Past Predictions of the Future
Predictions from the past about the future leave us stunned at their accuracy and wondering what could come next.
John F. Kennedy couldn't have said it better: "For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."
Thirty years ago, when Robert Culicover decided to analyze previously predicted inventions of the future, the world was but a fraction of what it is today. Although change is the only constant, few would’ve been able to predict how many of the supposed ridiculous ideas of yesterday have come to life in recent years. As he described:
"Imagine the future. It's probably filled with computers. These machines will drive our cars, protect our homes, clean up our rooms, help us to learn about life on Earth and to travel to other planets."
Becoming a Reality
While the 2008 Pixar hit Wall-E, which takes place in 2805, boldly predicted individual pod-like cars to transport humans everywhere with the simple touch of a button, modern society seems to be on pace to beat this prediction by at least a couple of centuries. Google has made substantial progress on their self-driving cars as they surpassed the one million mile mark in June of 2015. More importantly, as technology continues to ride the fine line between computer and human, Google added an effective “honk” function to their smart cars in the summer of 2016.
Robert Culiver’s analysis 30 years ago predicted (and at times, incorrectly predicted) our current reality. What can we learn from his predictions of our technological timeline?
With computer breakthroughs happening so frequently, it's not surprising that this technology fills our vision of the future. New technology always produces new ideas about the world of tomorrow.
"Every technological breakthrough—from the railroads to the light bulb to the computer—has made people imagine a new kind of future," said Brian Horrigan. Brian should know. He helped put together "Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future." This exhibit, which toured the US in the 1980s, showed what past generations thought about the future (our present).
Computers are important, said Brian, but "the future really means a lot more than what machines we'll use... It's an act of imagination."
What did experts from the past imagine today would be like? Some of their predictions were way off—but others were right on the mark.
A History of the Future
Jules Verne was one of the "experts" who was remarkably on target with his predictions. Verne, whom many consider the father of science fiction, wrote more than 20 novels in the late 1800s. In his books, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870), he came very close to predicting the way our modern space program would work. He correctly foretold the shape of the space capsule, described weightlessness in space, and even imagined the capsule's splashdown at sea. His most astounding prediction? The blast-off of his space vehicle in From the Earth to Moon took place in Florida, very close to the present-day space center at Cape Canaveral!
In other books, Verne created imaginary vehicles like the Nautilus, a forerunner of the modern day submarine, and the Albatross, a huge helicopter which needed 75 propellers to get off the ground. Unfortunately, Verne’s most imaginative vehicle has not yet been perfected: An airship that could instantly change into a tiny submarine or the world's fastest car.
Visions of the future also made their way onto movie screens. One of the most famous movies about tomorrow's world was Metropolis, filmed in 1926 by director Fritz Lang. The movie featured a city that was run by a giant "heart machine"—moviedom's first computer villain. This "heart machine" forced people to work in dreary underground factories. At the film's end, the people destroy the machine and are free again.
In 1936, the film Things To Come, written by H.G. Wells, took viewers through 100 years of prophecies. Wells made a mistake predicting the date of our first moon landing. He thought it would take until 2036 to reach the moon; that's 67 years after Neil Armstrong actually took the first "giant step for mankind." While Wells focused mainly on our planet’s trusted companion, the moon, his prediction actually seems to more accurate for the year that humans will first land on Mars! Elon Musk, the face of the rapidly growing and innovative SpaceX, predicts his company will have humans on the Red Planet by 2025. While this prediction might seem hopeful, Musk is taking it one step farther. He is revealing his architectural plans for the complete colonization of the planet in the fall of 2016.
Visit the World's Fair
Looking into the future became an international pastime in 1939 and 1964–65. That's when people travelled from all over to attend the New York World's Fairs. These exhibits were almost as good as a trip in a time machine.
Let's take a trip back to 1939.
Even from a distance, the World's Fair is magical. The enormous white triangular tower and globe, named Trylon and Perisphere, loom above everything else. After entering the 18-story high Perisphere, you step onto what was then the world's longest escalator and ride up to a revolving balcony. From here, you can look down on Democracity, a model of the perfect city of 2039. As the balcony revolves, you watch the day go by in a miniature city of gleaming skyscrapers and traffic-free highways. Wandering around the rest of the fair, you find other exhibits that focus on the future:
• In the Transportation Pavilion, you learn what it will be like to travel in years to come. Experts predict giant rocketguns will hurl passenger modules all the way across the Atlantic Ocean in a single hour. Sounds ridiculous? Engineers are working on a design known as the Antipode which will fly from New York to London in 11 minutes while traveling at Mach 24.
• At the Westinghouse Pavilion, enter the "Hall of Electric Living" and meet Elektro, a 7' tall stainless steel robot, and his robot dog, Sparko.
• At the RCA Pavilion, you get a first look at an amazing invention experts predict will have a major impact in a few years. This new invention is called television. As they say, some predictions are always better than others. Less than 70 years after the 1939 World Fair, live streaming applications such as Netflix and Hulu have once again revolutionized the originally “life-changing” technology.
• At the General Motors Pavilion, you enter the most extensive look at the future—Futurama. This is a vision of what the world is supposed to be like in the 1960s. Riding in chairs that move, you see: farms where each tree is protected by a glass covering for more efficient growth, cities with quarter-mile high buildings, and 14-lane cross-country highways where radio-controlled cars zoom along at 100 miles per hour. While the construction of the Empire State building at the time symbolized the rise of skyscrapers worldwide, few would’ve been able to predict that in 2016 there are 25 buildings that reach higher than a quarter mile with Dubai’s Burj Khalifa topping the list at 2717'.
Futurama proved so popular in 1939 that General Motors updated the exhibit for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Riding through Futurama II, you glimpse undersea resort hotels where every guest gets an aqua-scooter to explore the ocean floor. Plastic bubbles cover new cities built in harsh places like the Antarctic and the Sahara desert. Look up at the sky and you see "island cities" floating by in outer space.
While only some of these predictions have become reality, at least one invention shown at the 1964–65 World's Fair is as necessary to humans as our heart or lungs. Experts in 1964 looked into the future and saw—computers and the progression of those into cell phones and tablets.
In the Hall of Education, the "School of Tomorrow" exhibit showed a teaching machine called the auto-tutor. It was a lot like today's classroom computers. At the NCR Pavilion, a supermarket computer printed out the name and price of every item purchased. At the IBM Pavilion, a special presentation demonstrated a computer that could translate words from Russian to English. Now with the simple click of a button on Google translate or any other website that functions similarly, we can take this phenomenon to the next level. Any word, phrase, or complete essay can be translated in an instant to a range of 50 different languages that span the world.
The experts who predicted that the computer would become more and more important were obviously right. But whether experts of the past guessed right or wrong, it's fascinating to listen to their visions of the world to come. In fact, it's almost as much fun as trying to predict the future yourself.
How well can we really predict the future? Did scientists making these predictions decades ago get lucky, or is there a science behind predicting science? Explore how predictions are made accurately with David Orrell's The Future of Everything.
In The Future of Everything, David Orrell looks back to show us how past scientists predicted the future, and where we are on the path to truly understanding scientific and technological advancements before they happen. Can we predict climate changes, epidemics, and financial crises before they happen, and get a handle on preventing these events? Or will we only truly find out about tomorrow when tomorrow arrives?