Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One hundred years in the future: A vision glimpsed from 1906

Presented to the Club on May 22, 2006 by Albert E. Easton

By the wise provision of Providence, the future is closed from our eyes. While we can often make predictions with reasonable accuracy, we are never one hundred percent sure of what the future will be. But suppose that we could be. Imagine, if you will, that this paper is being presented to the Monday Evening Club of 1906, telling them what the year 2006 will be like. Surely, some of the future will be as they imagined it, but much of it will seem fantastic and far-fetched, even though the predictions are completely accurate. As I read, you might think about how much life has changed in 100 years, and try to imagine how it will change in another 100 years.

To set the stage, I ask you to imagine that you are in the parlor of one of the fine houses of Pittsfield, awaiting the presentation of this paper. In the dining room, servants are clearing the remains of the fine dinner we have just been served. Cigars have been distributed, but not brandy, since the host, and about half the other members are tee-totalers, very supportive of efforts to amend the constitution to prohibit alcohol of all kinds. The group is somewhat larger than we see tonight, since the club had over thirty members in those days, none from any farther away than Dalton, because of the difficulties of transportation. Members from as far away as Williamstown, let alone Albany, would have had no expedient way to attend meetings.

The speaker has just taken his seat under the brightest gas lamp. The host has made the usual preliminary announcements and has introduced the speaker, who lights up his cigar and begins as follows:

Good evening, Gentlemen, and welcome to our final meeting of 1906. My purpose tonight, is to tell you what the year 2006 will be like. It would be impossible, of course, to cover all aspects, but I hope to give you a good idea of what life will be like in that far distant future. First of all, let me say that the United States will endure to that year with the same democratic form of government as we have today. It will be somewhat different, however. Instead of 45 states we will have 50. Oklahoma Territory, which is already well on its way, will be added, and I’m sure most of you can guess that the next two will be New Mexico and Arizona. You would probably have trouble guessing the last two, though.

Our population will double, and then double again. There will be nearly 300 million Americans in our country, compared to 75 million today. Most of this increase will take place in the south and west, however. California and Florida will have huge increases, but Massachusetts will only double from the 3 million of today to 6 million. Pittsfield will not increase much at all. The population in the city in 2006 will be just under 50,000.

This increase in population will require significant changes in transportation and communication, subjects I expect to spend a fair amount of time on in this survey. The most significant change in transportation will be in the development of the private automobile. I realize a few of you have arrived here tonight by automobile, but you can have no idea of what the automobiles of 2006 will be like. First of all, there will be a great many of them - well over 150 million on the roads of this country, more than one for every two people. They will be easy to drive, and capable of speeds as fast as the fastest railroad engine. And they will be comfortable. The driver and each passenger will sit in a comfortable armchair, in an enclosed compartment whose temperature will be adjustable, both winter and summer. Heat from the motor will be circulated in the winter, and electrical refrigeration equipment will be used to lower the temperature in the summertime. Almost never will there be a paid driver, because the experience of driving will so enjoyable. If the occupants want to listen to music, it will easily be available, by means of several mechanisms, similar, in effect, to today’s phonograph, but sounding nearly as clear as if the orchestra were in the room. Powerful electric lights on the front will permit driving comfortably at night, and wipers run by an electric motor will keep the windshield clear in case of rain or snow.

You may wonder how much all this comfort and convenience will cost, and you probably will be surprised to hear that the average cost of a new automobile in 2006 will be in excess of $10,000. But you need to understand that a large part of this high cost results from a significant change in price levels that will take place over the next 100 years. By 2006, the price of an ounce of gold will be about $700, and since an ounce is slightly more than the weight of a $20 gold piece, that will give you some idea of the change in price levels. If you are imagining $1,000 gold pieces in circulation, that will not happen. All large transactions in 2006 will involve either paper money or checks and other types of direct transfer.

How will anyone afford to pay as much as $10,000 for an automobile? Wages will rise even faster than prices. Instead of representing 20 years pay for the average factory worker, as it does now, $10,000 will be less than 4 months pay. Moreover, most workers will be working only about 40 hours a week instead of the 55 that is now typical. Even with the higher pay, probably many people would find it difficult to raise the amount required for an automobile were it not for the fact that loans will be very readily available. An employed worker will have very little difficulty borrowing the cost of a new car from a bank and repaying the balance over 4 or 5 years, with the value of the automobile standing as collateral for the loan.

