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Technology predictions: who saw that coming? (I did!)

Image credit: Alamy

Ever thought you had a knack for making predictions, like betting you’ll pick the red sweet out of the sharing bag, and it happens? Well, you haven’t got anything on these great minds. Sorry.

War: Nuclear arms race and the Cold War

In 1940, Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called ‘Solution Unsatisfactory’, in which the US creates a nuclear weapon before everyone else, becoming the only superpower, and everyone else gives chase to try and develop their own bomb. This is a carbon copy of the events of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, which began after the US launched nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

This kind of weaponry back in 1940 was mainly just speculation and the US hadn’t even joined the Second World War yet, so Heinlein’s accuracy is a little creepy.

He claimed to have devised an improved waterbed back in the 1930s, but he didn’t mention it until his writing of the 1961 novel ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. It was so accurate that the actual inventor of the modern waterbed (created in 1971) struggled to get a patent.

Tech: iPads and Tablets

One of the best science-fiction writers, Arthur C. Clarke, is remembered for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The novel and the screenplay were written at the same time, and the men frequently compared notes, influencing each other in their scribblings.

What is seen in the film: two astronauts are reading the news on something that looks remarkably like an iPad.

In the novel, Clarke describes the device: “When he had tired of official reports, memoranda and minutes, he would plug his... Newspad [weird, right?] into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one, he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers... Each had its own two-digit reference. When he punched that, a postage-sized rectangle would expand till it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he finished he could flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination... one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.”

This was so spot-on that Samsung used the depiction in defence of its Galaxy tablet when Apple sued for patent infringement.  

Space: Mars and its moons

In Jonathan Swift’s 1735 novel ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, he wrote of the planet Mars and how it had two moons. One hundred and forty-two years later, in 1877, astronomer Asaph Hall found the red planet had two natural satellites.

Online photography, the Internet and mobile phones

In the Ladies’ Home Journal of 1900, John Elfreth Watkins Jr, a civil engineer, wrote the article ‘What may happen in the next hundred years.’ He made a lot of predictions, some of which were scarily accurate. Bear in mind this was over a century ago: “Man will see around the world. 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.” Sounds like satellite television, or the internet, right?

Other predictions included digital photography and picture sharing: “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.”

Mobile phones were also mentioned: “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.”

Unfortunately, Watkins died in 1903 before seeing any of his predictions come to light.

Radioactivity: Atomic bomb

Author HG Wells wrote in his 1913 novel ‘The World Set Free’, about the future use of the atomic bomb. Back then, scientists knew about this kind of energy, but were clueless as to how it could be released. Wells detailed the chain reaction that could be produced by nuclear fission. The events in Nagasaki and Hiroshima confirmed this 32 years later.

Internet: Online shopping and emails

An early pioneer in electronics, Philco-Ford started out in 1892 as a maker of carbon arc lamps and, by 1930, became the most popular manufacturer of radios. Ford Motor Company bought Philco in 1961 and, for its 75th anniversary in 1967, produced a short film called ‘Year 1999 AD’.

Even though the film and its details are rooted in the 1960s, the predictions are ridiculously accurate, conjuring up early versions of online shopping and emails, “instant written communication between individuals anywhere in the world”. There’s also mention of online bill-paying, electronic funds transfers and compact home laser printers. It was so accurate, people initially thought it was a hoax when the video became available online.

Biology: Organ transplants

In the 1660s, Robert Boyle, otherwise known as the father of modern chemistry, wrote in his private diary of “the cure of diseases by... transplantation”.  

Technology: E-books, facial recognition and much more

You may know that Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and director of engineering at Google, has predicted a lot and invented useful technology, including speech-recognition devices and text-reading software.

He’s written many bestselling novels and made unbelievably accurate predictions throughout his lifetime. He also has a knack for guessing when these predictions will happen.

He predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, e-books, nanotech and facial-recognition software in his novel ‘The Age of Intelligent Machines’. He also guessed a computer would beat the best human players at chess by 2000, and wireless internet would become mainstream in the early 21st century.

By late 2009, 89 of his 108 predictions were correct and 13 of the remaining 19 were likely to happen within a few years. By 2012, he was accurate 86 per cent of the time – he’s also forecast that we will beat death at some point, so that’s cool.

Nuclear: Electric submarine

In the 1870 book ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’, Jules Verne wrote about a submarine, captained by Nemo, fuelled by electric energy. The submarine, Nautilus, could move on its own due to an entirely electric engine. Ninety years later, an American submarine, aptly named USS Nautilus, was the first to propel itself using only nuclear energy.

Modern warfare: Effects of the First World War

Jan Gotlib Bloch, a financier, was a pioneer investor in railways in his native Poland. He also studied the potential consequences of the war that would destroy Europe.

Six books written by Bloch in 1898 described the transformation of modern warfare.

According to him, evolution of weaponry meant the next huge European war would be a ‘war of trenches’. It would be more murderous and violent, affecting millions. Famine and epidemics would spread to many throughout the war.

Just as he predicted, the devastating First World War occurred 16 years later.

Disease: Cuba’s cholera epidemic

A cholera outbreak in 2012 in Cuba surprised a lot of people, as it hadn’t had a case in 50 years. However, Eric Horvitz, managing director at Microsoft Research, and Kira Radinsky, researcher at The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, claim they knew it would happen. By trawling data from many sources – like articles from the New York Times – and integrating it into their mathematical model, they predicted the epidemic in Cuba.

Periodic table: Predicting the elements

When only 40 elements were known in 1863, Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, designed a periodic table and predicted weights and properties of over 40 missing elements that we’ve since discovered.

Mendeleev sorted the already existing elements’ atomic weight and properties, saw patterns and noted gaps, and predicted what he thought would fill them – he guessed elements including germanium (he named it ‘ekasilicon’), which wasn’t discovered until 1886.

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