 1985, the world at last realized its age-old dream of lifting most of its labor from the backs of man.
Dr. Adolph Butenandt of Germany and other Nobel laureates from Sweden, Finland, England, France and America, were in agreement with Dr. Conant that solar energy would revolutionize the world through supplying man with an inexhaustible and previously largely untapped source of cheap power.
The amount of such cheap power available to the world in the year 2000 will be beyond comprehension. The amount of sunshine energy, which yearly falls on only a few acres of land, when converted into man-made power was sufficient to supply enough electricity for a city of a million inhabitants.
The article also quotes Artturi Virtanen, a 1945 Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry. According to the piece, in the year 2000 the sea will be explored and exploited for its untapped resources, and the world’s food supply will increase 50 times over.
Fifty years from now the world will be able to increase its food supply 50 times over. This increased production will come largely from enhancing the efficiency with which plants use sunlight to make sugar from water and carbon dioxide.
Fishing will not be the only crop obtained from the sea. There is more wealth in any square mile of the sea than there is in any square mile of land.
With the abundant and almost costless power of solar energy it will be possible to mine the minerals and harvest the green growth that teems in the ocean. Fresh water will be obtained from the ocean and great deserts that are near the sea, like the Sahara in Africa, will become garden spots.
Birth control is seen as the answer to the world’s population crisis, as the article predicts that religious leaders will become more comfortable with the idea of birth control.
There will be no danger of world overpopulation. The size of families and nations will be regulated at will. The world population will controlled through improved birth control methods, with cheap, harmless and temporarily effective anti-fertility compounds added as one saw fit to the diet. This will remove one of the greatest dangers to world peace since the dawn of civilization.
The attitude of religious leaders regarding birth control, say these scientists, will slowly change “without any diminution of religious feeling.”
There was general agreement among the scientist gazing into their crystal balls that space travel will be an established means of transportation well before the year 2000.
Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was the chief developer of the V-2 rocket for Hitler and who is now working on guided missiles for the United States, said that most of the problems of space navigation will have been solved during the 1950s.
The first step toward true space navigation were earth moons — man-made satellites high in the earth’s atmosphere. Persons stationed on these earth moons continuously circulating around the world, will be able to observe and report any unusual activity that threatens peace on earth.
Supported against the earth’s gravitational pull by the centrifugal force of its rapid motion, only moderate power will be needed to launch space ships from these satellites which possess no atmosphere.
While the world will be changed beyond recognition in the year 2000, say these scientists, man will remain much the strange and unpredictable creature he is today. There will still be many bemoaning the passing of the “good old days.”
(The 1955 illustration above by Frank R. Paul was found in the wonderful book Driving Through Futures Past by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, CA.)
February 23, 2012
American futurism of the 1970s is a fascinating mix of sleek Jetsonian utopianism and dreary mushroom cloud hellscapes. Nowhere is this dichotomy of tomorrowism more evident than in children’s drawings of the future.
I’ve always found that some of the most interesting predictions come from children, who tend to express ideas that reflect both the best and worst of any decade’s futurism. The 1970s was a rather contentious time in the United States. The country saw a tremendous loss of manufacturing jobs and a sharp spike in crime, but the moon landing of 1969 was still fresh in the public’s mind — even if the last person to set foot on the moon was in 1973. Kids were watching re-runs of The Jetsons (which only lasted one season in 1962-63) but the Vietnam War was still being hotly debated until the withdrawal of American forces in 1975. There was little faith in government, with President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and the state of the environment was of growing concern.
The year 1976 marked America’s Bicentennial. As festivities were planned across the country, it became a time of reflection for rattled Americans who wanted to be hopeful about the future of the country.
The American oil company ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) celebrated the Bicentennial in a curious way, by soliciting and publishing the ideas of average Americans about what the United States would look like in the year 2076 — it’s Tricentennial. I found The Tricentennial Report, which was published in 1977, tucked away in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s library. The book explains in its introduction:
The people had been asked by Atlantic Richfield Company in newspapers, magazines and television advertisements, to discuss their country’s future. Some 60,000 Americans responded and this report is a distillation of their ideas and feelings.
The drawings by children are, of course, a highlight of the book.
The Tricentennial Program received hundreds of letters and drawings from schoolchildren throughout the United States. Here are a few examples, taken mainly from Dr. Harriet Eisenberg’s classes at John F. Kennedy High School in New York.
This drawing, by high schooler Eduardo del Villas, features soaring rockets and a jetpack pilot shouting the taunt, “I’m going to get you now you dumb bird!”
This drawing by Joanne Connaire seems to show children of the world joining hands in 2076, with their faces obscured, quite possibly wearing masks to protect themselves from whatever brown mass (air pollution?) is behind them.
High schooler Robert Berman took a stab at politics in the year 2076, with a robot campaigning to be president of the United States.
Tina Kambitsis created two drawings: one of the entire world being destroyed in a red mushroom cloud, the other a brand new Garden of Eden in the year 2076, with a bird remarking, “Uh-oh, here we go again.”
This vision of the far future, drawn by an unnamed fourth grader in Mary Ellen Caesar’s class at Sacred Heart School in Massachusetts, may be the most telling of the illustrations. The child imagines a return to the land in a way that seems to be more harmonious, a romanticization of the people in 1776 who were depicted as trading with the Indians and living a simpler life. The food crisis was on everyone’s mind in the 1970s, so the child imagined that this would encourage people of the future to have their own farms and gardens.
1776 — These people were colonists. They traded with the Indians. They lived in wooden houses.
2076 — In 2076 because of the food shortages many people have small farms and gardens.
And John F. Kennedy High School student Michael Urena drew what appears to be a commercial spaceliner, called The Friendly Bug, traveling to the moon.