So almost every family will have an automobile. And this will make for many changes in daily life. Streets and roads will be much more extensive than they are today. And all, every one, even the shortest lane, will be paved with asphalt or concrete. High speed highways will extend across the country, and it will be possible to drive from here to California in a matter of a few days. Stations will be available along these roads selling the gasoline necessary for the automobiles of 2006.

Imagine the confusion caused by hundreds of private automobiles (and also some commercial gasoline powered vehicles) trying to proceed through Park Square at speeds as fast as 30 miles per hour. How will this be made to work? There will be a detailed set of laws and regulations covering movement of traffic. For example, at many intersections there will be electric lights, a green one showing when it is that line of traffic’s turn to proceed, and a red one meaning stop and wait. Licenses to drive will be issued to drivers only after they have learned the laws and demonstrated their knowledge by passing a test. Failure to obey the laws may result in fines, loss of license, or even, in some cases, a jail sentence.

Travel for long distances will only rarely be done by automobile, however. You are probably aware of the experiments in heavier than air flying machines that the Wright Brothers of Ohio have been conducting over the past several years. By 2006 the “airplanes” as these machines will be called, will offer public transportation to all at extremely high speeds - up to 600 miles per hour, so that at trip from Boston to San Francisco might last only 5 or 6 hours. And the cost will be quite reasonable, allowing for the change in price and earnings levels - a round trip to San Francisco would cost about $400. Transatlantic, and even transpacific, flights will allow trips to Europe or Asia at similar speeds and costs.

The relatively low costs of these flights, by the way, will be made possible by the huge size of the airplanes used. Since you probably find it amazing that a heavier than air craft can even rise off the ground, which it can, you probably will find it difficult to believe that a craft capable of carrying 400 people could do so, but that is just what will happen. You also may be surprised to think that any one but a daredevil would allow himself to be lifted to a height of 6 or 7 miles (the altitude at which these machines will fly) but thanks to careful training of those who maintain and operate them, they will have an excellent safety record.

One of the consequences of the expansion of automobile use and the introduction of airplanes will be the virtual demise of the railroads. Not a single town in Berkshire County will have any actual operational railroad trains except Pittsfield, and Pittsfield will be limited to one train each day to Albany and one to Boston. The railroad station will be a small shack down by the railroad track, not the important commercial center that it is today. In all but the largest cities, street railroads will be a thing of the past, and even there they will be mainly underground. Large motorized vehicles capable of carrying 40 or 50 passengers will operate on the public roads within and between cities like Pittsfield, but they will not be widely used, because the large portion of the population with automobiles will find them less convenient.

You may wonder if some of today’s flights of fancy, such as Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Moon will ever take place. In fact, they will. But travel outside the earth’s atmosphere will prove difficult, dangerous, and expensive, so travel by rocket ship to other planets will not involve transport of men, but only of devices to report back to earth on the features of other planets. By the way, our friend Percival Lowell was mistaken. There are no canals on mars.

As you might expect, telephones will be much more common in 2006 than they are today. It will be very unusual to find a home that does not have a telephone. There will also be wireless telephones utilizing the science that the Italian inventor Marconi has already applied to wireless telegraphy, and many persons will have a wireless telephone that they carry with them at all times. The telephones of 2006 will be somewhat different than those of today. There will be no central operator. Instead, each telephone in the United States will have its own number, and a user wanting to call that telephone will depress keys on a small key pad with the appropriate number and be connected with it- all automatically. And by using special codes, it will even be possible to call telephones in other countries - all over the world.

Marconi’s wireless invention will also spawn another industry - wireless broadcasting. It will be possible to transmit the human voice and other sounds, and organizations, supported by advertisers, will be formed to present programs of music, news and other information that people of the future can sit and listen to, just as we listen to the phonograph, by using a special wireless receiver. Most of you have seen motion pictures produced by Edison’s Kinetescope. As amazing as it seems, motion pictures of the same type will also be transmitted by wireless devices, and almost all homes will have a receiver, called a television, permitting families to watch plays, news, and sporting events, also supported by advertising alone, and without cost to the viewer. I probably should also mention, that means of producing photographs, and therefore motion pictures in color will be developed, so the television programs people watch will all be in full color.

