20 Hilarious Predictions About the Year 2020 Made Long Ago
"We stand on the threshold of rocket mail."
It’s hard to fathom that we’re just 14 months away from the year 2020. There’s something about those four numbers together that just sound futuristic, like a date that George Jetson or Flash Gordon would have signed on their checks. If you asked us ten or even twenty years ago what we expected in the year 2020, we probably would’ve guessed that we’d all be eating synthetic food pills and being served by robot butlers. But ask us the same question now and our best prediction is that 2020 will be mostly the same as today, but with slightly more expensive smartphones.
For the last one hundred years, thinking about 2020 has brought out the active imaginations in so many. And we’re not talking about fringe thinkers warning about the end of the world. We mean serious futurists and engineers and science writers, who’ve thought long and hard about what modern civilizations can expect from the year 2020 and beyond. Some of it is so over-the-top insane that we have to wonder if they weren’t just pulling our leg the whole time. But here’s the thing about scientists who ponder the future achievements of man: They hardly ever end their predictions with “Just kidding!”
Here are 20 predictions about the year 2020 that sure do sound like jokes, but you can rest assured that somebody, somewhere, some time, really expected this stuff to happen.
The second issue of The Futurist magazine, published in 1967, contained an exclusive report from the RAND Corporation, a global think tank with a track record that’s included contributing to the space program and the development of the Internet.
This time, however, they may’ve been a little off the track. In a story titled “Intelligent Apes Become Chauffeurs,” they shared details from a RAND study indicating that, “by the year 2020 it may be possible to breed intelligent species of animals, such as apes, that will be capable of performing manual labor. During the 21st century, those houses that don’t have a robot in the broom closet could have a live-in ape to do the cleaning and gardening chores.”
As for whether apes could be used for driving cars, the study concluded that “the use of well-trained apes as family chauffeurs might decrease the number of automobile accidents.”
If you’re sick of asphalt roads, with all their potholes and endless rush hour gridlock, then you should be delighted to learn that by 2020, every road and street in America will be “replaced by a network of pneumatic tubes.”
That’s according to a 1957 article in Popular Mechanics, which explained how the family vehicle of 2020 would only need enough power to get from your home to the nearest tube. Then, by the calculations of a Honeywell engineer, “they will be pneumatically powered to any desired destination.”
Thomas Edison played a role in some of the greatest inventions of modern man, from light bulbs to movie cameras. But that doesn’t mean he only had good ideas. Take his vision of the future of steel.
During a 1911 interview, he predicted that the house of the next century “will be furnished from basement to attic with steel.” And it wouldn’t end there. “The baby of the 21st century will be rocked in a steel cradle,” Edison said. “His father will sit in a steel chair at a steel dining table, and his mother’s boudoir will be sumptuously equipped with steel furnishings.” It sounds… the opposite of comfy.
We’ve been dreaming of making it to Mars for as long as we’ve known the red planet existed. But it’s only recently that the venture has started to feel even remotely realistic. Back in 1997, Wired magazine picked the date 2020 as the year when “humans arrive on Mars.”
In the go-go ’90s, we had every reason to believe them. But we’re not so optimistic than Mars tourism is in our immediate future. Even NASA projects that the earliest we could get a human on the face of Mars is 2030, and that’s only if we’re really, really lucky.
In 1950, Associated Press writer Dorothy Roe revealed some shocking predictions of what life on earth would be like in the 21st century. Among her more head-scratching forecasts were that the women of tomorrow would be “more than six feet tall” and would “wear a size 11 shoe, have shoulders like a wrestler, and muscles like a truck driver.” Her proportions, Roe wrote, would be perfectly “Amazonian,” due to science providing “a balanced ration of vitamins, proteins, and minerals that will produce maximum bodily efficiency.”
Worse than predictions of technology that don’t pan out as promised are predictions that painfully underestimate technology’s potential. Take Thomas Watson, the one-time president of IBM, who suggested in 1943 that future consumer demand for his company’s products was limited at best.
