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Tuesday
Jan182011

Edison's Predictions for the Year 2011 (1911)

On June 20, 1911 the Miami Metropolis published predictions about the year 2011 from the one and only Tommy "Dumbo Killah" Edison.

Edison makes some amazing predictions about a future of golden automobiles, the discontinuation of gold as currency, the rise of steel and the death of the steam engine.

I'm especially interested in his prediction about books of the year 2011. Edison claimed that books would be printed on leaves of nickel, "so light to hold that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume." 

He goes on to explain that, "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." Sure, but can you play Angry Birds on it?

The entire article appears below.

 

What will the world be a hundred years hence?

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, who has wrested so many secrets from jealous Nature? 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. A century hence it will be as remote as antiquity as the lumbering coach of Tudor days, which took a week to travel from Yorkshire to London. In the year 2011 such railway trains as survive will be driven at incredible speed by electricity (which will also be the motive force of all the world's machinery), generated by "hydraulic" wheels.

But the traveler of the future, says a writer in Answers, 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.

Already Mr. Edison can produce a pound weight of these nickel leaves, more flexible than paper and ten times as durable, at a cost of five shillings. In a hundred years' time the cost will probably be reduced to a tenth.

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.

"We are already on the verge of discovering the secret of transmuting metals, which are all substantially the same in matter, though combined in different proportions."

Before long it will be an easy matter to convert a truck load of iron bars into as many bars of virgin gold.

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.

 

Photograph of Edison circa 1911 is from the Library of Congress.

UPDATE October 3, 2012: I just noticed that I cited the June 23, 1911 issue of the Miami Metropolis when it was actually the June 20, 1911 Miami Metropolis. My apologies. It's been corrected above.

Previously on Paleo-Future:

 

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Reader Comments (30)

"The day is near when bars of [gold] will be as common and as cheap as bars of iron or blocks of steel."

Boy, did he swing and miss on that one, being that gold prices are near all-time highs. It's odd that he thought alchemy (iron-->gold) was something possible after all.

I'd also heard he was convinced that a machine to speak with the dead could be perfected.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHail

But the traveler of the future, says a writer in Answers, 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.

Edison was pretty on point with this prediction, though his trendspotting results were a mixed bag. He invested (and lost) a bundle in designing and building concrete houses, for example, and didn't think anyone would ever want to use the phonograph to listen to music.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

@brian

thing is, concrete block houses are pretty standard nowadays. He was just well ahead of his time on that one.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSian

It actually is possible to transmute other elements into gold with nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. Its called "nuclear transmutation" and has been done, but the cost of transmuting is far greater than the value of the gold produced. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_transmutation and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthesis_of_precious_metals#Gold for more information.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdam W

@Sian: Edison's approach to building concrete houses was to pour the entire structure in one fell swoop. In theory it made a lot of sense; the structure would be durable, fireproof and cheap. In practice, working with the molds was difficult, equipment was cost-prohibitive, and the houses themselves were hard to maintain or modify. In the end, Edison only built a few hundred houses (though his approach was the harbinger of prefab housing, and many of the few building he did build still stand). Edison even tried marketing concrete furniture, which was as bad an idea as it sounds.

More info here.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I'm curious, Matt, what kind of wood does your ladyship fancy?

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCaptainRadd

@CaptainRadd Pardon?

January 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatt Novak

He actually got a lot right towards the beginning. The tiny books and cheap gold though? Not so much.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCanama

Go Tesla.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher Cocca

If you can fly to Paris for a morning business meeting, why would you return to lunch in Cheapside?

His predictions about steel in the home probably would have been closer to the mark (though I'd have bet on aluminum), if we hadn't discovered... Plastics!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWutzke

Overall, I'd say his predictions weren't too bad. Steam engines have been replaced in nearly all industrial and transportationl applications by electricity, though most electricity is generated by steam engines. Trains in the US mostly do not run on electricity or at high speed, though the technology is utilized extensively in Europe. He was right about airplanes, except they're generally more than twice as fast. The abundance of steel in consumer and housing applications was overstated, though likely because of advances in material science he didn't forsee. He was right about the gold standard for currency being replaced, but for a spectacularly wrong reason. He also basically forsaw the e-Reader, which took nearly 100 years.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLurker

I'm just curious-- even if gold WERE as cheap as he predicted, WHY would you ever want to make boats or cars out of it? Gold is useful mostly because it ISN'T durable; it's soft and very malleable. There's truth in the trick of checking gold by biting it. Why would you want a car made out of that?

