WASHINGTON – Turn-of-the-century dreamers weren’t too off the mark when they predicted we would be riding in “airships,” traveling in express trains at 100 mph and living longer lives by the end of the 20th century.
Scientists and inventors even forecast communication with “at least with Mars, if not with other planets,” although they likely thought we would be talking to Martians instead of the U.S. space probes that have crash-landed on the Red Planet recently.
But some other predictions in 1900 and 1901 editions of The (Baltimore) Sun were out of this world.
Futurists of the past predicted that by 2000 we would have abolished all contagious diseases, “including consumption,” that longer life expectancy would make centenarians “the rule and not the exception” and that the U.S. population would reach a whopping 200 million people.
Wrong on all counts, including the population estimate by none other than the director of the Census Bureau at the time, identified only as a Mr. Merriam. Current census estimates put the U.S. population at about 275 million and the number of centenarians at about 70,000 — twice the 1900 number, but hardly the rule.
“What the director’s projection in 1901 shows is that when you make a projection you can expect to be wrong,” said Gregory Spencer, the current chief of the population projections branch at the Census Bureau. “We’re always going to be wrong — it’s just a matter of how wrong.”
Spencer knows something about projections — his office is predicting that the U.S. population will boom to 393 million by 2050 and the number of centenarians will increase more than ten-fold, to 834,000.
“But it’s so hard to make assumptions,” said Spencer, who cautions that today’s educated guesses are “subject to the same possible errors” as those of Mr. Merriam.
Such is the risk of the prediction game, said Jim Burke, president of the local chapter of the World Future Society, a group that forecasts the future.
“It takes an unusual ability to synthesize not only all the different aspects of technology, but also the evolution of culture,” said Burke. “It also calls for a sense of adventure — not fantasy — as much as great creativity.”
Farmers at the turn of the century, for example, were being told that the 1900s would “surpass all other periods in the improvement of agricultural implements,” according to a Sun article about a speech on “The Implement Trade of the Twentieth Century.” But the speaker, J.S. Rawlings, was a little off the mark when he predicted farmers would be using a “do-it-all” machine that would do “plowing, harrowing, rolling and seeding by one operation.”
Many of the predictions from the last century’s soothsayers looked to outer space, a result of the 1877 discovery of channels on Mars, termed the “canal craze” by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The Italian astronomer who first saw streaks on the surface of Mars just before the last turn of the century described them as “canali,” the Italian word for channels. But the term was incorrectly translated to mean canals, implying that Mars had residents intelligent enough to build a system of canals.
As the century turns again, there is still no conclusive evidence of life in outer space — yet. But scientists are saying it might not be too far off.
“One of the most exciting things that we hope to do in the next century is to detect Earth-like planets around other stars and actually see if they have life on them,” said George Withbroe, director of NASA’s Sun-Earth Connection program.
Withbroe said NASA scientists can detect signatures of extra-terrestrial life — it’s just a matter of getting a telescope big enough to see if it is actually there.
As if that was not enough, NASA also aims to solve the mystery of how the universe formed, Withbroe said.
“We have a lot of the pieces of the puzzle and we should have that puzzle together in the next century,” he said.
A century ago, outside-the-box thinkers were predicting that people in 2000 would be “wrapt every night in admiring study of planets,” instead of watching such earthly entertainment as plays. Others guessed that we would think, as people of the 19th century did, that “the play’s the thing.”
No one predicted the advent of the television. Today, the average American adult watches television for just a minute shy of four hours every day, according to statistics from the Nielsen Media Research group.
“There’s always been a fascination with other planets,” Burke said, of his predictor predecessors at the turn of the century. “If there were people up there, and as we were seeing the telephone emerge, it would not take a great leap of imagination to think that why can’t we talk to other planets.”