Sunday, April 12, 2009

Science Writer in 1950 Predicts the Year 2000

(Above) The article as it appeared in 1950. Click for larger view.
Click for larger view.
(Above) What? You don’t hose down your living room?

ALL OF US HAVE WONDERED WHAT THE FUTURE WILL BE LIKE. Back in 1950, the science editor for The New York Times, Waldemar Kaempffert, took a stab at predicting what the world would be like in the year 2000. He was wrong with most of his predictions, and completely NUTS on a few others— but old Waldemar did get a few things right.

On the negative, he did not predict the internet, the mapping of the human genome, or the influence of artificial intelligence in our lives. His most accurate prediction in his very long essay (which I have reordered into bullet points for ease of reading) was that things like “vested interests, economics and conservatism may hinder the development of his predictions.” How right he was.

Waldemar used a fictitious city called “Tottenville” as his “city of the future, and the “Dobson family” as the “household of the future.”

Let’s take a look at his predictions and see how accurate he was. My comments are in orange.


Miracles You’ll See In The Next Fifty Years

by Waldemar Kaempffert

February 1950

Science Editor, The New York Times

WHAT WILL the world be like in A.D. 2000? You can read the answer in your home, in the streets, in the trains and cars that carry you to your work, in the bargain basement of every department store. You don’t realize what is happening because it is a piecemeal process. The jet-propelled plane is one piece—the latest insect killer is another. Thousands of such pieces are automatically dropping into their places to form the pattern of tomorrow’s world.

The only obstacles to accurate prophecy are the vested interests, which may retard progress for economic reasons, tradition, conservatism, labor-union policies and legislation. This statement may be the most accurate of all his predictions. Add the costs of war into the mix and you’ll see the biggest setback to technological, infrastructure and other advances.

The best way of visualizing the new world of A.D. 2000 is to introduce you to “the Dobson family,” who live in Tottenville, a hypothetical metropolitan suburb of 100,000 people. There are parks and playgrounds and green open spaces not only around detached houses but also around apartment houses.

• The center of the town is the airport. NOT!

• Surrounding it are business houses, factories and hotels. In concentric circles beyond these lie the residential districts. NOT!

• The highways that radiate from Tottenville are much like those of today, except that they are broader with hardly any curves. YES. If you are talking about the interstate highway system, I’ll give this to him. But there are curves—lot’s of them.

• The highways are double-decked. The upper deck is for fast nonstop traffic; the lower deck is much like our avenues, with brightly illuminated shops. Beneath the lower deck is the level reserved entirely for business vehicles. NOT!

• Tottenville is illuminated by electric “suns” suspended from arms on steel towers 200 feet high. NOT!

• Power plants are not driven by atomic power as you might suppose. NOT!

• It is as hopeless in 2000 as it was in 1950 to drive machinery directly by atomic energy. YES. I can only think of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

• Many farmhouses in the United States are heated by solar rays and some cooking is done by solar heat. NOT!

• The first successful atomic ocean liners began to run in 1970. NOT!

• Steel is used only for cutting tools and for massive machinery. NOT!

• By 2000, wood, brick and stone are ruled out because they are too expensive. NOT!

• Houses are cheap. NOT!

• With all its furnishings, Joe Dobson paid only $5000 for it. Though it is galeproof and weatherproof, it is built to last only about 25 years. NOT!

• Nobody in 2000 sees any sense in building a house that will last a century. NOT!

• When Joe Dobson awakens in the morning he uses a “depilatory.” No soap or safety razor for him. It takes him no longer than a minute to apply the chemical, wipe it off with the bristles and wash his face in plain water. NOT!

• The Dobson’s house is not as highly mechanized as you may suppose, chiefly because of the progress made by the synthetic chemists. There are no dish washing machines, for example, because dishes are thrown away after they have been used once, or rather put into a sink where they are dissolved by superheated water. NOT!

• Two-dozen soluble plastic plates cost a dollar. They dissolve at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, so that boiling-hot soup and stews can be served in them without inviting a catastrophe. The plastics are derived from such inexpensive raw materials as cottonseed hulls, oat hulls, Jerusalem artichokes, fruit pits, soybeans, bagasse, straw and wood pulp. Not, but I like the idea. Not plastic plates, but environmentally friendly plates made of natural stuff.

• When Jane Dobson cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. 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. WAA-HAAA-HAAA!! NOT!!!!

• Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. NOT!

• Jane Dobson throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. NOT!

• Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but Jane Dobson has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order. NOT!

• Cooking as an art is only a memory in the minds of old people. NOT!

• 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. NOT! NOT!

• This expansion of the frozen-food industry and the changing gastronomic habits of the nation have made it necessary to install in every home the electronic industrial stove which came out of World War II. Yes (the microwave).

• Jane Dobson has one of these electronic stoves. In eight seconds a half-grilled frozen steak is thawed; in two minutes more it is ready to serve. NOT!

• Discarded paper table “linen” and rayon underwear are bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy. NOT!! NOT!! NOT!!

• Of course the Dobson’s have a television set. But it is connected with the telephones as well as with the radio receiver, so that when Joe Dobson and a friend in a distant city talk over the telephone they also see each other. NOT! Skype.

• Businessmen have television conferences. Yes.