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” he said. Well, he was close. As of 2014, there were an estimated two billion personal computers in use across the globe. So that means that Watson was only off by 1,999,999,995 computers.
He wasn’t the only computer expert who thought there was no future in his industry. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, famously (or perhaps infamously) predicted in 1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Imagine how surprised he’d be to learn that we don’t only want them in our homes, we all carry around tiny computers in our pockets.
Waldemar Kaempffert, a New York Times science editor, had lots of opinions about how different the world would become by 2020, especially when it came to our diets. All food, “even soup and milk,” would be delivered to our homes in the form of frozen bricks. It would never take anyone “more than half an hour to prepare…an elaborate meal of several courses.”
And thanks to advances in culinary technology, it would be possible to take ordinary objects like old paper and, yes, “rayon underwear,” and bring them to “chemical factories to be converted into candy.” Sounds… delicious.
Arthur C. Clarke, an inventor, science writer, and futurist, believed that the boring houses of 1966 would be radically different by the time we reached 2020. The house of the future “would have no roots tying it to the ground,” he wrote. “Gone would be water pipes, drains, power lines; the autonomous home could therefore move, or be moved, to anywhere on earth at the owner’s whim.”
And it wasn’t just one home that could relocate without the owner even needing to get out of bed and put on pants. “Whole communities may migrate south in the winter, or move to new lands whenever they feel the need for a change of scenery,” Clarke promised.
If you somehow got the crazy idea that people in the year 2020 would be limiting their alcohol intake and drinking more green tea instead, you are sadly mistaken. At least if you believe Serbian engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla, who predicted in 1937 that “within a century, coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue.”
Alcohol, however, “will still be used,” he claimed. “It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.” He’s hopefully right about tobacco, but we’re not so sure coffee and tea should be cut out in favor of more booze. Then again, this is the same guy who warned against chewing gum, which Tesla thought could cause “exhaustion of the salivary glands, put[ting] many a foolish victim into an early grave.”
We have blood blanks, where life-saving plasma can be donated and used to help patients who need emergency blood. So why, you might be wondering, are there no tooth banks? What’s that? You weren’t wondering that?
Well, then you probably weren’t a subscriber to Modern Mechanix magazine in the 40s, or you would have read a fabulous article in a 1947 issue which promised that, in the future, tooth banks would not just be realistic but a good idea. “Picture the possibilities,” the story read. “Into the junk pile will go all artificial dentures, all bridges, plates, partial plates. All men and women of whatever age will be able to have human teeth imbedded inside their gums until the day they die.”
Mail delivered by a cruise missile, as insane as it sounds, was successfully attempted in 1959, when a Navy submarine—the USS Barbero—sent 3,000 letters, all addressed to political figures like President Dwight D. Eisenhower, using only a rocket. The nuclear warhead was taken out and replaced with mail containers, and the missile was launched towards the Naval Auxiliary Air Station.
The mail was successfully delivered, and Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield was so excited by the “historic significance” of mail delivery via instruments of war that he predicted it would become commonplace by the next century. “Mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles,” he said. “We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
Instead, we got email, where messages can be transmitted around the globe within seconds. And nobody has to say, “I just launched the missile with the letter I promised you. Let me know when it hits your roof.”
If you’re curious about the future of language, maybe you don’t ask a railroad engineer. But that’s what the Ladies’ Home Journal did in 1900, asking renown engineer John Elfreth Watkins Jr. for his educated guesses about the 21st century.
He had no love for what he considered extraneous letters, and so boldly predicted that by 2020, “There will be no C, X, or Q in our everyday alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.” Instead, Watson wrote, we’d be spelling mostly by sound and would only communicate with “condensed words expressing condensed ideas.” So, to our 2020 friends, we say, “Me happy good, hi!”
Gustav Bischoff, president of the American Meat Packers Association, had only grim forecasts for the 21st century, which he warned would involve a diet of… gasp… mostly vegetables. In other words, because of a shortage of meat, even the wealthiest people in 2020 would be forced into a life of vegetarianism.
