Looking Forward, by Ray Brosseau
|This book, published in 1970, contains essays, excerpts and anecdotes from the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A few of the essays are intended as predictions. An entry titled Inventions That Ought to be Invented was extracted from an article
by Hudson Maxim, an inventor of the period, that appeared in the Woman’s Home Companion, and also, the Duluth Evening Herald on Wednesday,
November 18, 1903. It can be read on Steve Carper’s website, Flying Cars and Food Pills. You should
check out this website, in any case, since it will educate and entertain you
about predictions. Carper includes another article by Maxim from Cosmopolitan,
November 1908, along with several pertinent comments about Mr. Maxim’s
predictions, and the general subject of what has self-consciously begun calling
itself futurism. His site is a must-see for anyone interested in the future’s
history. We will provide a rough score keeping of Mr. Maxim’s future-sight. |
Maxim addresses three main problems, light, heat and food.
He sees electricity, and maybe radiation, as the answer. He predicts electric
lights will become cheaper, longer lasting, and brighter. Right.
Coal was the energy source of choice at the time and he considered its main problem to be the inefficiency of the energy extraction. At that time he estimated its efficiency at 14%. He didn’t make any concrete predictions, just cited this as a problem to be solved. Currently coal fired power plants around the world operate at about 31% efficiency. Right.
Maxim foresaw the depletion of coal, petroleum and other combustibles and cited the pace of research then occurring on solar energy. The means to gather and store the sun’s bounty in usable form then awaited its invention. He didn’t predict it. Progress has been made but we still await that invention. He got this right.
On food supply, Maxim envisioned enlarging the products of agriculture, big blackberries, big apples and cantaloupes and so forth, through the use of electric currents in hothouse soil. The current would ward off microbe infestations, and weeds and invigorate growth. Hothouse plants do exist but do not dominate agriculture by any means and we are not passing electric currents to their roots. We are not producing giant produce. Wrong.
Maxim rightly saw fixing nitrogen as the premier agricultural
problem to be solved and predicted it would be solved. Right. Fritz Haber won
the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918, fifteen years after Maxim’s prediction,
for inventing the Haber process for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and
hydrogen. He, Haber, is also known as the father of chemical warfare for
weaponizing chlorine gas.
Maxim predicted drugs would no longer be ingested as pills but would be administered through the skin in some mysterious use of electricity and X-rays. Wrong, or at least, not yet, although we do have drug absorption through the skin from “patches.” Not really what he predicted, and has not replaced pills.
But, he also predicted the use of X-rays, photographs, and microscopes, and later developments of this type would provide detailed imaging of the interior of the human body. Right.
Electricity will revolutionize the kitchen. Right.
Radium may also be used as a heat and light source in the kitchen. Wrong.
Maxim predicted instant, universal, wireless communication of voice and images, for personal use. Astoundingly correct. This prediction would have appeared fanciful a mere twenty years ago.
He predicted what we now call world-wide coverage by television of any event, at any time, from any place in the world. Right.
He predicted use of cameras in warfare for battlefield surveillance. Right.
He predicted the cameras would be carried by balloons. OK, it happens, but, mostly Wrong. He didn’t anticipate the airplane.
Aerial navigation (by which he seems to have meant balloons) will eventually be mastered. OK, but not a prediction of heavier than air flight.
The real transportation story of the future will be very, very fast trains. Wrong.
Maxim foresees improvements in automobiles but does not foresee their universal use as the go-to transportation solution of the century. Wrong.
Maxim sees the invention of a cheap, practical storage battery as an important problem but does not predict its solution. Right.
He suggests the arrival of color photography, as well as what we would call color television, and color printing. Right.
He predicts color-fast fabrics using an enlarged palette of colors. Right.
Maxim calls for but doesn’t predict invention of a bottle that would prevent refilling with adulterated substances, e.g. fake wines and medicines. Not yet.
Maxim predicts radium will be used to restore sight, heat and light homes and provide many other benefits to the casual user. Wrong.
In the Cosmopolitan article, Maxim covers much of the same ground but throws in some intriguing depth of insight. He starts with a fanciful description of seeing into the past: “Could we fly out through space, and with a speed sufficiently great, we should overtake the rays of reflected light that left our earth thousands and millions of years ago; and had we infinite eyes we could, as we went, look back and behold the history of our earth unravel, see the return of man to the ape-like thing, see him and all animate forms finally converge upon the moneron plunged in the azoic sea.”
His description is notable today for having seemed learned at the time, but it was downgraded to fiction only two years later when Einstein proved faster-than-light travel impossible.
He follows this with a description of the, then current, billiard-balls concept of reality.
“Every atom in existence follows a course mathematically exact—a course determined for it by the combined forces exerted upon it of all the other atoms in existence and as exact as the orbit of a star… There is no haphazard in nature. There is no such thing as luck or chance.”Twenty-two years later Schrodinger formulated his wave-function equations that prompted Einstein’s famous complaint, “God does not play dice with the universe.” He made the statement because that is exactly what Schrodinger seemed to have shown. There is, indeed, something like luck or chance in nature.
