Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Future is Now

The Graf Zeppelin. Source: Ad Orientem
I’ll admit it: I love to look at antiquated predictions of how the world will be in 50 or 100 years. These glimpses into the future strongly reflect their era; the audience had to grasp the author’s intent and direction using metaphors and extensions of the technology they knew. 

We chuckle at predictions such as world zeppelin travel and automated horse-carriages, much like future generations might wrinkle their noses at our notion of a “world wide web” or “smart phones.”

A new (old!) article, published in the 1901 Ladies’ Home Journal by one John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., puts forth several such predictions (thanks to the Saturday Evening Post and the BBC; see reddit or imgur for the full article). Mr. Watkins apparently spoke with “the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” in a quest to determine what “…will have been wrought…before the dawn of 2001.”

All told, Mr. Watkins made 28 predictions in his article, and the BBC article covered 14, the Post 17. Since this is primarily a science blog, I’ll comment on some of the tech highlights; sadly, most of these didn’t make the cut for the preceding articles.

The drug designer's "killer app"
 “Few drugs will be swallowed or taken into the stomach” – Drug designers, aiming always for the killer app of oral availability, would be amused to hear this. The author was correct about a later statement in this section, though: “The living body will to all medical purposes be transparent.” Mr. Watkins waxes about invisible rays allowing physicians to operate on human organs directly, which, with the advent of MRI, PET scans, and endoscopy, is much closer to reality.

“…utensils shall be washed in chemicals fatal to disease microbes” – Antibacterial hand soaps, bleach, and wastewater sanitation systems maintain healthy conditions in large restaurants.

There will be no C, X, or Q in our every-day alphabet” – Uh-oh, don’t tell any organic chemists! C is, of course, carbon, and X is a placeholder for halogens, a math variable, part of road signs (X-ing), holidays (Xmas), and of course where pirates bury their treasure!

The soil will be kept enriched by plants which take their nutrition from the air and give fertility to the earth” – Nitrogen fixation, anyone? Legumes such as peas, beans, and carob are often rotated in with other food crops to ensure proper soil nutrients. In 1901, Watkins still had no inkling of the Great War to come, or how the Haber-Bosch process would lead to cheap fertilizers and increased munitions.

Might there be a Schrock-Chirik process in our fixation future?

Plants will be made proof against disease microbes just as readily as man is to-day against smallpox” – Mr. Watkins refers, of course, to Jenner’s development of the cowpox vaccine for smallpox treatment. In the 21st Century, industrial conglomerates such as Dow Agro, DuPont Crop Science, BASF, Syngenta, and Monsanto work towards pest-resistant crops and pesticides.

An FDA inspector checks a salad bar. Source: FDA Flickr.
(Did you know the FDA maintains a Flickr account? I didn't!)
 “Storekeepers who expose food to air breathed out by patrons or to the atmosphere of the busy streets will be arrested with those who sell stale or adulterated produce” – The modern FDA, presaged 5 years before its formation in 1906, now inspects both food and drugs from production through sale to consumers.

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