Magazine

Strange predictions for the future from 1930

  • 26 December 2014
  • From the section Magazine
FE Smith with a terrier dog in the 1920s Image copyright Getty Images

Shortly before he died in 1930, former cabinet minister and leading lawyer FE Smith, a friend of Winston Churchill and one of the more outspoken British politicians of his age, wrote a book containing predictions of how the world would look in 100 years' time. They covered science, lifestyles, politics and war. So what did he say?


Health/lifespan

Smith, a former Lord Chancellor who became the Earl of Birkenhead in 1922, was writing in a period when tuberculosis was a major killer in the UK and around the world. He was optimistic enough to suggest the eradication of this and other epidemic diseases was "fairly certain" by 2030, as was "the discovery of cures for such scourges as cancer".

Death from old age could also be delayed, Smith thought. Scientists would create injections containing an unspecified substance bringing "rejuvenations", which would be used to prolong the average lifespan to as much as 150 years.

Smith acknowledged this would present "grave problems" from an "immense increase in population". He also foresaw extreme inter-generational inequality, wondering "how will youths of 20 be able to compete in the professions or business against vigorous men still in their prime at 120, with a century of experience on which to draw"?


Image copyright Getty Images

Work and leisure

Mechanisation would mean a "gradual contraction" of hours worked, Smith believed. By 2030 it was likely the "average week of the factory hand will consist of 16 or perhaps 24 hours", which no worker could possibly "grudge". But, with factories largely automated, work would provide little scope for self-fulfilment, becoming "supremely easy and supremely dull", consisting largely of supervising machines. It didn't occur to Smith, in an age before widespread use of computers, that the machines might become self-monitoring.

The cut in hours hasn't happened yet. According to figures from the OECD group of industrialised nations, the lowest average weekly hours worked in a main job in 2013 were 30, in the Netherlands. The highest figure was 47.9, in Turkey. In the UK it was 36.5, with the US among the countries for which information was not provided.

Smith believed that, despite the shortening of hours, everyone would earn enough by 2030 to afford to play football, cricket or tennis in their spare time. But one of the big winners in this more leisure-rich world would be fox-hunting, one of his own hobbies. "As wealth increases, we shall all be able to ride to hounds," he said.

Men would free up even more time with changes to sartorial rules. By 2030 they would be expected to own only two outfits, one for leisure and the other for more formal occasions.

John Logie-Baird had demonstrated television in the late 1920s and Smith was excited by the idea. He said that by 2030 full "stereoscopic television in full natural colours" would be available in people's homes, with proper loudspeaker-quality sound. This meant exiled US citizens would be able to watch any baseball match and, in cricket, "the MCC selection committee, in conclave at Lord's, will be able to follow the fortunes of an English eleven through the days (or weeks) of an Australian Test match".


Image copyright PA

Air travel

Smith, who had grown up before cars were invented, predicted they would be largely obsolete for all but the shortest journeys by 2030, with aeroplane ownership common. The creation of engines weighing only one ounce (28g) per unit of horsepower would allow lightweight, vertical take-off craft, capable of speeds of up to 400mph.

"Thus... the man of 2030 will set off for the weekend, after his work, in a small, swift aeroplane, as reliable and cheap as the motor-car on which we depend today," he wrote. The idea of a weekend would be different in a world where people only worked two hours a day or two full-time days, and transport would enable more adventurous time off. "Ski-ing parties in Greenland will be made up in London clubs on Saturday mornings," wrote Smith, "and translated into action before the same evening."

The era of low-cost airlines has made air travel readily available, but there is some way to go before aeroplanes are widely owned. In its latest figures, for 2013, the US-based General Aviation Manufacturers Association said there were more than 360,000 general aviation craft, "ranging from two-seater training aircraft and utility helicopters to international business jets". The figures do not include normal commercial or military flights. As the world's population is currently thought to be around seven billion, there is one personally owned/used plane for every 19,500 or so people.

Smith also foresaw sub-three-hour transatlantic passenger flights becoming commonplace. Concorde, the supersonic plane co-developed by France and the UK, managed this but it has since been scrapped, meaning most passenger trips between New York and London or Paris take more than seven hours.

Smith thought that by 2030 the first preparations for a manned mission to Mars would be under way, but that the first "half a dozen" attempts could miss the planet entirely, leaving astronauts to die onboard as they drifted further from Earth.


