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Trend watcher in the spotlight – John Elfreth Watkins Jr.

  • Watkins wrote: “What may happen in the next hundred years”
  • In his vision, he saw wireless telephone networks
  • Watkins correctly predicted biotechnology and genetic engineering
  • Most futurists didn’t mention any medical advances in the 20th century. Watkins did

A trend watcher’s or futurist’s work is usually initiated and financed by governments and organisations who want to be prepared for future challenges, gain a competitive edge, or both. They are very much aware that their predictions could play a significant role in shaping the world of the future. One such trend watcher and futurist was a relatively unknown civil engineer and writer for the Saturday Evening Post, John Elfreth Watkins Jr. Although not financed by any organisation or the government, he envisioned wireless telephone networks that allowed people to talk to each other from across the globe and enabled television images to be broadcast all around the world.

At the start of the 20th century, he wrote, “What may happen in the next hundred years”, an article for the Ladies’ Home Journal, an American women’s magazine. In the article, he made a number of predictions about what the world would look like in the year 2000. Some of these predictions were pretty far-fetched and many of his readers in those years thought of his ideas as ridiculous and improbable. It turned out, however, that Watkins’ vision of the future was actually quite impressive.

Who was John Elfreth Watkins Jr.?

John Elfreth Watkins lived from 1852 to 1903. Until 1873, he was an engineer at the Pennsylvania railroad. He then suffered an accident in which he lost his leg, after which he became a clerk for the company. Twelve years later, he started working as a curator at the transport section of the US National Museum. Watkins gathered his visions of the future by interviewing “the most learned and conservative minds in America.”

A newspaper article titled “What may happen in the next hundred years”
Watkins gathered his visions of the future by interviewing “the most learned and conservative minds in America.”

The ones he got right – or at least ‘mostly’ right

While he did not get all of his predictions right, Watkins was pretty accurate with most of them. We are talking about a man who pretty much predicted the Internet, mobile phones and genetically engineered foods. About his own predictions, Watkins wrote: “These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet, they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 – a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.”

Here are some of the predictions Watkins got right:

Digital photography and the Internet

“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later… photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colours.”

“Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theatre will view upon huge curtains before them the coronation of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient.”

Watkins wasn’t merely taking the then current technology and applying the next step to it. He showed major foresight by accurately predicting how people would use new photographic technology in the future. The concept of cameras gathering information from various corners of the world and then transmitting this footage was way beyond what any other person was thinking and saying in those years. Photography was a miracle to most people, and colour photography was still experimental. At that time, it would have taken at least a week for Western newspapers to be able to show a photograph of something taken in, say, India. With his predictions about screens and cameras linked via electric circuits he was clearly hinting at something even bigger: the Internet.

Mobile phones

“Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”

In the beginning of the 20th century, long distance, let alone international telephone calls, were unheard of. It was only in 1915 when Alexander Graham Bell, veteran inventor of the telephone, and Thomas A. Watson, electrical designer, mechanic and recipient of the first ever telephone call, first spoke over a 3,400-mile wire between San Francisco and New York. Watkins’ visions of the concept of wireless telephony were therefore nothing less than revolutionary.

TV dinners and kitchen appliances

“Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of to-day. They will purchase the materials in tremendous wholesale quantities and sell the cooked foods at a price much lower than the cost of individual cooking… These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like.”

Watkins’ visions about the convenience and prevalence of ready-to-cook meals, TV dinners and other culinary conveniences were spot on, as was his list of electrical kitchen appliances that have become standard equipment in most restaurants and homes.

Renewable energy sources and the depletion of coal

“Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted… Man will have found electricity powered by water-power to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water-motors, turning dynamos, making electricity.”

Although Watkins was right when he predicted that the use of coal would see a significant decline in the 20th century, it has not been replaced with renewable sources of electricity such as water power. Coal use was basically replaced by oil, and hydoelectric energy sources actually only made up a little over 5 percent of the power production in the US in 2010.

