Magazine's Century-Old Predictions Came True

Forecasting the future is always tricky business, but over 100 years ago an article in the Ladies' Home Journal got it right. Audie Cornish speaks with Saturday Evening Post history editor Jeff Nilsson, who reviewed the predictions in a recent article.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The new year is when many journalists crack their knuckles and start churning out trend stories, forecasting the ideas and technology that will shape our lives in the future. It's a practice that goes back a long way, but hardly anyone ever checks up on those predictions.

Well, the "Saturday Evening Post" dug into its archives and found an article from December 1900, titled "What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years." And the author of that article got quite a few things right.

He predicted a slew of future technologies, from battlefield tanks and mobile phones to air-conditioning and digital cameras. Jeff Nilsson is the history editor for the "Post." He is speaking to us from Indianapolis, where the magazine is based. Hello, Jeff.

JEFF NILSSON: Hi.

CORNISH: So the article originally appeared in your sister publication at the time, the "Ladies' Home Journal." But can you give us a sample of one of the predictions, how John Elfreth Watkins described it, and how it applies today?

NILSSON: Sure. One of them is - reading here - the American will be taller from 1 to 2 inches - and that's almost exactly how much the average height of an American has increased in the past 110 years. Another one was a prediction: 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.

CORNISH: Now, who was John Elfreth Watkins, and why was he able to come up with these predictions?

NILSSON: Well, that's a good question because what information we have about him would indicate that he would be a civil engineer, which is the - what he was. He worked for the Smithsonian, putting together a museum of transportation. He worked as a railway engineer for several years. But in all of that, there's not much indication that he would be that much of a visionary, or be able to go that much far out of his realm.

But one of the things he mentioned was that these weren't all his predictions. He had talked with other experts in other museums and other archives, getting their opinions, so it wasn't just his predictions. But on the other hand, we have to give him credit for choosing because I'm sure he got quite a few wild ideas that he ignored.

CORNISH: What are the predictions that just turned out to be flat wrong?

NILSSON: Well, I think when he predicted that the letters C, Q and X were going to drop out of the alphabet - I don't know where that came from...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NILSSON: ...but somebody steered him wrong on that. The fact that food would be delivered through pneumatic tubes to houses and that when people finish the meals, they could send their dirty dishes back to the kitchen by pneumatic tubes - that hasn't exactly panned out.

CORNISH: No. I can tell you from my kitchen sink, that has not panned out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Jeff, what are some of the other predictions that you got a kick out of?

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. And furthermore, they'll be able to do this without the intervention of an operator or a hello girl, as they were called in the 1900s.

Jeff, one thing that's interesting about this is they're all positive changes, right?

NILSSON: Yeah. There is no expectation of many of the tragedies of the 20th century. There's not talk of world wars. There's no talk about diseases or social unrest or strikes, or any of the things that we, I think, would probably find most often in predictions of today, which tend to be a little bit more pessimistic in tone. The 1900s was a time of great faith in science, and science was going to achieve all of these great things.

CORNISH: Jeff Nilsson - he's the history editor for the "Saturday Evening Post." Thank you so much for talking with us, Jeff.

Thanks, Audie.

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