Our vision of the future is always changing. In the year 1910, we imagined that the year 2000 would be filled with airships and multi-armed robotic helpers. In the 1960s, manned trips to Mars seemed in our grasp. Early ideas about the Internet were sharpened and refined, and we saw nuclear technology and plastics change our lives, but in different ways than we predicted.
Throughout the 20th century, the year 2000 served as a goalpost, a time on which we could project our dreams for changing fashions and technologies. Even as we got closer to that year, we continued to imagine what it might be like and what wonderful surprises it might hold. Here is a timeline of just some of those predictions for the last year of the millennium.
Many of these retrofuturistic predictions were found through the amazing Paleofuture blog, which is now one of the Smithsonian blogs.
Top image from Villemard's Year 2000 series.
1900: Civil engineer John Elfreth Watkins, Jr.'s article "What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years," which appeared in the December 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal is a popular bit of retrofuturism both for its accurate predictions and inaccurate ones. Watkins was correct that cars would be cheaper than horses, hot and cold air would be pumped into houses, and cameras would allow us to see events on the other side of the world. He was a bit off on superstrong humans trained at free public gyms, topically applied drugs, and total eradication of flies and mosquitos. Aerial travel was part of his vision for the year 2000, but by airship rather than airplane.
1910: These prints, credited to the French artist Villemard, take turn of the century fashions and pair them with imagined future technologies. Predictions about transportation and media were actually fairly accurate: electric trains, motorcycles, helicopters, and correspondence cinema. Other predictions, like robotic barbers and tailors, seem better suited to The Jetsons. And heating with radium is a bit ill-conceived in retrospect. But I wouldn't mind a set of those car shoes.
1930: These fashion predictions for the year 2000 seem mostly done in fun, and there's a strong emphasis on technological innovation rather than aesthetic advancements. Women don convertible dresses, temperature-controlled garments, and fabrics made from aluminum. The major fashion prediction one designer made was that skirts and dresses would disappear completely in favor of pants. The most accurate prediction? That men would wear phones and radios on their persons.
1950: In the 1950s, we see a big boom in predictions for the year 2000. In February 1950, Popular Mechanics published the article "Miracles You'll See In The Next Fifty Years," which invented the Dobson family, who live in the fictional suburb of Tottenville. We've taken a huge leap from the predictions of earlier decades. Thanks to the Hindenburg disaster and the rise of airplanes, predictions of supersonic jets have replaced airships in the skies. But this article had some dreamy notions about how chemistry would revolutionize our lives. Plates would be dissolved instead of washed. Home furnishing would all be made of washable synthetics, so you could hose them down any time you wanted to clean house. Discarded rayon underpants would be converted into candy. But it also indicated some inkling of the Internet:
Of course the Dobsons have a television set. But it is connected with the telephones as well as with the radio receiver, so that when Joe Dobson and a friend in a distant city talk over the telephone they also see each other. Businessmen have television conferences. Each man is surrounded by half a dozen television screens on which he sees those taking part in the discussion. Documents are held up for examination; samples of goods are displayed. In fact, Jane Dobson does much of her shopping by television. Department stores obligingly hold up for her inspection bolts of fabric or show her new styles of clothing.
That same year, US President Harry Truman offered his own predictions for 2000, referenced in an editorial critical of Truman's failure to discuss debt relief:
In international affairs, there will be world peace. The atom will be under international control. The United Nations will be a going concern and will have forces to preserve international law and order. World commerce will be regullated under the new International Trade Organization. Other nations will share America's prosperity through an expanded Point Four Program of technical assistance to under-developed countries. Communism will be suppressed, not by force of arms, but by an appeal to the minds and hearts of men.
1952: Author Robert Heinlein threw in his two cents on the year 2000 not long afterward. Although he did predict that contraceptives would change relations between men and women (although perhaps not as much as he thought they would) and that phones would be small enough to fit in purses, his predictions were on the whole overly optimistic. He imagined that, by the turn of the century, we'd have conquered cancer and the common cold, developed major housing breakthroughs, and have interplanetary travel on demand.
