In 1900, writer and Smithsonian curator John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., wrote a futuristic article for The Ladies’ Home Journal in which he envisioned “fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea” that would deliver out-of-season produce around the world. He wasn’t too far off—hello strawberries in December.
In the early 1900s, Jean-Marc Côté and other French artists created a series of images depicting innovations of the year 2000, which included an underwater bus pulled by a whale. More than 50 years later, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described deep-sea cities and “bathyscaphe liners carrying men and supplies across and into the abyss.” While submarines have been around in some form for centuries, underwater cities, unfortunately, are still a flight of fancy.
Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, also harbored some novel ideas about turning base metals into gold. “It will be an easy matter to convert a truckload of iron bars into virgin gold,” he wrote in 1911. It’s 2019, and we’re still waiting for at-home alchemy kits.
Alexander Graham Bell not only invented the telephone, he also predicted the rise of wireless technology. In 1917, the inventor gave a speech at McKinley Manual Training School in Washington, D.C., anticipating “the time when we may be able to talk with a man in any part of the world by telephone and without wires.”
Even in 1923, futurists were eager to solve New York City’s traffic gridlock. Science fiction writer Hugo Gernsback called for “helicars,” seven-passenger vehicles that could rise straight up from the street and travel through the air. Gernsback predicted we'd have helicars floating over our cities by 1973, but they haven't yet materialized—and it's hard to imagine their being anything but yet another type of traffic headache.
Frozen Foods and Speed Cooking
Waldemar Kaempffert, in a 1950 article for Popular Mechanics, predicted that cooking would become a thing of the past. With the help of the burgeoning frozen food industry and an innovative "electronic stove," the woman of the future would be able to thaw a frozen steak in eight seconds and have it ready to eat in two minutes. While that may be super-speedy, Kaempffert's general ideas about convenience foods and fast cooking have certainly come to pass.
In that same 1950 Popular Mechanics article, Kaempffert anticipated the future importance of synthetic fabrics. In fact, he went a bit overboard: He envisioned a living room where all furnishings were made from synthetic fabrics or waterproof plastic, so that when it was time to clean, the woman of the house would simply hose everything down and blow it all dry.
In 1955, Alex Lewyt, president of the Lewyt Vacuum Company, proclaimed that nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners would be a reality in 10 years. Not quite. In 2008, his bold claim was named one of the worst tech predictions of all time.
Back in 1966, Arthur C. Clarke, who is perhaps best known as the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," tried to imagine what real life in 2001 would look like. His vision included a house that “would have no roots tying it to the ground.” In fact, he thought that whole neighborhoods would migrate—a nod to today's mobile homes, but definitely not a reality.
Universality of Telephony
In 1968, the Foreign Policy Association met in midtown Manhattan for a conference entitled “Toward the Year 2018.” While most of their predictions (for example, an "anti-gravity belt") never came to pass, some of the attendees did anticipate just how ubiquitous telephones would be in our lives.
The 1979 book "Future Cities" offered a glimpse into homes of the 21st century, which promised delights like holographic recorders and "screen walls." While holographic recorders are not yet part of the well-equipped living room, flat-screen TVs have become an essential trapping of modern life.
Related: How To: Mount a Flat-Panel TV
Thanks to Frances Gabe, we have a prototype for a self-cleaning home. In 1984, the artist and inventor received a patent for a house that could wash and dry itself by means of sprinklers in the ceiling and jets of warm air. As she noted in a 1981 interview with The Baltimore Sun, "You can talk all you like about women’s liberation, but houses are still designed so women have to spend half their time on their knees…” Gabe set out to change that.
The Internet Will Fail
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to imagine our lives without the Internet, but even the most future-forward innovations meet with resistance. In 1995, astronomer Clifford Stoll wrote an article for Newsweek declaring that the Internet would die within a year. He’s since said, “Wrong? Yep.”
Related: 50 Great Gadgets for a Smarter Home
Get the help you need for the home you want—sign up for the Bob Vila newsletter today!