Back in 1921, Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz, the pioneering inventor and mathematician, was published in a Massachusetts newspaper predicting what the fantastical world of 2021 would look like. Steinmetz made some amazingly accurate predictions about things like air conditioning, cooking, electric bicycles, and home entertainment in the future.
At first glance, the predictions may not seem that exceptional to people from the vantage point of 2021. But Steinmetz describes technological advancements that were astonishing for the early 1920s.
When heating is all done and I want 70 degrees in my home I shall set the thermostat at 70 and the temperature will not rise above that point. This temperature will be maintained uniformly regardless of the weather outside. This will also hold true on the warm days when the temperature outside may be 90 or 100 degrees. The same electrical apparatus will cool the electrical air, and what’s more it will also keep the humidity normal at all times.
That may not sound quite so remarkable, but consider the life that most Americans were living in 1921. At the start of the 1920s, just 35% of Americans had electricity at home. The most high-tech gadgets in hotels of 1921 were alarm clocks centrally controlled to make sure they were accurate and an automatic potato peeler.
With that kind of context, it’s easier to see why predictions about indoor temperature controls were revolutionary for a time when most Americans didn’t even have electricity.
But what about cooking? Steinmetz saw a future filled with automatic temperature controls in the oven, along with a timer to make sure the oven was turned off:
Cooking by electricity will also be much more satisfactory. No more coal ranges. A great deal of our food can be cooked on the table. This can also be automatically regulated. For example, we want to cook a cake. We know this should be at a heat of 230 degrees for a period of 45 minutes so we set the regulator at 230 deg, 45 min. and cease to worry. At the expiration of 45 minutes the heat is automatically turned off.
Steinmetz also imaging what entertainment of the year 2021 would look like, and it had plenty of music:
Entertainment in our homes will also be improved. There will be no need to go to some congested, poorly ventilated hall for a musical concert. We just push a plug into a base receptacle, as we do for the vacuum cleaner or table lamp, and we can have the concert brought into our homes.
Music will be supplied by a central station and distributed to subscribers by wire, just as we get our telephone service today. Perhaps this may be by wireless, the home being equipped with a radio-receiving apparatus.
With this arrangement improved, we can hear grand opera stars as they sing in European capitals while sitting in our libraries at home.
It’s curious to see Steinmetz mention radio, or in the language of the time “wireless,” almost as an aside rather than as a given. It shows just how rudimentary radio technology was at the time, but also speaks to some of the challenges of imagining a business model for radio in 1921. How do you get someone to pay for radio? Advertising became the most dominant business model for radio of the 20th century, but plenty of inventors tried other means, like playing static-filled broadcasts that could only be unscrambled by special receivers in the 1940s. Some inventors even tried to build their own radio adblockers in the 1930s, proving there really is nothing new under the sun.
Steinmetz saw the incredible advances of electricity—many of which he helped create—and predicted a wondrous world of electric transportation:
With the electrical improvements to come, there will be a change in our transportation system. There will be more electric automobiles and electric bicycles and tricycles will be developed. Because of their simplicity and low price they will be available to almost everyone. Our cellars will be the place to keep them.
We will have driveways going under the house. This will eliminate the need for garages, which many times mar the beauty of the landscape of the property. While the cars are in the basement they will have their own batteries recharged.
Electricity will be used so generally then that the cost will likely be apportioned on the basis of a tax, like our water tax of today. The charge will probably be so much a plug, as we are now charged so much a faucet. Electricity will be so cheap that it will not pay to have meters installed, readings taken and a system of accounts kept.
In this prediction about electricity that’s “too cheap to meter,” Steinmetz was way ahead of his time. This idea wouldn’t become commonplace in futurist circles until the 1950s, when nuclear power was seen as the future of creating abundant energy. But that promise is still unfulfilled, as anyone who pays their home’s energy bill can tell you.
Today water is used universally and no one would think of charging a friend or even a stranger for a drink. The same will be true of electricity. When the friend calls with his electric vehicle, it will be driver into your cellar and the battery will be recharged while he is making his call.
Steinmetz may sound like he’s making a bold prediction for the future or electric cars, but this one is actually a blast from the past in many ways. Back in 1900, a third of all cars on U.S. roads were electric, and there were plenty of electric vehicles driving around in the 1910s. It wasn’t until the 1920s when gasoline had truly won out as the fuel of choice for motorists. But people of the 1920s would probably be astonished that we’re using fossil fuels to power our cars a hundred years later.
Steinmetz imagined what great thinks of the past like Benjamin Franklin would think of his time, and looked even further into the future to imagine the wonders of 2021:
Benjamin Franklin said that he would like to be sealed up in a wine cask for 100 years and then come out and view the world as it would be at the end of that time. We can imagine how amazed and delighted Franklin would be permitted to behold the electrical marvels of the twentieth century.
Yet, I feel safe in saying this would be but slight as compared to our surprise if we should seclude ourselves at this time for a like period and view the world in 2021.
Steinmetz died in October 1923, just two years after this article was published, so, of course, he didn’t live long enough to see the kind of indoor temperature controls or electrical appliances that he predicted. He also didn’t live long enough to see water become a precious commodity that wouldn’t be safe to drink in some parts of the United States.
Living as a realist in the world is all about trade-offs, of course, but it’s hard not to get a little depressed about the countless ways we’ve gone backwards over the past decade. Yes, things like electric cars have made great strides, but we have such a long way to go as a species. And I can’t help but wonder whether Steinmetz would be somewhat underwhelmed by our advances.