Congratulations. We have finally reached the future.
Nearly 100 years ago, a group of creative minds dared to imagine what life would be like in 2023. Some of their predictions fell hilariously short while others proved to be weirdly accurate.
Join us now as we gaze into that crystal ball from 1923.
Don’t work so hard
How are you enjoying those four-hour workdays?
New York scientist Charles P. Steinmetz predicted that electric power would create a Utopian society that would free humans from hard labor by 2023.
“The time is coming at the present rate of world progress when there will be no long, back-breaking drudgery, and when people will work not more than four hours a day,” he noted in 1923. “The rest of the time, we will be able to follow our natural bent.”
Electricity would ease “the dull duties of this complex existence,” Steinmetz said, singling out such occupations as working at a lathe in a factory, a linotype machine in a newspaper plant, a bench in a shoe shop, a seat on a delivery wagon, a typewriter in an office and a counter in a department store.
That’s not to say that people wouldn’t stay busy.
“Leisure will be occupied in productive diversions satisfying the particular instincts of the individual,” he said. “We will be more collectivistic in the operation of our essential productive life and more individualistic in the pursuit of personal happiness and contentment. Leisure will stimulate educational interests in every conceivable direction.”
Also, thanks to breakthroughs in science, every city would be a “spotless town” with no garbage in the street and no smoke in the sky, he said.
“That will be the work of electricity,” Steinmetz said.
Sadly, he did not get to see any of it. He died that year at 58.
Bring on the smartphone
English physicist, engineer and inventor Archibald M. Low predicted great strides during “the few seconds” that separated the people of 1923 from the people of 2023.
A typical London businessman, for example, would use a communication device to simplify work.
“In a hundred years’ time he will be able to chat in comfort over a telephone that can be used in his car, his house, or his train,” Low noted. “He will not hear a squeaky voice saying ‘What?’ every few minutes.
“Probably it will be possible for him to see the person to whom he is talking, and if he desires to make notes that will be read immediately in a book situated miles away.”
Doesn’t it sound like a smartphone?
Some other prophecies by Low:
● “Public clocks and probably our watches will be kept in time by wireless, and by the same agency we shall be roused at whatever hour we desire to get up.”
● “Motor cars will all be enclosed and by a meter device may pick up their power from government stations.”
● “An air service will land people from all parts of the world — not at some point six miles away from the city, but straight onto the top of a hotel in a roofed arcade street.”
● “The speed of tube trains will be increased while aeroplanes will be so much quicker that our efforts of today will seem like those of the old stagecoach.”
● “In a hundred years we shall certainly have the Channel Tunnel for an island cannot live easily in the race of progress.”
The population of New York City would swell to 100 million people by 2023 if early 20th century trends continued, sociologist William F. Ogburn, professor of political economy at Columbia University, warned in 1923.
“Of course, it is inconceivable,” he said.
At the time, over 5.5 million lived in the city.
Living conditions would deteriorate and domestic troubles would multiply if nothing was done about the “jostling mobs,” Ogburn said.
“In the United States, we don’t really appreciate the fact that the population problem is upon us,” he declared. “Everyone goes on the assumption that it is good business to have hurrying crowds to carry on in the marts of trade and commerce, in the professions, in the manual jobs.
“But America will have to abandon her idea of taking on more and more population. If not, she is head-on for misery, poverty and destitution.”
New York City did grow, but not nearly as much as Ogburn anticipated. Its current population is about 18.8 million.
Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger imagined happier lives and longer honeymoons in 2023.
“Birth control will have become a part of education in health and hygiene,” she predicted. “Women especially will be keen in demanding it. They will realize that it is a foundation of freedom and intellectual development for them. Women cannot make real progress today so long as they are haunted by the fear of undesired pregnancy.”
Sanger said the result would be happier homes, greater mutual respect between husband and wife and honeymoons lasting two or three years before children arrived.
“Four or five generations will develop new men and women with finer susceptibilities, nobler sentiment toward each other and a worthier sense of responsibility toward the race,” Sanger concluded.
Fuel for thought
Future generations would no longer have to dig for coal.
“Long before anthracite is exhausted, necessity will have located a superior substitute somewhere among the atmosphere,” editorialist Herbert Kaufman predicted. “Man hasn’t the faintest notion of forces 50 feet over his head.”
Drilling for oil would also become a thing of the past once scientists developed chemical formulas for new fuels.
“The year 2023 won’t behold a track, a locomotive, a motor truck, a submarine cable, a telegraph line in use anywhere,” Kaufman wrote. “Traffic and communication are moving upstairs, and when properly established there will obtain required energies from power stations which suns and planets have been charging since the heavens were spread.”
Wars of the future
Not everything would be better. War would be more catastrophic than ever.
“Death swifter than light, silent and stealthy as the shadow of a thought, will ride on the wings of radio to destroy nations in the space of a single breath,” New York journalist George Edward Lyndon Jr. wrote in 1923.
“Forces now hidden deep within the heart of nature will be unleashed by man, martialed into battle array and hurled against each other in a titanic struggle which will sweep into oblivion all life in its path like dust motes before a whirlwind.”
