Ten 100-year predictions that came true

John Watkins' predictions for 2000 John Watkins predicted Americans would be taller, tanks would exist and C, X and Q would no longer feature in our everyday alphabet

In 1900, an American civil engineer called John Elfreth Watkins made a number of predictions about what the world would be like in 2000. How did he do?

As is customary at the start of a new year, the media have been full of predictions about what may happen in the months ahead.

But a much longer forecast made in 1900 by a relatively unknown engineer has been recirculating in the past few days.

In December of that year, at the start of the 20th Century, John Elfreth Watkins wrote a piece published on page eight of an American women's magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, entitled What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.

He began the article with the words: "These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible," explaining that he had consulted the country's "greatest institutions of science and learning" for their opinions on 29 topics.

Watkins was a writer for the Journal's sister magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, based in Indianapolis.

The Post brought this article to a modern audience last week when its history editor Jeff Nilsson wrote a feature praising Watkins' accuracy.

It was picked up and caused some excitement on Twitter. So what did Watkins get right - and wrong?

10 predictions that Watkins got right...

1. Digital colour photography

Watkins did not, of course, use the word "digital" or spell out precisely how digital cameras and computers would work, but he accurately predicted how people would come to use new photographic technology.

Grab from The Ladies' Journal A scan of the original article can be found online

"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 colours."

This showed major foresight, says Mr Nilsson. When Watkins was making his predictions, it would have taken a week for a picture of something happening in China to make its way into Western papers.

People thought photography itself was a miracle, and colour photography was very experimental, he says.

"The idea of having cameras gathering information from opposite ends of the world and transmitting them - he wasn't just taking a present technology and then looking to the next step, it was far beyond what anyone was saying at the time."

Patrick Tucker from the World Future Society, based in Maryland in the US, thinks Watkins might even be hinting at a much bigger future breakthrough.

"'Photographs will be telegraphed' reads strikingly like how we access information from the web," says Mr Tucker.

2. The rising height of Americans

"Americans will be taller by from one to two inches."

Watkins had unerring accuracy here, says Mr Nilsson - the average American man in 1900 was about 66-67ins (1.68-1.70m) tall and by 2000, the average was 69ins (1.75m).

How did Watkins do?

Watkins' record as a forecaster, based on this small segment of his work, was less than perfect. But that doesn't mean he was a bad futurist. Although he died before the World Future Society was formed in 1966, we would have been honoured to consider him a member. We believe that talking about the future is the most important thing that people do, even though the future, by its nature, is unknowable. We invent the future through our actions and change it constantly. We can never know it fully but we can always be better prepared for what may occur. Watkins helped people begin this act of preparation and considered creation.

Today, it's 69.5ins (1.76m) for men and 64ins (1.63m) for women.

3. Mobile phones

"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."

International phone calls were unheard of in Watkins' day. It was another 15 years before the first call was made, by Alexander Bell, even from one coast of the US to the other. The idea of wireless telephony was truly revolutionary.

4. Pre-prepared meals

"Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishment similar to our bakeries of today."

The proliferation of ready meals in supermarkets and takeaway shops in High Streets suggests that Watkins was right, although he envisaged the meals would be delivered on plates which would be returned to the cooking establishments to be washed.

5. Slowing population growth

"There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America [the US]."

The figure is too high, says Nilsson, but at least Watkins was guessing in the right direction. If the US population had grown by the same rate it did between 1800 and 1900, it would have exceeded 1 billion in 2000.

"Instead, it grew just 360%, reaching 280m at the start of the new century."

6. Hothouse vegetables

Winter will be turned into summer and night into day by the farmer, said Watkins, with electric wires under the soil and large gardens under glass.


"Vegetables will be bathed in powerful electric light, serving, like sunlight, to hasten their growth. Electric currents applied to the soil will make valuable plants to grow larger and faster, and will kill troublesome weeds. Rays of coloured light will hasten the growth of many plants. Electricity applied to garden seeds will make them sprout and develop unusually early."

Large gardens under glass were already a reality, says Philip Norman of the Garden Museum in London, but he was correct to predict the use of electricity. Although coloured lights and electric currents did not take off, they were probably experimented with.

Who was J Elfreth Watkins?

  • Lived from 1852-1903
  • Was a railroad engineer until he suffered a "disabling" accident in 1873
  • After that, became a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad
  • In 1885, took a job as curator at the transport section of the US National Museum

Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives

"Electricity certainly features in plant propagation. But the earliest item we have is a 1953 booklet Electricity in Your Garden detailing electrically warmed frames, hotbeds and cloches and electrically heated greenhouses, issued by the British Electrical Development Association.

"We have a 1956 soil heater, used in soil to assist early germination of seeds in your greenhouse."

7. Television

"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."

Watkins foresaw cameras and screens linked by electric circuits, a vision practically realised in the 20th Century by live international television and latterly by webcams.

8. Tanks

Twitter grab Tweets praised Watkins' accuracy

"Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of today."

Leonardo da Vinci had talked about this, says Nilsson, but Watkins was taking it further. There weren't many people that far-sighted.

9. Bigger fruit

"Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren."

Lots of larger varieties of fruit have been developed in the past century, but Watkins was over-optimistic with regard to strawberries.

10. The Acela Express

"Trains will run two miles a minute normally. Express trains one hundred and fifty miles per hour."

