Volume 24, Number 1 January 1995


Today Then: America's best minds look 100 years into the future on the occasion of the 1893 World's Colombian Expositions

Compiled and introduced by Dave Walter
American and World Geographic Pub. Co., 1992, ISBN 1-56037-024-6, paper, pp. 226

One of the standard jobs of the policy analyst is speculation. "What if" scenarios are a main stock-in-trade. Thus it's fun, and humbling, to read how leaders in 1893 imaged America today. How wrong they were! The 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival. It was an optimistic age, and the Exposition a landmark event. As a part of it, 74 prestigious Americans were asked to speculate about the future. Here, I've focused mostly on technology.

Transportation and electricity are major themes. Westinghouse Corporation founder George Westinghouse (1846-1914) believed in trains: "Experiments have shown that, with a perfect brake acting under the most perfect conditions, it is impossible to procure a greater retarding effect than would be equivalent to stopping a train going at the rate of 3 miles an hour in a second of time. It is, therefore, easy to make a computation of the effect of such a brake upon a train running 90 miles an hour within 1000 feet. ...A steady speed of 40 miles per hour would enable a train to run from New York to Chicago in a little over 20 hours and with greater economy and far less danger. It is my impression, therefore, that railway travel in the next century will take on this development rather than high rates of speed. ...I am also satisfied that the immense cost of furnishing power for electric railways, which some persons seem to think can secure and maintain a speed of 100 miles and hour and more, will make such a development commercially unprofitable. Although there is no doubt that electricity as a motive power for passenger traffic will be extensively used in the next century."

Charles Foster, said to have amassed his fortune in the banking and petroleum industries, saw electricity and trains as the energy and transportation forms of the future: "One hundred years from now, the people of the United States will be traveling at a rate of 100 miles per hour...on electrical railways. ...To be conservative and within the limits of the probable, I will estimate that in the year 1993 it will be a common thing to travel form New York to Chicago in 7 or 8 hours. ...I remember reading...that Thomas A. Edison, the greatest genius of this century, says that electricity is terrestrial magnetism and that the universe is full of it. ...Edison believes electricity may be pumped out of the earth, or the sea, or the air, just as water is pumped out of a stream" (p. 59). How Foster profited from oil is not indicated; he surely doesn't mention it as an energy form of the future. Most likely his main business interest was kerosene for heating.

Electrical engineer John J Carty was "inclined to think that the development of the trolley railroad is going to be one of the mightiest factors in the urban civilization of the next century. ...It may solve some of the problems of overcrowding that have vexed the social economists. And, on the other hand, it may give to those who live in rural districts just that relief and recreation of which they are now deprived and which they so greatly desire".(p. 167).

Thomas Alva Edison's innovations had elevated electricity to special status. "Tesla has discovered that an electric current...may be passed from one conductor to another, without any intermediary connection, like a wire. ...The possibilities which lie in this discovery are simply enormous...for instance, it may be a powerful influence in the conduct of wars. ...It might be possible to direct [electric current] from a proper motor on shore to the iron sides of a great war vessel. This might be done with such intensity as instantly to melt the iron or steel plates, as though they had been struck by lightning. ...The use of the flashlight and great electric reflectors is sure to be very general in military operations in the next century" [Carty, p. 169].

John Ingalls, a judge and later US Senator, saw dirigibles replacing trains: "Man, having conquered the earth and the sea, will complete his dominion over nature by the subjugation of the atmosphere. ...Long before 1993, the journey from New York to San Francisco, and from New York to London, will be made between the sunrise and sunset of a single day. The railway and the steamship will be as obsolete as the stagecoach. And it will be as common for the citizen to call for his dirigible as it now for his buggy or his boots" [p. 144].

A forecast for the future of aluminum proved more prescient. John Clark Ridpath, Editor in Chief of the 25 volume "Ridpath Library of Universal Literature" wrote that "The present civilization of the world is founded on iron. ...Just as stone and bronze have given place to iron, so shall iron give place to aluminum. ...The age of power and conquest shall give rise to an age of glory and enlightenment. Aluminum will be the shining symbol of that age."

This was an age of servants, at least for the wealthy. Almost no one thought this might change: "Women will be financially independent of man, and this will materially lesson crime. No longer obliged to rifle her husband's pockets for money, she will not give birth to kleptomaniacs or thieves. ...The government will establish colleges for the training of servants. ...Better instructed...and more plentiful, the servant of the next century will be more useful" [Ella Wheeler Wilcox, p. 37].

Affluence and peace were anticipated: "By the end of the Twentieth Century, taxation will be reduced to a minimum, the entire world will be open to trade, and there will be no need of a standing army" [Erastus Wiman]. So too was television: "Each reasonably well-to-do man [and there will be lots of them in the 1990s] will have a telephote [sic] in his residence. By means of this device, the entertainment of any place of amusement in that city may be seen as well as heard" [Octavus Cohen].

Some omissions seem impossible to understand. The work of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) seems unknown or irrelevant. Automobiles and road systems are absent. So too are aircraft. Though 34 years had elapsed since "Colonel" Edwin Drake's well hit oil in Titusville, PA, oil is a bit-player and the idea that oil would soon dominate the nation's energy was beyond imagination.

Today Then closes with an essay "All prophecy is futile." In it journalist J. H. Beadle pontificates that "One thing may be said with tolerable certainty: Not one of [these forecasts] will be verified in its essential details." Beadle's skepticism failed to deter him from his own forecast: "It is possible--nay, it is quite probable--that the next invention will be a method of storing energy, so it can be shipped in small packages and applied wherever wanted. ...In that case, Niagara Falls may supply power to run the manufactories of Texas. ...The farmer may plow his fields and heat his dwelling with a storage battery no bigger than a common brick."

Maybe so--perhaps in 2093!

Paul P. Craig
Department of Applied Science,
University of California
Davis, CA 95616