In 1932, Albert Einstein famously declared, “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” Even geniuses can look clueless when they try to project the future 100, 50 or even 15 years out. We live in a future without Mars colonies, family helicopters and “smog disasters” killing hundreds of thousands, all developments that so-called experts once predicted would come to pass … by 1980. As the saying goes, you don’t have to be an Einstein to see how ridiculous the following predictions look in hindsight.
10. “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
— Harvard biologist George Wald, 1970
Alarmist environmental predictions were everywhere in this era, coinciding with the first Earth Day in 1970. Even given that atmosphere, this statement seems a little more extreme than most from that period.
9. “The United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
— The Population Bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich
Ehrlich’s quotes in this doomsday book have long been fodder for jokes; in 2012, an editorial writer for the British website Telegraph.co.uk referenced the above quote and joked, “I’m not hungry. I just ate. Are you hungry? Were you hungry in 2000, especially? Does England exist?” Ehrlich’s predictions of a world that would grow too overpopulated to feed itself did not foresee the explosive growth in agriculture production and other modern developments. To this day, however, Ehrlich, 81, stands behind his Malthusian doomsday theories; in 2009, he told the Stanford Report that, “Americans should go childless, or limit themselves to a single offspring, as an act of patriotism.”
8. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution.”
— Life magazine, January 1970
The Environmental Protection Agency deserves some credit here, for pollution control mandates on vehicles and factories that have dramatically reduced emissions.
7. “Nicaragua will ask for admission to [the U.S.] … Mexico will be next … and many of the South and Central American republics [will] be voted into the Union by their own people.”
— Ladies Home Journal, December 1900
If people think the U.S. Congress is dysfunctional now, imagine adding some banana republics to the mix. To be fair, this 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal offered 29 predictions for life in the year 2000, and some of them were amazingly prescient, including wireless telephones that could call around the world — without operator assistance! — and photos that could be instantaneously transmitted via something that sounds like the Internet.
6. “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.”
— The New York Times, Jan. 13, 1920
On July 17, 1969, the day after the launch of Apollo 11, the Times ran a correction for the above prediction: “Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”
5. “By the end of the century, freight … will be shot across the continent by missiles in a matter of minutes.”
— U.S. News & World Report, 1967
In a 1967 story entitled, “The Wondrous World of 1990,” U.S. News & World Report asked experts in various fields for their thoughts on what life would be like almost 25 years into the future. This freight delivery by missile is one of the big misses, but the story also had a pie-in-the-sky view of the future workplace, predicting that incomes would double, resulting in workers who would, “prefer to work six months and play six. … Still others may prefer to work very hard for 10 or 15 years so that they can retire at 40 and indulge in other activities for the rest of their lives.” This may be true for professional athletes, not so for other workers.
4. “Computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”
— Popular Mechanics, March 1949
In 2012, Popular Mechanics referenced the above quote and noted, “Of course, what the article did not anticipate were two of the most pivotal inventions in human history: the transistor, which came into widespread use in the mid-1950s, and the integrated circuit, or microchip, which intensified the march toward miniaturization a decade later.”
3. “There are no dish-washing machines … because dishes are thrown away … or put into a sink where they are dissolved by superheated water.”
— Popular Mechanics, February 1950
In 1950, Popular Mechanics asked New York Times science writer Waldemar Kaempffert to envision life in the year 2000. To his credit, Kaempffert got a few things right; his “shop by picture phone” is essentially what we have with Amazon.com and other online retailers. But his dishwasher prediction, where Americans would eat all meals with plastic plates and utensils, which could then be dissolved in the sink with 250-degree superheated water, sounds a bit dangerous. Some of his other predictions are cringe-worthy, like used “rayon underwear are bought by chemical companies to be converted into candy.” Yum!
2. “Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered.”
— Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in 1952, on life in the year 2000
Heinlein, whose thoughts appeared in the February 1952 issue of Galaxy magazine, also predicted the year 2000 would see interplanetary travel (“Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door … when you pay for it”) and the end of statehood in the U.S. (“About 1990, a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines”).
1. “Along with regular commuter helicopters, the family helicopter will be as attainable as a fancy convertible is today.”
— The Research Institute of America in 1959, on life in the year 1975
This just goes to show that even so-called experts trying to predict the future only 15 years out can look ridiculous.