I am at the museum door, looking through the glass at the nearly dark streets. The wind is blowing and snowflakes rush by nearly parallel with the earth. In this dusk, I can almost see the figures of yesteryear wrapped tightly in their scarves, hurrying up the street. Perhaps they go to shop, or visit friends in their warm lamplight homes. Perhaps they are going home to their children, never thinking that they would be shadows in the future, known only by the scraps held within these walls. Perhaps they would know some of those in our “known by to God” picture portrait file. The lesson of that file is to use a simple pencil and put the names of those loved ones on the back of the picture, so that they will not join this gallery of the lost.
Time conquers all, and our vision of days to come is clouded perhaps as an act of mercy by the all knowing one. What did they think about the future a century ago? There were dreamers and inventors who tried to pull back the curtain and see the future. Some succeeded, some failed plausibly, and some visions were absolutely ridiculous. We can presume that our forecasts are similarly a mixture of fog and fantasy. There were those who saw a dark future, but generally optimism pervades the writings of those prophets of a century ago. The twentieth century was not to be all enlightenment and improvement of the human condition. Even with the strides forward the good was twisted to the service of evil.
On June 23, 1911 Thomas Edison, the scientific wizard of his day made his predictions for life in our time in The Miami Metropolis. He predicted that railway trains would “be driven at incredible speed by electricity (which will also be the motive force of all the world's machinery), generated by "hydraulic" wheels.”, but most
High speed rail as envisioned in 1911
travelers, he predicted would fly through the air “swifter than any swallow, at a speed of two hundred miles an hour, in colossal machines.” He predicted that gold would no longer be a precious metal, saying; “We are already on the verge of discovering the secret of transmuting metals, which are all substantially the same in matter, though combined in different proportions." Lastly he predicted that books would be printed on sheets of nickel, so thin that a book two inches thick could contain 40,000 pages. Though wrong in the method he was right about what we now call the “E-reader.”
Many saw better roads in the future reaching to every corner of the nation. Others thought roads would become obsolete. Why use trains or cars when flight was at hand, no doubt soon to become available to everyone? The Wright Brothers had proven the practicality of air transportation on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk. One article called “Shopping In the Year 2007” read: “Mrs. Darlington's head carried the information that, the latter would stop for Mrs. Mauley in her aerocar in about ten minutes--! So within the next quarter of an hour the ladies were flitting through the air from their homes in one of the Middle West states toward New York, the Mecca,
Teaching and learning through brain waves
of all shoppers. At the end of their hour's ride they were landed by their chaufigoer on the roof of the International Trading Company's huge store that occupied the site of
Tourism in the year 2000
old Central Park and contained all the department stores of the city under one roof.”
In 1911 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, sociologist, writer, and utopian feminist predicted the separation of women from cooking: “In 50 years hence, maybe 100, humanity will find other work to do besides feeding itself. People will purchase cooked food and the work will be done by experienced, well-paid cooks. "The average woman is a poor cook with
Cosmopolis – the city of the future as seen in 1911
leanings elsewhere, Two-thirds of the income is wasted by keeping her In the kitchen. The following generation of children will grow up with no longer the Idea of mother being 'only mother,' for she will have a profession." It doesn’t appear that she was too far off the mark.
Some predictions seemed ideal to some and ominous to others. George W. Sheldon, a shipping magnate from Chicago and early founder of the Chamber of Commerce in the United States believed that business interests would come to rule America. “It will not matter much in the future which party holds the reins of Government. The routes to be driven by the holders will be dictated by the National Association of Chambers of Commerce. Business men will not only indicate to Congress the legislation necessary for the development of our commercial interests, but also exert a powerful influence in shaping laws for our international well-being.” I leave it to the reader to decide to what extent his prediction was correct.
Farming and conservation were becoming recognized factors in our future. Mary Houston Gregory wrote a book called “Checking the Waste” (1911), in which she said the future would bring better use of natural resources, and improved farming practices. Water power for electrical generation and mill operations should replace coal, she said because; “We have been -- prodigal in our consumption of coal. In the past fifty years its per capita use has increased twentyfold, and should the increase continue, the year 2,015 A. D. predicts the U. S. Geological Survey, will see the exhaustion of our mines.” Fortunately, the predictions of the time that gas would be gone by 1936 and coal by 2015 were far too pessimistic, but she did all too accurately see the ruin that the byproducts of industry would cause.
She advocated many of the methods of pollution and erosion control that are now commonplace; “The remedies must be thoroughgoing-The soil must be saved from erosion by the planting of forests and by the storing of the flood waters of rivers. The necessary elements must be restored by a scientific rotation of crops. Coal must be economized by the substitution of low-grade fuels, by the consumption of wood wastes, and by the development of water power. Our forests must be safeguarded by fire protection, by legislation regulating cutting of trees, and by systematic replanting. Insects are to be kept in check by encouraging the nesting and the increase of species of birds which will prevent their depredations. The birds, moreover, thrive only where trees are abundant; conservations of all Kinds go hand In hand. Grazing lands, on which the supply of animal food is largely dependent, must be supervised by a proper control, fisheries fostered both by direct culture, and by preventing the poisonous by-products of factories from Injuring our waters.”
In October of 1912 William J. Gaynor, mayor of New York, advocated tax financed health and welfare programs operated by units of government. It was reported that the Mayor allowed a period of fifteen years in which he predicted that the Government would take over practically all the present-day functions of philanthropy. “In the fulfillment of God’s time” he said “all the people now dependent on charity will be taken care of by the Government. I know of no reason whatever why men at work who are injured by machinery or those who become sick and incapable should be turned out and not taken care of. My own notion is that the State is bound in morals and good conscience to take care of them.” That battle is still raging today.
The specifics of future invention and development are still clouded in mystery to us, as to them, but with regard to the aspirations and conflicts of the citizens of this country, a greater clarity is shown by the study of the past. There will always be conflicts between the desire to keep for one’s self all one can and the compulsion of our Charitable selves to help neighbors in need, and keep some of our beautiful world unspoiled. Some see Central Park as becoming a suitable airport, and some see a beautiful place to preserve at all costs.
So tonight I look with eyes not of today out into the night, and I recall the words of King George VI’s Christmas Broadcast of 1939. To a nation facing the uncertainty of war he quoted poet Minnie Louise Haskins, saying:
"I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’”