Hothouses and bigger fruit

“Winter will be turned into summer and night into day by the farmer, with electric wires under the soil and large gardens under glass. Vegetables will be bathed in powerful electric light, serving, like sunlight, to hasten their growth. Electric currents applied to the soil will make valuable plants to grow larger and faster, and will kill troublesome weeds. Rays of coloured light will hasten the growth of many plants. Electricity applied to garden seeds will make them sprout and develop unusually early.”

In Watkins’s days, ‘large gardens under glass’ already existed, but they didn’t yet make use of electricity. The electric currents and coloured lights he spoke of didn’t really materialise a hundred years later, although experiments with this probably did happen. The earliest mention of using electricity in gardening was in the booklet by the British Electrical Development Association: ‘Electricity in Your Garden’. The booklet featured topics like electrically heated greenhouses, hotbeds and electrically warmed frames.

“Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large… One cantaloupe will supply an entire family… Peas and beans will be as large as beets are today… Roses will be as large as cabbage heads… There will be black, blue and green roses. It will be possible to grow any flower in any color and to transfer the perfume of a scented flower to another which is odorless.”

Watkins correctly predicted biotechnology and genetic engineering. While giant fruits haven’t quite materialised for the great-great-grandchildren, lots of larger varieties of fruits and vegetables have been developed in the past hundred years, as have flowers with different colours and scents.

Developments in warfare

“Giant guns will shoot twenty-five miles or more, and will hurl anywhere within such a radius shells exploding and destroying whole cities… Fleets of air-ships, hiding themselves with dense, smoky mists, thrown off by themselves as they move, will float over cities, fortifications, camps or fleets. They will surprise foes below by hurling upon them deadly thunderbolts. These aerial war-ships will necessitate bomb-proof forts, protected by great steel plates over their tops as well as their sides.”

When it comes to modern-day warfare, this particular prediction doesn’t even scratch the surface.

High-speed rail transportation

“Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour. To go from New York to San Francisco will take a day and a night by fast express. There will be cigar-shaped electric locomotives hauling long trains of cars. Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled. Along the railroads there will be no smoke, no cinders, because coal will neither be carried nor burned. There will be no stops for water. Passengers will travel through hot or dusty country regions with windows down.”

Exactly one hundred years after this prediction, the Acele Express opened, Amtrak’s flagship high-speed rail line between Washington and Boston. While it is not specifically representative of all rail travel, the Acele Express does report top speeds of 150 miles per hour. In other parts of the world, even in 2000, high speed rail travel was significantly faster.

Medical improvements

“Few drugs will be swallowed or taken into the stomach unless needed for the direct treatment of that organ itself. Drugs needed by the lungs, for instance, will be applied directly to those organs through the skin and flesh. They will be carried with the electric current applied without pain to the outside skin of the body. Microscopes will lay bare the vital organs, through the living flesh, of men and animals. The living body will to all medical purposes be transparent. Not only will it be possible for a physician to actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it. This work will be done with rays of invisible light.”

Most futurists didn’t mention any of the medical advances we would witness in the 20th century. Watkins’ predictions, however, seem to describe the full realm of medical technologies we have at our disposal today, including MRIs, X-rays, CAT scans and medical sonography.

Watkins’ record as a trend watcher and futurist was less than perfect

Watkins also correctly predicted air conditioning and central heating, free university education, cheap cars, refrigerated transport of food and thought our average life expectancy would rise to 50. Some of the predictions that didn’t come true include: “there will be no more C, X or Q in our alphabet”, “everybody will walk 10 miles a day” and “mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been exterminated.” Although Watkins’ – rather short – record as a futurist was less than perfect, this doesn’t mean that he was a bad forecaster. What is interesting is that he saw mostly positive changes in the future. His predictions mostly involved improvements in the lives of Americans, which is not something we can say about today’s futurists.

Today’s futurists and trend watchers

The futurists and trend watchers of today who work on forecasting events, inventions and trends that will happen a few decades ahead have developed sophisticated methods for ‘seeing’ what potentially lies ahead. They continuously scan scientific studies as well as the news, and they conduct so called ‘Delphi Polls’, surveys in which experts in various fields and industries are interviewed. Many of today’s futurists also conduct role-playing events and create computer simulations to foresee the results of changes such as new energy sources or increasing environmental challenges.

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