Our visions of the future have always been more complex than hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers.
Sure, there were the various tropes from many bad sci-fi movies (and a few good ones), such as food in pill form, flying cars, personal jetpacks and robot butlers. But futurists also envisioned brave new worlds that have since been entirely forgotten — the death of the letters C, X and Q, for example, not to mention the use of discarded underwear to manufacture candy (ew).
We doff our caps to Paleofuture for making these future-happy predictions from years hence so easily available. Below, we’ve resuscitated a few of our favorites, which have yet to come true.
1. Say goodbye to the letters C, X and Q (1900)
“These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible,” begins a 1900 article in Ladies’ Home Journal. “Yet they have come from the most conservative and learned minds in America.”
These “learned minds” suggested that by the year 2000, certain letters of the alphabet would simply vanish: “There will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will be second.”
2. Flying bicycles mean empty cities (1909)
In 1909, Jules Bois, alternately referred to by The New York Times as a “mystic,” a “litterateur” and a “Frenchman,” rightly predicted that the era’s ideal of feminine beauty would be overturned: “Physical weakness, extreme delicacy of physiognomy and acquiescence in a mere secondary position in the social organization will have given place to a type in which beauty and muscular development will be combined.” (See: fitspo.)
He then went on to make a few less prescient claims, predicting that “a kind of flying bicycle will have been invented which will enable everybody to traverse the air at will, far above the earth. Hardly any one will remain in the cities at night. They will be places of business only. People of every class will reside in the country or in garden towns at considerable distances from the populous centers.”
3. Everything will be coated in plastic, and food comes in frozen bricks (1950)
In an issue of Popular Mechanics, the incredibly-named Waldemar Kaempffert, then science editor of The New York Times, envisioned a future in which everything is either disposable or recyclable. To illustrate his point, he came up with a hypothetical family, the Dobsons, living in a hypothetical town called Tottenville (population 100,000).
“When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything,” Kaempffert wrote. “Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors — all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) Jane turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything.”
With the advent of frozen foods in the shape of bricks, he adds, “cooking as an art is only a memory in the minds of old-people. A few die-hards still broil a chicken or roast a leg of lamb, but the experts have developed ways of deep-freezing partially baked cuts of meat. Even soup and milk are delivered in the form of frozen bricks.” Furthermore, Jane Dobson can serve a steak in less than three minutes, and an elaborate multi-course meal never takes more than half an hour to prepare.
Oh, and discarded linens and underwear are recycled and turned into candy.
4. 3D television, complete with “smellevision” (1950)
By the year 2000, “third-dimensional color television will be so commonplace and so simplified…that a small device will project pictures on the living room wall so realistic they will seem to be alive,” according to an Associated Press article that ran in the Lumberton, N.C. Robesonian. Accurate enough, except for the part about incorporating smells into the TV-viewing experience: “The room will automatically be filled with the aroma of the flower garden being shown on the screen.”
Another audio-visual forecast described the movie theaters of the future as dome-shaped arenas with screens covering the walls and ceilings. “These surfaces would be the ‘screen.’ Most action would still be in front of you, as now. But some could be overhead, some at the sides, and some even on the wall behind. A little girl steps into a street in the action before you — and you turn around and look behind you to see if an auto is coming.”
5. Space travel for all (1952)
In a 1952 article from the Kentucky New Era, scientists at two separate conventions — the International Congress of Astronautics in London and the American Chemical Society in New York — cheerily predicted the end to most diseases, as well as overpopulation, by the year 2000. In their vision of the future, solar power is the dominant form of energy and “journey through space in rocket ships” is a common and economically viable form of transportation.
Dr. Werner von Braun testified that we would overcome most of the problems associated with space exploration by the end of the 1950s. “The first step toward true space navigation [will be] earth moons — man-made satellites high in the earth’s atmosphere,” the New Era paraphrased. “Persons stationed on these earth moons continuously circling 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.”
6. Underground homes, with automated kitchens (1964)
In 1964, science fiction author Isaac Asimov imagined what the 2014 World’s Fair would look like for The New York Times (there isn’t one, so he’s already wrong on that count). Most of his predictions were highly astute, which should come as no surprise from a man who lived and breathed visions of the future. But when he wasn’t foreseeing cheap and effective birth control, “mock-turkey” and smart technology, he was wrongly predicting human colonies on the moon, hovercraft and underground cities.
“Men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better,” he wrote. “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button… Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.
“Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare ‘automeals,’ heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on. Breakfasts will be ‘ordered’ the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning,” he continued.
7. Communal showers for hippie homes (1972)
Interior design experts in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern predicted that the hippie trend — or what they called “long-haired culture” — would dictate housing needs by the year 2000. Communal dormitories, child-rearing facilities and kitchens would be the norm.
“One large room for meetings, recreation, group therapy and the like will be furnished sparsely, but it will at least be carpeted since ‘space, materials and group interaction needs will make floor sitting important,'” one expert suggested.
“Bedrooms in the dormitory wings will be for individual couples because ‘group sex is rare,'” the article adds. “But preferences will be for ‘gang, rather than individual showers and lavatories.'”
8. Colonies on the moon, of course! (1982)
In 1982, The New York Times polled futurists, including noted proponent of the Singularity, Ray Kurzweil, to find out what the next 20 years would bring. Kurzweil’s conservative predictions included electric automobiles and smaller families — “one child or none” — as well as more cooperative workplaces.
Independent futurist Barbara Hubbard had a more radical view of the year 2002: “There are the materials of a thousand earths on the moon and asteroids,” she told the Times. “In 20 years, there is the possibility of a cosmic civilization.” However, Hubbard cautioned that “the infantile species” — humans — must “take its mind off destruction and concentrate on construction” in order to realize this dream.
We must have failed.