These poor souls would be, as Bischoff assured a New York Times reporter in 1913, “living as the low-caste [Asian man] does now, on rice and vegetables, and, like him, slothful creatures, anemic, and without initiative.” Aside from his staggering racism, Bischoff felt that the only way to save humanity was to “educate the American farmer to the necessity of raising more cattle.”
Why anyone asked furniture and industrial designer Gilbert Rohde what he thought the “21st Century man” would be wearing is beyond us. But ask they did, and his answers were published in a 1939 issue of Vogue magazine.
The man who helped define American modernism thought that, by 2020, we would have banished buttons, pockets, collars, and ties. “The man of the next century will revolt against shaving and wear a beautiful beard,” Rohde declared. “His hat will be an antenna, snatching radio out of the ether. His socks disposable, his suit minus tie, collar, and buttons.” He almost described a hipster living in Brooklyn, but we suspect even the antenna hat might be pushing things too far.
Forget jetpacks and flying cars. The magazine Popular Mechanics was pretty sure in 1951 that every family in 2020 would have at least one helicopter in their garage.
“This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn,” they explained. “It has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.” Yes, but then your teenage son asks to borrow it, and you wake up the next day to discover your helicopter is stuck in a tree. It’s always something, am I right?
So, what’s going to happen to our feet—or, more specifically, our toes—in a year-and-change? In a lecture to the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1911, a surgeon by the name of Richard Clement Lucas made the following curious prediction: “Human beings in the future will become one-toed,” he promised. “The small toes are being used less and less as time goes on, while the great toe is developing in an astonishing manner.”
In roughly one hundred years, Lucas predicted, our outer toes would gradually disappear and “man might become a one-toed race.” Which means by 2020, the Mother Goose toe-pinching game will be amended to “This little piggy went to market… the end.”
We’ll be honest, we’re not a big fan of this one. And most disturbingly, it’s not from the early 20th century. No, this prediction comes from 2005, from futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil. By the year 2020, he wrote, “Nanobots capable of entering the bloodstream to ‘feed’ cells and extract waste will exist (though not necessarily be in wide use). They will make the normal mode of human food consumption obsolete.” Wow.
We guess that’s a good idea, but not once in our lives have we ever thought, “Y’know, this meal would be so much better if it had no flavor whatsoever and it was just a tiny robot that we injected into our veins.”
Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt vacuum company, obviously wanted the world to be excited about vacuum cleaners. That’s what he did, that was his job. But when he predicted, in 1955, that “nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners” would become a reality, and that every home in 2020 would insist that cleaning your floors with anything less than raw radioactivity was nuts, he maybe wasn’t making the most convincing sales pitch.
When the choice is between having a little dirt in our home or plugging in a mini-Chernobyl-waiting-to-happen on wheels, we’re going to stick with the dirt, thank you very much.
If you’ve ever wished that you could clean your house with a big hose, soaking everything and then being done with it, you’re either A) extremely lazy, or B) an avid reader of Popular Mechanics during the 1950s. If it’s the latter, you may be remembering an issue that promised grand things in the next century for the housewife who dreams of keeping a spick-and-span house by “simply turn(ing) the hose on everything.”
It’ll be more than possible in the year 2020, the story promised, as furniture will all be made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. “After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber),” the article explains, “she turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything.” Any soiled linen is thrown into the incinerator, and presto, done for the day. As long as you and your family don’t mind living in what’s essentially a kids’ birthday party bounce house, it doesn’t sound that bad.
Nobody works and everybody’s rich.
As reported by Time magazine in 1966, the 21st century promises to be a pretty awesome time for just about everybody. By 2020, “the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy,” the article assured readers. without even lifting a finger, the average non-working family could expect to earn an average salary of between $30,000 and $40,000. That’s in 1966 dollars; by 2018, that’d be about $307,000. For doing nothing. Yes, we’re apparently heading into a pleasure-oriented society full of “wholesome degeneracy.” Good luck! And for more on how humanity’s smartest minds have totally misread the crystal ball, check out 20 Long-Predicted Technologies That Are Never Going to Happen.
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