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Secret History

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A History of the Future, as seen from the past

by Jack Neely

Those who were disappointed there was no apocalypse with Y2K a year ago have a second chance. The 20th century, as defined at the beginning of the 20th century, ends this Dec. 31. A century ago, 1901, not 1900, was considered the beginning of a new century. And a century ago, when people talked about the wondrous future, they didn't talk about "the year 2000." They talked about "the year 2001."

A while back, in a January, 1901 issue of the Knoxville Journal, I found a list of remarkable predictions, signed by an unknown writer with the initials W.D.P. The editor of the Knoxville Journal at that time was Union veteran William Rule. I don't know who Mr. (or Ms.) P. was. Anyway, I wrote some of these up for a feature about predictions a couple of years ago, but because several of them are specifically about "the year 2001," they seem worth revisiting.

* New York City will have a population of 10,000,000. That's actually a little bit of an overestimate. Before the 2000 census, at least, the population of New York has never cracked 8 million.

* The coal mines of Tennessee will be exhausted before the year 2001. That's nearly true, but maybe not for the same reasons Mr. P. was considering. Tennessee coal was a very big industry in 1901, and some mines did exhaust themselves. Our coal is, unfortunately, high-sulfur coal, which burns less cleanly than purer coal. After pollution standards were passed in the 1970s, Tennessee coal became passé.

* The rulers of Russia will be elected by the people. Russia still had a czar in 1901, and W.D.P. could hardly have anticipated the Bolshevik revolution and 70 years of Soviet dictatorship. But the Russian people did elect their first president in the final decade of the century.

* Knoxville will be a city of 250,000 people, and the largest city in the state. Chalk that ranking up to the arrogance of Knoxville's industrial boom years. A century later we're still only the third largest city in the state, as we were in 1901—but that population figure is a pretty fair guess, considering that Knoxville had only a little more than 30,000 in 1901. You could read that as both an overestimate and an underestimate. Knoxville's 2000 census figures haven't been released yet, but as of the 1990 census, Knoxville was home to only about 170,000. Still, before the practical automobile, W.D.P. and his contemporaries didn't have much sense of the meaning of a metropolitan area with bedroom communities miles outside the city limits; Knoxville's metro area is close to three times that 1901 estimate.

* There will be no newspapers in 2001. The news of the world will be delivered to every inhabitant by wireless telegraphy. This one might seem a jaw-dropper, considering that there was no such thing as a radio station in 1901, and there wouldn't be for almost 20 years. Even wireless telegraphy, which sent messages by Morse Code, was new in 1901 and not commonly used, except sometimes by ships at sea. However, inventors Tesla and Marconi were in the news a lot in 1901, and confident of the future of their inventions.

* Books, as they are printed now, will not be in use. The wisest sayings of the wisest men of the preceding centuries will be preserved on metal tablets or plates. Or, maybe, disks. The prophet obviously slighted the future of books, which will likely still be around in 2101, but the prediction about metal "plates," more than 80 years before the magnetic compact disk, is downright oracular.

* Grover Cleveland and William Jennings Bryan will occupy about two lines each on these plates. This is a pretty obvious political poke; the Journal was a Republican paper. Cleveland was America's most recent Democratic president, and Bryan was the perennial Democratic candidate for that office. W.D.P. was only a little unfair to Cleveland, who's notable among American presidents mainly for the fact that his two terms were not consecutive. That statement may be a little more unfair to Bryan, the populist who, at his height, was one of the most persuasive orators in American political history. W.D.P. didn't know, of course, that Bryan would represent the pro-creationist side in a famous trial about evolution, which was already an old idea in 1901. That role is probably as well known today as Bryan's frustrated presidential campaigns.

* The humblest cottage in the country will be lighted with electricity in some form. Wealthy neighborhoods in city-limits Knoxville already had electricity in 1901. Franklin Roosevelt, who was only 18, had not proposed his Rural Electrification Act, or the Tennessee Valley Authority, which did a lot to promote electrification of the humblest cottages hereabouts. That prediction would generally become true by the 1950s.

* Heat from the sun will warm our houses and cook our meals, and power derived from the winds and from the waves of the sea will drive all the machinery. Predictions like that were much more common 75 years after W.D.P. His prediction's greatest value may be as a prediction of a prediction.

* War will be a spectre of the past. The great battleships will be sent to the junk shops. The world will have been divided between the Russians and the Anglo-Saxons (including the Germans) and an everlasting treaty of peace signed and sealed. A poignant prediction of peace in 2001, but a peace that comes only after imperial conquest has been completed. Germany gave world domination their best, but der fuehrer was surprised other Anglo-Saxon nations opposed him. Ironically, considering the imperial thinking of the early part of the century, America did not acquire large amounts of land in the 20th century, and the greater part of Britain's empire dissolved. Rather than fewer independent nations in 2001, the world actually has more.

December 21, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 51
© 2000 Metro Pulse