What the New Century Will Bring

Those of us old enough to remember December 31, 1999, may recall doing some thinking at that time about what the twenty-first Century might bring. 

I think it’s fair to say that the twentieth was a mixed bag:  increasing human prosperity and scientific progress around the world, certainly, but punctuated by spasms of truly horrific violence and inhumanity.

The biggest thing I remember about the end of 1999 was the possibility that the world’s computers would all give up the ghost simultaneously.  (Saving them from themselves became a rather boom industry for a few years prior to the first day of 2000.)  I wasn’t sure then if that might not be a good thing, at least temporarily or in my little corner of the world, but on reflection I’m happy it didn’t happen.  Beyond that, I will confess that in 1999 I didn’t spend as much time as I might have pondering what the new century might bring.

I’m not sure I would have done very well, even if I had.  Certainly any predictions or expectations I had for myself were wildly off the mark – but maybe it’s easier to make general predictions than it is specific ones.  (I feel confident in predicting that, over time and on average, human lifespan will increase, but I have no idea about my own.)

Yesterday I was at the Library of Congress (as I am pretty frequently), doing what I like to do – sampling anything I can get my hands on from 1885-1910.  Whether reading old newspapers and journals, watching silent films, or listening to long-forgotten music, there’s nothing that gives me the same feel for the period than these snippets of the past.  (And if you haven’t been there, the Library of Congress ought to be added to your bucket list directly.)

In 1899 it seems that a lot of people did a lot of thinking about what the twentieth Century might hold, and their views were generally rather positive.  Most people expected the new century to bring expanded progress, peace, and prosperity.  And why not?  Most of them could remember a time – either in their parents’ lives or their own – when no one had indoor plumbing, electricity, safe train travel, or a five-day crossing of the Atlantic.  To the people of that day, they were living in an age of marvels, and why shouldn’t that continue?

Now both in the late Gilded Age and the Progressive Period there were certainly murmurings about the possibly unwelcome consequences of technology and various forms of ‘progress’, but in general I feel on solid ground in saying that most Americans felt that their future would be better than their past.

Late in the day, I ran across a short article in an 1899 issue of The Roller Mill, a trade journal for the milling industry, and thought it made for interesting reading.  I’ve excerpted it below.  (Some of the predictions, naturally, relate to the milling trade.)

Adapted from ‘What the New Century May See’

The Roller Mill, January 1899

  • [Food] transported by electric trains and business travel in airships.
  • A limit to the world’s wheat-growing capacity.
  • [Factories] constructed of concrete, iron, and glass, equipped with machines whereof wood is the smallest part, and driven, controlled and lighted by electricity derived directly from the sun.
  • The climax of American industrial and commercial development.
  • A telephone in every factory.
  • Free letter postage.
  • One country from the Mexican Gulf to Hudson’s Bay.
  • New York City the chief center of the financial and commercial world.
  • The disappearance of the wooden flour package.
  • The substitution of motors for horses in cities and towns.
  • A general system of really good roads throughout every county in the U.S.
  • The United States leading the world in volume of commerce and manufactures.
  • A ship canal across the isthmus of Central America.

I suppose it’s still not too late to think about what the next 80 years will bring in what remains of our twenty-first century.  I’d love to hear some of your predictions …