1956: The nuclear optimism of the atomic age came through in Southland magazine's November 4, 1956 issue, "You and the Year 2000." In the section on farming, radiation helps grow giant vegetables, which are sanitized with a radiation trap for safe handling. This farmer of the future also has a robotic farmhand, operated by remote, who can safely pick and transport the crops. Not everyone dines on oversized veggies, though. Some prefer their food in pill form.
1957: Turning from the field back to the kitchen, this 1957 video predicts how we would prepare food in the year 2000. What's particularly exciting about this video isn't the electric-induction countertop stoves or chickens roasted by infrared, but the use of computer punchcards in the home, which the producer of this segment thought might inform an automated cooking system.
1964: We've seen a few predictions by now that show shopping and teleconferencing via screen, but author Arthur C. Clarke's predictions about telecommunications in 2000 come with an added clarity. Clarke speculated that we would be able to reach the people we wanted to reach at any time, even if we didn't know their physical location, and that people would be able to conduct their business from Tahiti if they so desired. But did he also predict bloggers working in their pajamas?
1967: In 1967, The Futurist, then a fledgling magazine, published the predictions of then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the next 20 years and the year 2000. Here's what he imagined:
The virtual elimination of bacterial and viral diseases.
The correction of hereditary defects through the modification of genetic chemistry.
The stepping-up of our food supply through large-scale ocean-farming and fabrication of synthetic proteins.
Control of the weather, at least on a regional scale.
In space, the landing of men on Mars and the establishment of a permanent unmanned research station on that planet.
The creation, in the laboratory, of primitive forms of artificial life.
This can indeed be an age of miracles. It will be your age.
Of course, this was just two years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Mars couldn't have seemed far behind. But even if Humphry's predictions are more restrained than many from earlier eras, he still, like so many other prognosticators, envisioned an end to disease.
1974: Going back to Arthur C. Clarke, we get a vision of the future that did come to fruition. When asked about the year 2001, Clarke accurately predicted that before that year we'd have computer consoles in our houses that would connect us to each other and to all the information we would need. Leave it to Clarke to peer so clearly into the future.
1975: Our space dreams were still quite optimistic in the late 70s, when NASA predicted we might have space colonies by the year 2000. The ring-shaped "Taurus" was envisioned as a colony that could house 10,000 people for the purpose of mining ore from the moon. At least we're inching closer to mining materials from space.
1982: Omni published it Future Almanac in 1982 while The Kids' Whole Future Catalog promised a new space age in the new century. The New York Times got in on the futurism act, publishing N.R. Kleinfield's "A Glimpse of the Year 2000", collecting predictions from various futurists. Roy Amara predicted that we would be living in smaller, more uniform houses, in families with one or no children. He also suggested that we'd be driving smaller cars by 2000, perhaps 10% of them electric. Peter Schwartz predicted the fall of GM, but called Merrill Lynch "a classic company of tomorrow." He imagined that by 2000, you would be able to communicate with everything in your home, from your door lock to your stove, electronically. Hazel Henderson predicted that we would focus our commerce locally, saying, "It won't make sense to buy Wonder Bread baked in Illinois." Barbara Hubbard predicted that we would mine the moon and asteroids, which the article called an "odder" idea. Maybe we aren't as close to colonizing the moon and asteroids as Hubbard hoped, but we are getting on that asteroid mining business, just a little late.
1990: Even as we approached the eve of the year 2000, some futurists continued to make predictions. In Ray Kurzweil's 1990 book The Age of Intelligent Machines, Kurzweil predicted that by the early aughts, we'd have translating telephones, reliable speech-to-text, exoskeletal prosthetics, and self-driving cars. He also predicted those annoying customer service phone systems that try to determine the nature of your call. That's one piece of technology I would have happily left to retrofuturism. Like so many other futurists, Kurzweil is still making predictions for the coming decades and beyond.