Maxim then makes a comment that resonates down the decades in perfect harmony with what we think we know today.
“Standing here upon the threshold of all that is yet to be, had we infinite knowledge of causes now operating, and of their trend, we should have infinite foresight too; but our knowledge is so small and our powers are so finite that we can at best but speculate and generalize.”
We now recognize that slight imprecisions of our observations and measurements, yield wildly divergent conclusions about the future.
Maxim believed the era of material achievement, engineering and invention and so forth, of the nineteenth century would be followed by an era of sociological advancement, “an age of intellectual and moral perfecting.”
He foresaw what we would today call
a globalizing of viewpoint, a citizen of the world kind of advancement that
would move beyond nationalism and patriotism. Much of his sermonizing on this
subject is the usual stuff we’ve sorted through, and continue to sort through
about common purpose and coming together and so on. One aspect of his thinking
“There can be no millennium, no way of making complete living common, until there shall have been weeded out of the great human garden the obnoxious plants that now grow rank in the hothouse of unbridled passions, fertilized by drugs and watered with alcohol.
"The wrong are
weak: the right are strong:
This mean the two terms, right and wrong.
And truth sought out to any length
Finds all wrong weakness; all right, strength."
Thus it is that, before we pass into any human paradise, we must go by the somber prison-house, the reformatory, and the hospital.”
He seems to have meant this cleansing to proceed
with bureaucratic efficiency. He outlines how the criminal and undesirable
elements of society will be segregated and allowed to die out of their own
accord within well secured, humanely run, reservations. It is chilling to read
these predictions, of course, because we can see the influence of such thinking
in events that actually occurred in the last century. He is voicing the mainstream intellectual conceit of his day.
Maxim predicts the elimination of disease through an electro-osmosis, or cataphoresis, process in which cleansing agents like chlorine will be flushed through the living tissue of humans, thus destroying all microorganisms, and thus all disease. Such thinking as this led to experiments in the 1920s with inhaling chlorine gas to cure the common cold. It was advocated for use in public schools, but I don’t believe it happened. Maxim, of course, failed to understand three things about disease. One, all microorganisms are not bad, indeed we are in a symbiotic relationship with many of them. Two, killing them without killing the host is much more difficult than he imagined.
Three, much disease is not caused by microorganisms.
Maxim predicted the conquest of the air, but it isn’t certain he anticipated anything other than very efficient balloons.
Maxim recognized the need for a new and better source of energy. He believed the matter urgent because of the rapid exhaustion of all combustibles. He expected all such energy sources to be gone within a few generations. He also anticipated our current concerns about the atmospheric changes brought about by burning things for fuel. We are amused at some of his specifics but he reckoned right on flagging the problem itself.
Maxim anticipated the rise of cities and the decline of rural life. He foresaw entertainment by what we would call television.
He foresaw the changes to warfare from advanced surveillance and communication.
He anticipated the thorough bee-hiving of great cities. All buildings would be merged into a single construction, thousands of feet high. It would be a glorious place, free of criminals, and therefore of crime, free of germs, and therefore of disease. Largely free of work because of the cheap and abundant sources of energy. I believe he was banking on radium. Missing from Maxim’s vision were computers. He gives no hint of the idea whatsoever. The notion of machines instantly working out complex algorithms to imitate and anticipate human and natural activity seems to have been nowhere in his vision.
In summarizing Maxim, we conclude he was primarily an extrapolater, not a visionary. He foresaw the hyper efficiency of things he saw around him. Of the truly revolutionary events of the twentieth century, he had no inkling, just as we have little inkling of what will be invented next, in our world.
Continuing with our review of Looking Forward, we find an article on the Wright brothers flight at Kitty Hawk. The article appeared in Colliers Magazine on January 23, 1904, a month after the historic first flight. This is a news report, not a prediction, but it ends with this prescient paragraph. “Professors LangleyandMaximexperimentedalongthe linesofa realflying machineasdistinctfrom thedirigibleballoonsofSantosDumontandLebaudy.Buttheeminentscientistand thebrilliantinventorwithfortunesat their disposalhave notbeenrewardedwith thesuccessof theseamateurishmechanicians.Amachinenot akite, thatpropelsitselfagainstastrongwind,isundercontrolandsteerage,landswithoutconvertingitselfintoascrapheap,issomething newunder the sun.” Something new, indeed.
Looking Forward also reprints an article from the same Colliers edition on “The Automobile in Warfare.” Again, it is not a prediction, exactly, but a recounting of the state of affairs at that time. It is interesting to note that the use of automobiles by the American military was the sandbox of the Signal Corps, at that time. They were used for troops and equipment and there was even a thing that looked like the old Confederate ironclad Merrimack on wheels.
The book has several borderline Luddite comments about the rapid pace of change and the sudden fracturing of customs by new technology. Typical is an article from the Saturday Evening Post of 1905. It recounts the remarkable travel times of the age, eighteen hours from New York to Chicago, instantaneous voice communication that allows a man to ask any “fool question that comes into his mind,” across the Atlantic in five days. Who can comprehend such speeds?
