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Best futurists ever: Uber Eats and 10 other things that John Elfreth Watkins Jr. correctly predicted in 1900

Ladies Home Journal headline of predictions.

By Jennifer Richards

When railroad engineer John Elfreth Watkins Jr. wrote for The Ladies Home Journal in 1900, his readers were likely amazed by the predictions in his article “What May Happen In The Next Hundred Years.” After all, at the turn of the 20th century only the wealthiest homes had electricity and most families still used wood or coal for cooking and heating.

However, Watkins said he consulted the “greatest institutions of science and learning” to get advice from the “most learned and conservative minds in America.” From that research, he pulled together his predictions for how life would change before the year 2001.

Perhaps it was the broad base of his research that allowed him to foretell so many innovations of the 20th and 21st century. From food and travel to live television, Watkins made some bold predictions and managed to foresee some of the giant changes ahead.

1. Uber Eats

Readers of The Ladies Home Journal, whose lives were undoubtedly dominated by the relentlessness of domestic food preparation, must have been thrilled to read what Watkins expected of food in the future. He predicted ready-made meals would be delivered to homes—just like Uber Eats:

“Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. They will purchase materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking. Food will be served hot or cold to private houses in pneumatic tubes or automobile wagons.”

In 2018, having benefited for so long from restaurant home delivery, it’s difficult to understand just how much of a revolution Watkins was predicting. He was actually foreseeing the decline in home cooking and society’s dependence on food processing outside the home.

It wasn’t until after the invention of smartphones that this trend manifested in the form of Uber Eats and exploded in popularity (causing some to question the future of home cooking as a common practice). Given the context in which Watkins was writing, his foresight was remarkable.

2. Live TV news

A year before Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio transmission, and 30 years before the BBC began using television technology, Watkins predicted live television broadcasts of world events. He wrote:

“Man will See Around the World. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theatres will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient. The instrument bringing these distant scenes to the very doors of people will be connected with a giant telephone apparatus transmitting each incidental sound in its appropriate place. Thus the guns of a distant battle will be heard to boom when seen to blaze, and thus the lips of a remote actor or singer will be heard to utter words or music when seen to move.”

3. Digital photography

Basic black-and-white photography was well established in Watkins’ time. But he envisioned a future where the technology would develop to the point where photographs were fully and naturally colored—and almost instantaneously available—much like digital photography today. He wrote:

“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later. Photographs will reproduce all of Nature’s colors.”

4. Mobile phones

Twenty-five years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the first practical telephone, Watkins’ had big ideas about the technology’s eventual progress. He predicted cordless telephones for would make clear long-distance calls around the globe:

“Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

5. Cars

The Model T Ford motor car didn’t begin production until 1908, yet Watkins was able to foresee the widespread use of automobiles in 1900. He predicted their use in every aspect of life:

“Automobiles will be cheaper than horses are today. Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. A one-pound motor in one of these vehicles will do the work of a pair of horses or more. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.”

6. Modern farming and food distribution practices

It wasn’t just the widespread use of automobiles in agricultural production that Watkins envisioned. He also anticipated other innovations that have changed the way food is grown since 1900. In particular, he predicted the rise of greenhouses to grow vegetables year-round:

“Winter will be turned into summer and night into day by the farmer. In cold weather he will place heat-conducting electric wires under the soil of his garden and thus warm his growing plants. He will also grow large gardens under glass. At night his vegetables will be bathed in powerful electric light, serving, like sunlight, to hasten their growth.”

He also foresaw the use of genetic modification to grow hardier crops:

“Plants will be made proof against disease microbes just as readily as man is to-day against smallpox.”

He also managed to predict the large-scale, refrigerated transport system that allows consumers to eat any fresh foods they choose, whenever they choose—regardless of the season:

“Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days. The farmers of South America, South Africa, Australia and the South Sea Islands, whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods, which cannot be grown here.”

7. Satellite photography

Almost 60 years before the former Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, John Elfreth Watkins Jr. predicted satellite imaging and its precise magnification power. Admittedly, he wasn’t thinking of space travel when he wrote:

“Balloons and flying machines will carry telescopes of one-hundred-mile vision with camera attachments, photographing an enemy within that radius. These photographs as distinct and large as if taken from across the street.”

8. Modern medical imaging

X-rays were discovered a mere five years before Watkins wrote his predictions. However, they must have been in his mind when he wrote about how medical imaging would develop to reveal all the secrets of the human body.

“The living body will to all medical purposes be transparent. Not only will it be possible for a physician to actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it. This work will be done with rays of invisible light.”

9. A taller population

Watkins expected Americans would grow taller throughout the next century and he turned out to be right. American men now stand almost three inches taller than their forebears did due to the improvements in health and hygiene practices. He wrote:
“The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics.”

10. Nuclear submarines

Submarines were nothing new in 1900. The first one was invented in 1776 and humans had long dreamt of them since ancient times. However, Watkins predicted their eventual strength. He wrote:

“Submarine boats submerged for days will be capable of wiping a whole navy off the face of the deep.”

11. High-speed travel

In a time when steam trains ruled, Watkins saw a very different future for mass transport. He predicted the electric technologies that power the fast trains we have today:

“Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour. There will be cigar-shaped electric locomotives hauling long trains of cars. Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled. Along the railroads there will be no smoke, no cinders, because coal will neither be carried nor burned. There will be no stops for water.”

Some of Watkins’ other predictions about travel and transport in the 21st century missed the mark. For instance, he envisioned future cities without noise pollution, thanks to the absence of traffic. He also wrote that aviation wouldn’t exist outside the military. However, what is clear is that as a futurist he was bold in his predictions. Although they may have seemed far-fetched to his readers, today we’re living in a world in which many of them have come to pass.

Image source: Jonathon Brown