I will need to take some time to describe the final important new means of communication in the twenty-first century - the computer. As the name implies, in its early stages of development, the device will be used for just that purpose - to make complex calculations. But as the years pass, and the speed of computation increases to amazing levels (well over a trillion computations in a single second) the manipulation of huge quantities of information, such as the million or so tiny dots into which a picture can be analyzed will also become part of their job. To tell you all the uses to which these computers will be put would take more time than we have, but one of the important ones is letter writing.

Imagine being able to send a telegram to someone anywhere in the world from your own desk, or to several people if you prefer, and get a response back the same day. And the cost of this service? Nothing! Well, almost nothing. In order to have computer communications facilities available, one will first have to buy a computer, at a cost of, say $500. And then there will be a monthly charge to use communication lines, but only ten or twenty dollars. Allowing for the chance in price levels this will seem like almost nothing.

Several times I have alluded to the use of electricity to operate various devices that will be in wide use in 2006. In 2006, every home, without any exceptions, will be wired for electricity. For those of you who prefer gas lighting, I regret to say that there will not be a single home illuminated by gas at that time. The safety and convenience of electric lighting will make this a clear choice.

Since every home will be wired for electricity, each home will also have a number of electrical devices besides lighting. I have mentioned computers and televisions, which will be in almost every home. In addition, every home will have an electric refrigerating device, used in all seasons to eliminate the necessity for the delivery of ice. Many homes will have electric stoves for cooking, although for this purpose, gas does have advantages, and many will still use it. Cleaning of floors and carpets will be by means of an electrical suction device, which will collect the dust and dirt in a small bag. Most homes will have an almost endless variety of small electrical appliances - electric clocks, electric phonographs (eliminating the necessity of winding) et cetera. Does an electric toothbrush seem far-fetched? Nevertheless, they will be widely used.

Some homes will even use electricity as the source of heat in the winter. Although it is safe and convenient, using electricity to generate that much heat tends to be expensive, and most homes will rely on the less expensive choices - gas or petroleum. Every home will have central heating, and many will also have wood fireplaces or stoves, not generally as a major heat source, but more for the charm and beauty of an open flame. Many homes will also use electrical refrigerating equipment to cool the home in the summer - either the entire house or just a bedroom or two.

Every home will also have indoor plumbing, a great improvement over today. Cities like Pittsfield will have municipal sewage treatment plants, greatly expanded from the one that now exists, but smaller towns and rural areas will still use individual devices to dispose of waste. Bathrooms of the future will usually include a shower for bathing, as well as the familiar bathtub.

An unexpected consequence of the electrical revolution will be the disappearance of domestic servants. By 2006 there will probably not be more than a dozen live-in domestics in all of Pittsfield. It will still be possible to hire someone to come in and clean on a weekly basis, and many will choose that option, but there will be few, if any, maids or butlers. Electrical devices will wash clothes, wash dishes and simplify many of the other daily chores involved in conducting a household. The cost and inconvenience of maintaining a domestic staff simply won’t make sense.

You may wonder how the people of the twenty-first century will generate all the electricity needed for these purposes. As you can probably imagine, all kinds of resources, from water and wind power to coal and oil burning will be devoted to this. One resource you cannot imagine will result from a scientific discovery still to be made. As you know, matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but ways will be discovered of converting matter directly into energy here on earth - creating enormous amounts of energy, and tapping directly the energy source that powers the sun and the stars. Preventing the use of this power for destruction as an instrument of war while still allowing its use for peaceful purposes will be the major challenge for international diplomacy in the twenty-first century.

Before we leave the world of 2006, I should mention the many advances in health care that the world will see in that time. Most infectious diseases will be in fairly good control. It will be unusual, for example, to hear of anyone dying from consumption, or even of anyone suffering from it. One will know of many octogenarians and nonagenarians still enjoying very good health.

As I tell you all this, I’m sure there is a question on many of your minds. The answer to it is: “Yes, the Monday Evening Club will still exist, very much in the form it has today.” With one slight difference, however. There will be no cigars. By that time it will be proven what a few of you already suspect: These things are not good for you.

With these words, the reader snuffs out his cigar, and in an atmosphere hazy with cigar smoke, the comment period begins.

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