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJabberwocky

You might want gold for a car because of the malleability - we construct our cars today to absorb impacts and divert them from the passenger cabin. It also would be beautiful. But... gold is very heavy and that's more of shot against it for anything that moves under power.

Actually most of these are pretty good. He's got nuclear transmutation well ahead of anything remotely feasible. He's got the demise of steam as a mode of propulsion (calling it antique). He's got a very thin storage of entire libraries which was pretty amazing in the 1990s. He has flying machines of very high speed.

And... he missed it on steel being everywhere in the house. I wonder if he missed that because we are just too nostalgic about our building materials. Or, as others said, he didn't anticipate plastics.

Its really well done though. The problems with it is that he was far too specific about how it would work. He should have just said:

1. Steam will be antique as a means of propulsion
2. People will be transport through the air at tremendous speeds in large flying machines like we do now in trains.
3. Houses will be made out of steel (still wrong on that one, but not as bad)
4. Entire libraries will be held in the hand.
5. Man will learn how to change one element into another.

If he had just held it to that we'd all be blown away. I'm actually blown away already.

January 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMalleable car

Clearly, Thomas Edison was a time traveler and had already been to the future. Seriously though, these were pretty good predictions.

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlippitt

@Lurker: The majority of trains are in fact run on electricity. Well...they use electricity to turn the driving wheels. That electricity being made primarily by diesel engines.

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRS

Wonder why Edison didn't forsee the end of the incandescent light bulb, starting with California.

January 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervmguy

Throw out 10 predictions and 1 or 2 will stick.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMr Anonymous

While books aren't made from leaves of nickel, we can hold a small library in our hands with our e-readers and, with access to the internet, have a good part of human knowledge at out fingertips.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMM

Mr. Anonymous, did you even read the article? Furthermore, Edison wasn't some two-bit hack, he was a scientist making predictions based on trends. That is entirely different than the type of predictions that warrant your flippant, rote response.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPat

Clearly, Matt's ladyship enjoys the hardwood.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHappy Richard

Am I the only one who equates the "steel in the home" with modernist furnishings (notably stainless steel)? While I accept it's not abundantly popular, it's not nonexistent either. I've seen a few well-decorated houses that make use of mostly stainless steel chairs and tables.

January 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlohah

Steel furniture was quite popular in kitchens and offices for many years in the middle of the last century. Catalogs from the era are full of photographs of tubular steel-legged tables and chairs with Formica tops, and smooth-faced steel kitchen cabinets. Think '50s retro diners.

This site is one of untold thousands with photos:

http://minasdecorandfashion.blogspot.com/2009/04/mid-century-monday-04132009-kitchens.html

January 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Hight

I think his predictions of 100 years into the future are incredible. His time era was just the beginning on the fast track of all of our now modern toys and gadgets. To bad we won't be here in 100 years to see how far off or accurate OUR predictions are. History in the future.

January 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbirdy

I think, hope and wish one of the greatest achievements of the next 100 years will be that we WILL still be here in 2111. I mean at least longevity, rejuvenation and reversing aging.

January 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGuest

Kindle, Ikea, sky scrapers....shall I continue?

February 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWoody

Leaves of Nickel == worst papercuts ever

February 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterjayKayEss

Tesla was robbed!

February 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterME

Do you ever know about the funny vibrams five fingers and what do the vibram five fingers looks like?Do you realize the making principle and function of vibram five finger shoes? Now I am very happy to talk about vibram five fingers shoes with all of you because I just know somewhat about five fingers vibram.The rubber sole of vibram fivefinger shoes are quite soft.You may feel strange when you wear vibram five fingers shoes at the first time.But you will feel very comfortable after you wear vibram fivefingers several time.

Edison did his best work stealing from Tesla.

Dear Nikola was busy actually inventing Angry Birds, work that later on became the theory behind HAARP - pulsing effective gigawatt angry radio beams into the atmosphere changing weather patterns and destroying those pesky pigs on the ground.

May 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFaulteh

What a great article, living on an island, I can´t imagine such a modern existance. We don´t have any metal in our homes as everything just rusts...

Claudia
Over The Water Rentals

September 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia

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