• In fact, Jane Dobson does much of her shopping by television. Department stores obligingly hold up for her inspection bolts of fabric or show her new styles of clothing. Yes. Here, we have to give him credit, as “television” can be substituted for the computer internet.

• Automatic electronic inventions that seem to have something like intelligence integrate industrial production so that all the machines in a factory work as units in what is actually a single, colossal organism. Yes.

• There are mechanical wrenches that obediently turn nuts on bolts and stop all by themselves when the bolts are in place, shears that know exactly where to cut a sheet of metal for a perfect fit. Every operation in the plant is electronically and automatically controlled. Yes, cars and products are built by robots.

• One of the more remarkable electronic machines of 2000 is a development of an automaton that can predict the weather with an accuracy unattainable before 1980. It is a combination of calculating machine and forecaster. Yes, called computer aided forecasting.

• The calculator solves thousands of separate equations in a minute. Yes!

• In 1950, meteorologists had no time to deal with the 50-odd variables that should have been mathematically handled to predict the weather 24 hours in advance. In 2000, automatic forecaster carries out the computer’s instructions and predicts the weather from hour to hour. Yes!

• Storms are more or less under control. NOT!

• It is easy enough to spot a budding hurricane in the doldrums off the coast of Africa. Yes, because of satellites.

• Before it has a chance to gather much strength and speed as it travels westward toward Florida, oil is spread over the sea and ignited, creating an updraft. Air from the surrounding region, which includes the developing hurricane, rushes in to fill the void. The rising air condenses so that some of the water in the whirling mass falls as rain. NOT!! NOT!! NOT!!

• With storms diverted where they do no harm, aerial travel is never interrupted. NOT!!

• By the year 2000, supersonic planes cover a thousand miles an hour, but the consumption of fuel is such that high fares have to be charged. Yes, the Concorde traveled at 1,490 mph.

• In one of these supersonic planes the Atlantic is crossed in three hours. Yes.

• Nobody has yet circumnavigated the moon in a rocket space ship. NOT!

• Corporation presidents, bankers, ambassadors and rich people in a hurry use the 1000-mile-an-hour rocket planes and think nothing of paying a fare of $5000 between Chicago and Paris. Yes, in the year 2000 a ticket on the Concorde cost over $8,000.

• Cities have grown into regions, and it is sometimes hard to tell where one city ends and another begins. Yes.

• Instead of driving from Tottenville to California in their car—teardrop in shape and driven from the rear by a high-compression engine that burns cheap denatured alcohol. NOT!

• The Dobsons use the family helicopter, which is kept on the roof. NOT!

• The railways are just as necessary in 2000 as they are in 1950. Yes.

• They haul chiefly freight too heavy or too bulky for air cargo carriers. Yes.

• Passenger travel by rail is a mere trickle. Yes, compared to the use of cars.

• Commuters go to the city, a hundred miles away, in huge aerial busses that hold 200 passengers. Hundreds of thousands make such journeys twice a day in their own helicopters. NOT!

• It takes no more than a minute to transmit and receive in facsimile a five-page letter on paper of the usual business size. Cost? Five cents. Yes.

• In the middle of the 20th century, doctors talked much of such antibiotics as penicillin, streptomycin, aureomycin and about 50 others that had been extracted from soil and other molds. It was the beginning of what was even then known as chemotherapy—cure by chemical means. Yes.

• By the year 2000, physicians have several hundred of these chemical agents or antibiotics at their command. Tuberculosis in all of its forms is cured as easily as pneumonia was cured at mid-century. Yes.

• It is no longer is necessary in 2000 to administer the purified extracts of molds to cope with bacterial infections. The antibiotics are all synthesized in chemical factories. It is possible to modify their molecular structure, so that they acquire new and useful properties. Yes.

• Men and women of 70 in A.D. 2000 look as if they were 40. Yes.

• Wrinkles, sagging cheeks, leathery skins are curiosities or signs of neglect. Yes, somewhat, but cosmetic surgery is a big help in the year 2000.

• The span of life has been lengthened to 85. NOT. The average age for an American man today is 73.

• Virus diseases as influenza and the common cold are cured with ease. NOT!

• Even in the 20th century hospitals were packed with instruments and machines. The hospitals of 2000 have even more. Instead of taking electrocardiographs, doctors place heart patients in front of a fluoroscopic screen, turn on the X-rays and then, with the aid of a photoelectric cell, examine every section of the heart. I am going to have to say YES. If you consider the CAT and PET scan, this is correct. NOT to the fluroscope.

• Cancer is not yet curable in 2000. But physicians optimistically predict that the time is not far off when it will be cured. Yes.

• Any marked departure from what Joe Dobson and his fellow citizens wear and eat and how they amuse themselves will arouse comment. NOT!

• If old Mrs. Underwood, who lives around the corner from the Dobson’s and who was born in 1920 insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is as light as thistledown, she must expect people to talk about her “queerness.” NOT!


Kim and David said...

I'm looking for the "hose down your living room" to come true - quickly, I might add - I'm cleaning house today. The Easter bunny left too many tracks in the dust on the floor. Kim

John Foster said...

It's a great insane feeling. Try it. And while you are doing it, laugh loudly so the neighbors can hear!

Linda Davick said...


• Houses are cheap. NOT!

• With all its furnishings, Joe Dobson paid only $5000 for it.


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