Friday, March 14, 2014

The Future - as seen from the Dawn of the Electrical Age

Electricity Sparks the Imagination

In 1881, at the dawn of the Electrical Age, Paris hosted the first International Exposition of Electricity with exhibits by such still-familiar names as Edison, Bell and Siemens.  Light bulbs, telephones, batteries and generators were all on display.  The telephone, phonograph and light bulb had all been recently invented, but were not yet commercially viable.  Future technology was just beginning to take shape.

The exposition sparked the imagination of a writer who, within weeks of the exposition, published a remarkable essay that predicted, with uncanny accuracy, many of the features of the world we live in today.   The article, The Year of Grace 2081 – a Forecast of How Affairs Will be Conducted Two Hundred Years Hence, (The London Truth, reprinted in a number of American newspapers, e.g. Dodge City Times, November 3, 1881; The Pulaski Citizen, December 15, 1881), reflected on the technological changes of the preceding two-hundred years and imagined the changes that might occur during the following two-hundred years.   

Remarkably, nearly every one of his predictions has already come true, in one form or another.  One big mistake was his prediction that the use of coal would be abandoned.  He predicted that electricity would be provided by chemical batteries at every home, instead of by centralized generation and distribution of electricity generated by coal.  But he was right in predicting that people would no longer have to store coal at home and that trains and factories would no longer have to burn coal locally.

Granted, many of his predictions are expressed with a Victorian, Steam-Punk aesthetic that does not quite match our modern world, but considering that he lived in the Victorian age, his predictive powers were remarkable.  The essay is also notable in that it includes one of the earliest known uses of the word Martian (as a noun to describe beings from Mars) and the first-knownfictional account of an invasion from Mars (as opposed to all of the true accounts) pre-dating H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds by fifteen years.

  • Door Bells
  • Home Security Systems
  • Electricity in every house
  • Answering machine
  • Video Chat
  • Electronic Banking
  • E-mail
  • Fax
  • Internet Cafes
  • The Incessant Inter-connectedness of the Digital Age
  • RemoteKissing Machines
  • Electric Milking Machines
  • Microwave Ovens
  • Increased Crop Yields and Improved Nutrition
  • Recycling
  • Air Conditioning and Heating Systems
  • High-speed, Long-distance Air travel
  • Pressure Suits for High Altitude Flight (talk to me goose!)
  • Air Warfare
  • Global Thermonuclear War (Would you like to play a nicegame of chess WOPR?)

The Year of Grace 2081 – a Forecast of How Affairs
Will be Conducted Two Hundred Years Hence

It would have been thought a pretty conceit in Charles II.’s reign to talk of bringing water into every household by means of leaden piping, and even Lord Worcester, in his “Century of Inventions,” never imagined anything so fantastic as fantastic as the conveying of combustible gas by such a method; but we have become used now to marvels, and can easily foresee the time when every house will have its electric battery, serving manifold purposes, and when most of the things done for us at present by steam will be performed by electricity.  .  We have no occasion to worry ourselves about the possible exhaustion of the coal mines.  Long before the last scuttleful of coals is drawn up from the last shaft, coal will have ceased to be applied to most of its present uses.

In the house of the future there will be no knocking at doors and summoning up servants every time a visitor calls.  The visitor will touch a button that will sound a bell, and then he will speak through a tube: “Is Mr. Brown at home?”  Answer, “No.”  Instead of dropping his card Mr. Robinson will say that he leaves his compliments with kind inquiries; and these words passing down the tube into the orifice of the phonographs, will engrave themselves on a roll of tinfoil.

When the lady of the house comes home she will turn the handle of her phonograph, and hear, in the very voices of her visitors, what they had to say:  “I am Mr. Jones, who has called for the third time to know if it is convenient for you to pay that little bill,” and so on.  Supposing Mrs. Brown to be short of funds, she may want to communicate with her husband in Bengal.  How?  By letter, or by the present slow and roundabout telegraphs?  Oh, no!  Brown, as he goes out to dine with some friends, will be called back by his servant saying:  “Missis wants to speak to you, sir; there’s her bell ringing,” and B., returning to his study – let us hope with cheerful alacrity – will see the form of his consort projected into his presence by means of the Pepper and Dirk’s apparatus acting in conjunction with electric wires.  Brown will forthwith project his own presentment into Mrs. B.’s London boudoir, and the conversation will commence through the telephone.

“Please, dear, send me a check for 20 Pounds this instant.”

“Here it is, my dear,” and Brown, taking up his electric stylus, fastened to a wire, will write on tinfoil a draft which will be reproduced word for word, including his signature, on a corresponding piece of metal thousands of miles off.

The best of this system will be that it will enable ladies to administer curtain lectures [(a scolding)] at incalculable distances, for you must remember that, although Brown might possibly like to dispense with such fruits of science, there will be an electric bell at the head of his bed which will leave him no peace until he starts up and says meekly, with his ear to the telephone: “Now, my dear, I’m listening.”  He will gain nothing by taking himself out of doors either, for will not his wife be able to speak into his phonograph, so that the first time he sets that instrument spinning her words will burst forth in an affectionate torrent, interspersed with sobs! 