A more traditional prediction appears in Looking Forward in the republication of an article from Harper’s Weekly of May 16, 1903. In the centenary issue of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth, his picture appears on the cover, we read of the scheme of Professor A. C. Albertson to cross the continent in ten hours via a train suspended from its rails on magnets. In a design approaching perpetual motion, the professor claims theheavier the load, the less power required to move it. “Five hundred amperes for example will lift at Least 60 tons, moving tons of which, ordinarily, requires a steam locomotive, but which, suspended, can be drawn by a few horse power. The current for the purpose could be picked up from a wire along the track or from storage batteries placed in the cars.”
Otis T. Mason posits the
“Dwellling-House of the Twentieth Century as a structure with stairs replaced
by elevators, heating and lighting done by electricity, cooling done by liquid
air, cooking and refrigeration also contributed by electricity, an ample amount
of which will be delivered by a single wire from a common provider. Furniture
will be simple and mostly made of metal. “Automata” will not have replaced
household labor, however, and certainly there will be no machine “waiting at
table.” Everything is electric from the dumbwaiter to the housewife’s sewing
machine. It even runs the automatic piano, “and might be made to agitate the
baby’s cradle, only that people in 1950 have learned to know that infants are
apt to be rendered stupid, or even idiotic, by rocking them. Furthermore,
outside the home, on the street, “There is no dust, mainly because there are no
horses in the towns. Other modes of transportation vastly superior and safer
have replaced vehicles drawn by horses, and with the departure of those
banished animls many evils have disappeared. For example, there are no longer
many house flies, which breed almost exclusively in street filth, and certain
infectious diseases long suspected of propagation by those insects are much
less common.” The houses will be built of “artificial stone.” Strangely, there
is no mention of plumbing.
In a later article the book again reaffirms the later building of houses from artificial materials “such as concrete.” Again there is a certainty about lighting by electricity, this time by “tubes of electrified vapor,” heating by electricity, and cooking by electricity. Again, no mention of water supply or sewage.
Education was to be much better. E. B. Andrews, Chancellor of the University of Nebraska, wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post, which Mr. Brosseau republished as a prediction in his book. Mr. Andrews found much lacking in then current education, and apparently believed all his observed problems would be solved by his successors in the Twentieth Century. Schools would be managed responsibly by specialists. There would be less dependence on “involuntary attention” and more on teaching interesting things interestingly. The curriculum would be expanded to art, manual training, music and much more beyond simple rote learning of reading, writing and arithmetic. Good morals would become part of the curriculum. He summarizes his concerns with the following lament.
“Too many boys and girls after leaving school show evident disinclination to make strenuous effort of any kind. They lack the power of strong exertion, resolution, courage, grit—sand. They are afraid to take the initiative. The school teaching of the next century will correct this developing the strenuous qualities in children. The pupil will cease to feel that he must be extraneously interested before he can act. Instead of looking to his teacher for interest, as the pedagogy of gushhas taught him, he will learn to find that quality within himself. It will no longer be beaten into his mind that his teacher must amuse him, keep him attentive. A suggested task may be never so dull or hard, he will still be able to think of it as required, as having claims upon him. Plenty of the tonic of driving the will to perform unpleasant duties will be continually be given him.”
To which many today would say, “Amen,” agreeing with his concern and denying much progress was made over the century.
There is much handwringing over the college education. Former president, Grover Cleveland authors an answer to the question, “Does the College Education Pay?” He concludes it does. Charles Thwing, President of Western Reserve University and Adelbert College, Cleveland, answers the question, “Should Railroad Men be College Men?” He thus addresses a burning pedagogical question of the moment, and endorses the advance of the then dominant technology. He concludes college will be imperative for railroad men in the twentieth century.
In foreign policy there is an article on, “The Future of
Cuba,” evidently a burning issue at the time. The solution addressed by author,
Carl Schurz, is to incorporate Cuba into the United States, evidently seen at
the time as the direction of much public clamor. Schurz doesn’t really predict
anything but he is clearly against it, on what he calls historical grounds and
what, to our ears, sounds more like racial grounds.
James A. Hart, President of the Chicago Leauge Ball Club, gives us an answer to the quesiton, “Is Our National Game Doomed?” The agency of its doom is evidently the rivalry between the National and American Leagues, and his answer is, no, it is not doomed. There will be a solution to the rivalry involving an overarching rule making body. The most intersting feature about the article’s appearance in Looking Forward is the accompanying illustration from the Life Magazine issue of August 10, 1905. The illustration correctly identifies the adoption of American baseball by varied ethnic groups. Our cringing assessment of this presentation as being blatantly racist would have baffled its viewers at the time, a reminder of things unforeseen through the opaqueness of future vision.
So, how did we do against our expectations? The authors of the Looking Forward predictions got a few things on our list, but not many and not any of the truly momentous, game changing events. The few attempts at truly long-term vision, seeing the depletion of fossil fuels, for example, and total success in the war on disease, sound naïve and wrong headed. So, also, with the utopian predictions of moral perfection.