Energy

Image copyright Reuters

Smith predicted the increased use of cheap, clean energy from utilising the Earth's water supply. He seemed to base his ideas on an interpretation of Einsteinian physics, which said there was an equivalence between mass and energy. He outlined an eccentric use by scientists who managed to turn atoms in water into a viable source. "By utilising some 50,000 tons of water, the amount displaced by a large liner, it would be possible to remove Ireland to the deeper portion of the Atlantic Ocean," Smith said.

The heat obtainable from same quantity of water could be used keep polar regions "at the temperature of the Sahara for a thousand years", he added, something most scientists would not want to happen today.

But Smith was more ambivalent about what we now call renewable sources of energy. Wind was useful and universal, but tidal power more unevenly distributed. There was another concern. "By utilising tidal energy to any large extent, we should diminish the speed of the earth's rotation," said Smith. If tidal energy was overused, a "48-hour day is a possibility in the far future", he added.


War

The tank had only been around since WW1 and Smith was full of excitement about possibilities for development. They could become "entirely unmanned" within a century, he said.

"The commanders of tank forces will be carried in the air above their commands," he said, "and thus will be able to watch the course of operations and control their progress by wireless telephony." Or this could happen in a "distant control room", possibly underground. Birkenhead said this would make war "more humane".

In April this year, Russia revealed the Taifun-M, an unmanned ground vehicle for defending missile sites. And despite the focus being on aerial vehicles, there are plenty of other plans for "land drones".


Saharan sea

Given the improvements to transport, especially flight, the Sahara would become "a new playground for all Europe". A canal would be cut from the Mediterranean, ensuring "a new inland sea must surely be created. Its shores, now barren, would rival Florida for fertile charm".

Smith thought this would be popular from October to May, when temperatures would be at their most pleasant and a little less clement around the Mediterranean. The scheme was to be at least under way by 2030.


Politics

Television would make it feasible to revive the direct democracy of ancient Greek city-states, with the whole population, rather than elected representatives, able to vote on issues. Political leaders would make their case direct to the public. Communication speed would allow votes to be concluded within 20 minutes.

People would be better informed as advances in psychology, widely taught in schools, would leave them "immune from specious appeals to sentiment and illogical reasoning".

Smith thought it unlikely the party system would survive in this climate and felt that by 2030 people would be more content with the idea of "rule of experts".

But the British Empire would survive, with India staying part of it, although the capital might move from London to somewhere in Canada or Australia, Smith predicted.


Family/eugenics

Smith, in common with many theorists of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, predicted a greater use of eugenics - the practice of attempting to "improve" the human race through control of reproduction.

He claimed a clever young man would "consider his fiancee's hereditary complexion before proposing marriage". In return, "the young woman of that day will refuse him because he has inherited a gene from his father which will predispose their children to quarrelsomeness".

Smith questioned fears that eugenics might be used to create a "slave race" to carry out drudgery while others enjoyed more leisure, saying: "It is far more likely that men will work as machine-minders for one or two hours a day and be free to devote the rest of their energies to whatever form of activity they enjoy."

But the state would "certainly legislate to prohibit, or compulsorily to sterilise, such a marriage" as was likely to produce children "congenitally criminal and mentally repulsive". It would instead encourage good unions, as "prevention is better than Broadmoor". The state would also "render non-productive" unions between criminals.


Food and drugs

Image copyright PA

Synthetic food, produced in laboratories, would overtake conventional agriculture "in civilised lands" to feed the expanding population with ease, Smith said. "From one 'parent' steak of choice tenderness, it will be possible to grow as large and juicy a steak as can be desired." The prediction has echoes of the work currently being done on synthetic meat.

But farming the land would survive as a "rich man's hobby". Someone born in the 21st Century may, "in his wealthy rejuvenation, boast that the bread he eats is made from wheat which grows in his own fields".

Scientific creation of food would make cities no longer a "parasite" on the country but a "self-supporting unit". Smith predicted that town and country would become blurred in to one continuous, manicured landscape, where weeds had been eradicated.

Chemists would have devised new "physiologically pleasant substances" to go with tobacco, alcohol and caffeine. "Should chemistry in the next hundred years be able to discover new substances as pleasant and harmless as tobacco," he wrote, "yet each possessing a different effect on the consumer, it will have earned the thanks of every hard-worked man and woman in the world."

Smith himself died at the age of 58, his body worn out by years of excessive drinking and smoking.

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