He quoted English physicist Archibald M. Low (that guy again), who predicted that warring nations of 2023 would possess such weapons as jets of water charged with electricity to kill all animal life; wireless control of tanks, airplanes, ships and submarines; giant transport airplanes of incredible speed; electrically controlled rockets that could destroy planes; radio “eyes” and “ears” to spy on enemies across thousands of miles; propaganda that would strike terror in rival nations via wireless receivers; and possibly mental telepathy across great distances.
Pretty bleak outlook, huh?
We can do it!
New York restaurateur Alice Foote McDougal, the owner of a coffee company, believed that women would conduct most of the world’s business by 2023.
According to her calculations, the percentage of businesswomen had increased from 14.7% to 21% since 1880 while the percentage of businessmen had fallen 5% to 10% during that time.
“I don’t pretend to predict what the men will do. Someone has to do the housekeeping, I suppose, and if the women are otherwise engaged, the men will have to do it.
“Probably by that time, though, inventors will have relieved human drudgery to such an extent that it will be pretty easy for men.”
Building for the future
Architect Cass Gilbert, designer of the 792-foot Woolworth Building in Manhattan, predicted that future edifices would be shorter.
“Broadly speaking, I believe that buildings in the future, except in the more congested parts of large cities, may be of less height than those of today,” he wrote. “We may, as the result of certain laws, have cities of towers or of terraces and roof gardens.
“In the large centers of population, ground values will probably have advanced very much, therefore owners will be inclined to build higher for the purpose of obtaining more tenants on the land, but with the growth of this condition will come regulatory laws in the general interest of the community and the more scientific planning of our cities will provide for less intensive and crowded usage.”
If Bolsheviks took over the country, though, he feared for the future.
“[It’s] not improbable that architecture may have ceased to exist 100 years from now and that there will be no houses in which to live,” Cast wrote. “Certainly no new ones.”
Age is just a number
You’re only as old as you feel.
“By 2023 the average life of man could be increased to 100 years,” theorized Dr. Eugene Lyman Fisk, an expert on longevity. “In individual cases it could be increased to 150, perhaps 200 years.”
Thanks to advances in medical science and sanitation, he noted, the average life span had already increased 18 years over the previous two decades.
“It is possible for science to bring about an additional increase in life’s span during the next century, as well as place life on a much higher plane,” Fisk wrote.
“The age of youth might be carried up to thirty years and man’s capacity for work maintained until he is seventy or eighty. The physical appearance of human beings might also be changed to some extent.
“I do not say that all this will happen by 2023. I say it is possible.”
Hollywood movie director D.W. Griffith envisioned that the great publishing industry in 100 years would be the publishing of motion pictures instead of print.
“Motion picture libraries will be as common as private libraries — more so,” he wrote.
Talking pictures would have been perfected and perhaps forgotten by then, he noted, because “the world will have become picture trained so that words are not as important as they are now.”
All motion pictures would be in natural colors, but the future was dim for what scientists later called television.
“I do not see the possibility of instantaneous transmission of living action to the screen within 100 years,” Griffith wrote. “There must be a medium upon which the dramatic coherence can be worked out, and the perfected result set firmly before the screen will be permitted to occupy the public’s attention.”
Politics as usual
Future Secretary of State Cordell Hull, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, expected great things from the U.S. government.
“The principles of democracy being eternal, they will necessarily exist a hundred years from now, and the achievements of government, through the application of those principles to changing conditions, will logically be greater than they have been in the last 100 years.
“That there will be two political parties then as now seems almost inevitable if progress is to continue. It is scarcely conceivable that human nature can change in one century sufficiently for all to think alike. In such an event, there would also be danger of inertia — and inertia would mark the beginning of decadence.”
A little off the top
Sir Arthur Kent, an anthropologist from England, predicted that women would have shaved heads and men would have long hair by 2023.
“The barbaric origin of most styles is shown by the feminine aversion to showing the forehead, an instinctive urge to appear low browed, on the theory of Caucasian women of 4,000 years ago that men did not like intellectual women,” he explained.
It might take another century to figure out what he meant.
We’ll drink to that
William H. Anderson, superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League of New York, predicted that 100 years hence, the general public would have long accepted the fact that alcohol is a “habit-forming, irritant, narcotic poison.”
“The beverage use of it will be utterly unknown except among the abnormal, subnormal, vicious and depraved, which classes will largely have been bred out of the race in America,” Anderson proclaimed.
Zingers from 1923
● “The year 2023, the scientists tell us, will see all men wearing flowing, curly locks and all the women with shaven heads. We should worry; we won’t be here.” — The Buffalo Courier in New York
● “Someone dreamed the other night that he was living in the year 2023, and people were going on strike because they only made $125 a day, while the price of eggs had gone up to $10 a dozen.” — The Caledonian-Record in St. Johnsbury, Vermont
● “By the year 2023 it is said that the women will be running all the business of the country. But there won’t be any business to run by that time, judging by the way they are burning up gasoline in 1923.” — The Columbus Daily Advocate in Kansas
● They were excavating in the year 2023.
“What a wealth of possessions this ruler had,” declared one scientist.
“What was his name?” asked another.
“The inscription says ‘Tencentstore.’ ” — The Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky
● “What is the use of predicting what the world will be 100 years hence? It will be the same old world, same old sunshine, same old human nature, and about the same proportion of cranks, agitators, radicals and conservatives.” — The Racine Journal Times in Wisconsin
Mark J. Price can be reached at email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: 100-year-old predictions about 2023