Exactly 100 years after writing those words, to the very month, Amtrak's flagship high-speed rail line, the Acela Express, opened between Boston and Washington, DC. It reaches top speeds of 150mph, although the average speed is considerably less than that. High-speed rail in other parts of the world, even in 2000, was considerably faster.

...and four he didn't

1. No more C, X or Q

"There will be no C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary."

This was obviously wrong, says Patrick Tucker of the World Future Society, but also remarkable in the way that it hints at the possible effects of mass communication on communication itself.

2. Everybody will walk 10 miles a day

"This presents a rather generous view of future humanity but doesn't seem to consider the popularity and convenience of the very transportation breakthroughs [moving sidewalks, express trains, coaches] forecast elsewhere in the article," says Mr Tucker.

And some other Watkins forecasts

  • Central heating and air conditioning
  • Cheap cars
  • Average life expectancy to rise to 50
  • Free university education
  • Refrigerated transport of food

3. No more cars in large cities

"All hurry traffic will be below or above ground when brought within city limits."

However, many cities do have pedestrian zones in their historic centres. And he correctly forecast elevated roads and subways.

4. No mosquitoes or flies

"Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been exterminated."

Watkins was getting ahead of himself here. Indeed the bed bug is making a huge comeback in the US and some other countries.

Maybe the end of the mosquito and the house fly is something to look forward to in 2100?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Well I said goodbye to my colleagues for the Christmas breaks with the words: "Merry Christmas and in two years time, you'll all be getting a hoverboard from me as your present!" Mark my words...

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    "Watkins was over-optimistic with regard to strawberries"
    No he wasn't, apples were smaller then, somewhere between cox's and granny smiths are today probably.
    I have seen plenty of strawberries that are this size, but not usually in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    With the shortening of words in text messaging perhaps he should have got rid of a,e,i,o and u instead. Otherwise the accuracy is pretty darned amazing. Oh and he was right about the strawberries too. http://www.comfytummy.com/2010/04/14/giant-strawberries/

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Not that difficult to predict technological changes. What we want to happen WILL happen, sooner or later and in one way or another.

    100 years hence, we'll have sussed nuclear fusion. Because that's something technology, industry, ecology and politics WANT. The biggest obstacle will be resistance from Big Oil.

    & we'll have a single worldwide monetary system, once Big Finance has been overcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    It is safe to predict that language will continue to change. I suspect that phonetic english may become universal.
    I predict that we will grow crops in salt water and sand. That the deserts will become tropical forests. That the oceans will be extensively farmed and not just for fish. That the boffins will begin to control the weather, and the world will become secular as religions crumble. .

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    Why don't we all help #134 Spider with his prediction, only that he'll be right in the number, but wrong in the direction:
    Let´s all -1 him.

    To help him, please plus 1 this comment so that everybody can see it!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    I once read that somebody had placed a bet that at least one person born in the year 2000 would still be alive in 2150. I'm not sure who'll be around to pick up the winnings if it comes true, but it seems like a decent prediction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    This guy was not the person who made the predictions. He sought opinions and published them. See the actual newspaper print

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    I agree with the prediction of one linguist, that within 200 years there will be only 3 languages in the world. French would be passe, Italian finito, and German kaput. Just English, Spanish, and Mandarin left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    It was obviously utter nonsense to suggest that the letters , and would dissappear from use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    @240 gironaut
    That's true. He meant to say they would travel at the speed of express trains on network south east. The first ones were built under intense secrecy, with the cover story that they were mobile water carriers for Mesopotamia, and workers were told "If anyone asks what they are, just call them tanks". The name stuck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Indeed, this guy is a prophet, he's very akkurate in his prediktions. Things may not be egzaktly as he said, but it's klose enough, kome think about it. The kuestion is whether the prediktions some are making here today will kome true one day?

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Where are the flying cars? We were promised flying cars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    Some predictions were a little short of the actual result. My favourite prediction was that of Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor. An American reporter asked him if he thought his gadget would ever catch on. Bell replied "You may think me cocky sir, but I can see the day when there will be a telephone in every town in America"

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Tanks were invented in 1916 and moved at under four miles per hour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    28. cathinscotland "You know, the bit about C X & Q being obsolete from our keyboards, could apply, sort of, to text messaging, if you were stretching it?"

    A massive stretch. Surely the C has made something of a comeback, as in C U L8ER, also some people use X for XCITED etc. The same could not be said for Q, however.

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    A time and world of optimism where people dreamed of better things and found investment to make them a reality. How much better the world would be in the future if people were inspired today instead of the doom and gloom scaremongers in the headlines constantly.
    Turn deserts into giant solar electric plants.
    Build desalination plants to irrigate Africa to grow crops.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    John E Watkins was a smart cookie (hindsight bias!).However,made in an age when we were on the verge of rapid techno advancements,by an engineer rather than by a layman.They're "Cultural Premonitions". Take the prediction of the Titanic sinking,essentially a disaster story written at a time when cruises were popular and boats were getting bigger, and if you had to pick a name?Titan is a good start

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    Most far-fetched ideas become reality. How about these for starters.
    In 100 years from now
    (i) We will all be wired to computers to make our brains work faster
    (ii) We will have the ability to communicate through thought transmission
    (iii) M theory will be fully understood and we will be before the big bang
    (iv) Antartica is "open for business"
    (v) California leads break-up of the USA

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    Engineers and scientists would always be more aware of potential technologies than the general public. Television and "wireless photography" (more like a fax than the Internet) had been theoretically described by 1900.


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