Originally created 04/18/99

The future has many surprises



In 1901, the story goes, Wilbur Wright told his brother Orville he thought it would be 50 years before man would take his first flight.

Just two years later, the Ohio-based brothers were making history at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

"Ever since," Wilbur later said, "I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions."

Here at the edge of a new millennium, we should give old Wilbur his due.

The future, despite our best educated guesses, keeps coming up with surprises.

For example, in 1902, Harper's Weekly looked into its crystal ball and announced, "The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect."

In 1932, Winston Churchill, of all people, predicted the growing of animal parts for supper.

In an article for Mechanics Illustrated, he wrote, "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately, under a suitable medium."

In his 1967 book The Year 2000, Herman Kahn predicted human hibernation and robot slaves, underwater colonies and interplanetary travel.

The real irony here is that many of the technological breakthroughs we do enjoy today were unexpected.

Western Union passed on buying the patent for the telephone in 1876.

The reason?

It was considered too technologically complicated for average people.

Or how about this statement: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." That's the 1943 assessment of the chairman of IBM.

No wonder that after he and others finally figured out how to use computers, they never foresaw the problem the Year 2000 would have on the computer's internal clocks.

We congratulated ourselves 15 years ago when George Orwell's depiction of 1984 appeared to miss the mark.

No "Big Brother" watching us, we said, either ignoring or not knowing that our tax dollars paid for satellites that can read the license plate on the car in our driveway from outer space.

But that's not the biggest mistake we made. Look back at any past prediction for today and you will find leisure and lots of it.

Our forefathers thought we'd have so much spare time that we'd have trouble figuring out what to do with it all. Work and play would reverse time shares in our lives.

"Now that we are living here -- in the future -- we know it hasn't happened," said Brian Horrigan, co-author of Yesterday's Tomorrows."

We are as stressed out and tired as humans have ever been when we stagger home each night.

We thought the future would be The Jetsons, and it turned out to be The Simpsons.

Surprises are like that.

Bill Kirby can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 107, or bkirby@augustachronicle.com.