Friday, January 6, 2012

Looking back: Edison's Vision for 2011

12/28/11 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

At the end of each calendar year I find myself looking back and trying to gain some perspective on events in my personal life and the world around me. I seldom come up with any earthshaking insights and while I’m looking ahead to the future, I’m not one to make any New Year’s resolutions or predictions. Facts have always been more appealing to me than speculation.

But some people are brazen enough to predict what they think the future holds. One of those was Thomas Alva Edison, the most prolific inventor in American history. His hundreds of inventions ran the gamut from electric power, batteries, motion pictures, phonographs, sound recording and cement—to telegraphs and telephones.

History has proven Edison’s brilliance. So in 1911 when he was asked to predict what life would be like in one hundred years (2011), he was up to the challenge. But before I quote his thoughts, let’s first take a look at how different life was from today at the turn of the twentieth century.

The American flag had 45 stars. Only 6-percent of students graduated from high school and two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write. Crossword puzzles and canned beer hadn’t been invented. Crime rates were low— about 230 murders in the entire country. And of course, there were no cell phones or computers.

The average life expectancy for men was 47 years. The five leading causes of death were pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, diarrhea, heart disease and stroke. Marijuana, heroin and morphine were available over the counter at drugstores.

The average wage in America was 22 cents per hour and the average yearly wage was $200—$400. An accountant could expect to earn $2,000 per year; a dentist or veterinarian $1500-$4,000 per year; and a mechanical engineer about $5,000. Ninety percent of all doctors had no college education. Instead, they attended (often questionable and substandard) medical schools.

A Sears-Roebuck catalog house with a screened porch, built-in buffet and inside bath could be purchased for about $1,100. Just 14 percent of homes had a bathtub and only eight percent had a telephone. In the entire country there were only 8,000 cars and 144 miles of paved roads; fuel was sold in drugstores. Sugar cost four cents a pound, coffee 15-cents a pound and eggs 14-cents a dozen.

It was in this environment on June 23, 1911 that the “Miami Metropolis” interviewed Edison and published his startling predictions about the future of automobiles, the discontinuation of gold as precious metal, the rise of steel and the death of the steam engine. I quote in part from “The Year 2011 According to Thomas Edison,” by an unknown author:

“None but a wizard dare raise the curtain and disclose the secrets of the future; and what wizard can do it with so sure a hand as Mr. Thomas Alva Edison…He alone of all men who live has the necessary courage and gift of foresight, and he has not shrunk from the venture.

“Already, Mr. Edison tells us, the steam engine is emitting its last gasps…In the year 2011 such railway trains as survive will be driven at incredible speed by electricity…generated by "hydraulic" wheels.

“But the traveler of the future… will largely scorn such earth crawling. He will fly through the air, swifter than any swallow, at a speed of two hundred miles an hour, in colossal machines, which will enable him to breakfast in London, transact business in Paris and eat his luncheon in Cheapside.

“The house of the next century will be furnished from basement to attic with steel, at a sixth of the present cost — of steel so light that it will be as easy to move a sideboard as it is today to lift a drawing room chair. The baby of the twenty-first century will be rocked in a steel cradle; 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, converted by cunning varnishes to the semblance of rosewood, or mahogany, or any other wood her ladyship fancies.

“Books of the coming century will all be printed leaves of nickel, so light to hold that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume. A book two inches thick will contain forty thousand pages, the equivalent of a hundred volumes; six inches in aggregate thickness, it would suffice for all the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And each volume would weigh less than a pound.

“More amazing still, this American wizard sounds the death knell of gold as a precious metal. ‘Gold,’ he says, ‘has even now but a few years to live. The day is near when bars of it will be as common and as cheap as bars of iron or blocks of steel.

“’In the magical days to come there is no reason why our great liners should not be of solid gold from stem to stern; why we should not ride in golden taxicabs, or substituted gold for steel in our drawing room suites. Only steel will be the more durable, and thus the cheaper in the long run.’”

Well, Mr. Edison missed the mark on some of his predictions: i.e. an entire house and furnishings of steel and a plethora of transportation made of gold, but some ideas weren’t so far off. Electric trains, massive airplanes, a few cars sprayed with real gold and Kindle type E-Books are certainly mini-libraries.

Now that 2011 is drawing to a close, it would be interesting to pick Thomas Edison’s brain about what the next 100 years might hold. On second thought, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Happy New Year 2012, everyone! May your joys be many and your sorrows few as you live each day in gratitude with hope for tomorrow.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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