It is pleasant to reflect, however, that Brown will be able to make peace by transmitting a kiss through the wires.  We, to-day, transmit sounds and shocks to a great distance; why should not our descendants forward pleasant sensations by electricity? 

No doubt some time will elapse before every house will be fitted up with a perfect electrical apparatus; but when these contrivances get fairly established in the dwellings of the rich, there will be public electrical offices for persons of small means.  Cannot we imagine that such an office would be with its vast hall, its rows of batteries in compartments like pews, and its crowds of people streaming in to correspond with friends far away? 

We may picture a country couple coming in to have a talk with their daughter in Australia:  “Do you want to see her or only to speak to her?” asks the clerk.  The old couple hesitate, for it costs ten shillings more to set the Pepper process in motion; but a wistful look passes over the mother’s face, and the father winks to the clerk: “Aye, we must see the lass,” and after the delay necessary to call Betty from her electrical dairy, where she is  milking twelve cows all at once by the Messrs. Puller’s “Artificial Dairymaid” (patented), she will burst into the little box all rosy, smiling and crying, too, may be, with the halo of the electrical light round her.

It cannot be doubted that our descendants will shoot electric currents through their chops and steaks and bring them up fizzing in a minute.  The Frenchman’s cotellette a la minute will then become a reality. 

All the produce of the earth – corn, fruit, flowers, vegetables – will be cultivated by a happy combination of the sun and electricity acting in concert.  When the sun is coy, the batteries, with their systems of colored glasses for intensifying the various properties of the sun’s rays, will go to work, and there will be no more talk of backward potatoes then than there will be of backward boys.  The sluggish vegetable, startled to its very root by galvanic currents will have to wake up and take its vivifying bath of warmth streaming through revolving glasses of red, blue and yellow; . . .

. . . and it will be a bad time for slugs, snails, caterpillars and worms, who only exist at present to consume what man wastes.  Man will waste nothing when he grows to be more knowing; and, of course, the schools of the future will have their systems for removing the effects of Nature and inflating the brains of children to something like uniform size. 

At present we see children stunted, who would grow up finely if they could live in a sunny climate, and young adults are dying all around us of consumption because they cannot afford to go to Madeira.  But will it be impossible 200 or 500 years hence to bring the climate of Madeira to London by the help of the batteries and colored glasses before mentioned?  There will be huge sanitariums built, like the Crystal Palace, and containing dwelling houses, hotels, theaters and gardens, where the weak and the aged will live and disport themselves.  In one the climate will be warm, in another bracing, and the managers will announce that they have arranged to bring the benefits of their unrivaled establishment (please observe the address) within reach of the smallest purses. 

At the same time means of locomotion will be largely increased, so that it will be possible to reach any part of the globe within  twelve hours.  The principle of moving balloons by electricity has already been discovered; it only remains to manufacture an apparatus which shall be light enough, as well as strong enough, to be carried up high, and to send a big mass of silk, cordage and car whizzing through the air.  When this difficulty has been surmounted, Brown, from Bengal, wishing to spend from Saturday to Monday with his wife in London, will step into an aerial car and be wafted hither with his nose in the Messrs. Breathers’ “Artificial Respirator” (patented), so that he may not lose his wind in the velocity of his transit.

But what about standing armies and the rivalry between Nations under the forthcoming dispensation?  Well, it is highly probable that before the people of this earth consent to live at amity they will conscientiously try all the appliances of science for the destruction of one another.  There will be awful battles, first at sea with torpedoes, then on land with electrical artillery and dynamite shells, which will hash whole army corps into bits, and finally the aerial navies of this world will smash each other heartily in the clouds.  After this, when they have done one another all the harm they can, the people of the earth may take rest and agree that war is a poor way of killing time; but let Generals and jingoes take heart.  By the time Nations have begun to enjoy universal peace some method will have been discovered of putting this globe in communication with our nearest neighbor, the planet Mars, and it is easy to imagine what will follow then.  After a brief period passed in the exchange of polite messages it will be unanimously admitted that our globular honor demands that we should declare against Mars.  Possibly it will be found that our Martian foes are more advanced in science than we, and that the variations in our climate result from some unjustifiable liberties which they have been taking with the sun by focusing all its rays for themselves.  We cannot expect that our descendants will stand this; so they will unite all their energies for the fabrication of mammoth engines which will discharge oceans of water, metal and fire right into the face of Mars.  In return, the Martians will pelt them with aeroliths weighing three thousand tons, which will chip whole mountains off the Himalayas and make a big hole where Mont Blanc now exists.  It may not be forbidden us to hope for a blessed time in the future, when all the planets will be in communion and plunged in continual wars, to end, of course, in universal peace.  Then, doubtless, man will have mastered all that he is to know, and will be ripe for other destinies which we cannot even guess at.  Giants will once more inhabit the earth – giants of culture, no more dressed in skins and wielding clubs – and we, their pigmy forefathers, with our small heads and hearts and our puny doings, will not be so much as remembered among them.

The London Truth

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