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In 1900

Machinery will be doing all the unpleasant work while humanity will be making beautiful things or reading beautiful books.
Oscar Wilde, The spirit of man under socialism, 1891

In the coming century a stronger and broader warfare will be carried on against preventable disease.
British Medical Association annual presidential address 1899

The century which left us yesterday had many glories steam engines, electricity, steam boats, antiseptics, anaesthetics. The coming century only has to continue such glories to achieve greatness.
Le Figaro, 1 January, 1901

Visions of the future in 1900

One hundred years ago life in the western world's big cities seemed incredibly modern and hectic. Electricity, the cinema and the telephone were all new inventions and automobiles had been on the roads for a just a few years.

Many people greeted the 20th century with optimism and wondered what it would bring. Some of their predictions were startlingly accurate.

In December 1900, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported: "Women will get the vote, and will become the peer of man in education, in literature, in art, in science, in the home, the church and the state."

But other predictions were less insightful - housework did not turn into an enjoyable leisure activity as envisioned at the turn of the century by The Knoxville Journal in its article, The progress of science in 2000.

"Housekeeping which a hundred years ago was regarded as drudgery is now fun - a real joyful picnic."

Other scientific predictions now seem a lot more realistic. The following extract from The 20th Century - the Magazine of the Future, in 1891 appears to be a description of the internet.

"By touching one of the complicated pieces of mechanism forming the furniture of the future, a man will be able to converse with his friends, have any portion of the earth's surface made visible to him and interchange news as easily as we now give orders by means of the telephone."

In Paris the new century opened with the Grand Exhibition of 1900 and the theme was progress. At the end of the year the French newspaper Le Figaro wrote with heady optimism: "How fortunate we are to be living on this first day of the 20th century! Let us make a wish that as the 19th century vanishes into the abyss of time, it takes away all the idiotic hatreds and recriminations that have saddened our days, which are unworthy of the 20th century Frenchman. Have a good century!"

But hatreds did not vanish - instead the 20th century became the century of war, with more than 100 million people killed by ever more inventive methods: trench warfare, aerial bombardment, chemical and atomic weapons.

This terrible future seems to have been predicted by the writer Emile Zola in his book Work, in1901: "One half of Europe rushed upon the other half, and other continents followed them, and fleets of ships battled on all the oceans for dominion over water and earth."

Others imagined that the most important war in the future would be the one fought against sickness and disease. To a large extent they were right - we now live on average 30 years longer than did our ancestors at the beginning of the century.

But not all of the predictions regarding medicine and science were as benign. The ugly spectre of eugenics was on the horizon even as early as 1900 when novelist HG Wells wrote in his Anticipations: "Euthanasia of the weak and sensual is possible and I have little doubt that it will be planned and achieved. The men of the new republic will not be squeamish in inflicting death - killing will be done with an opiate. The next hundred years will see a process of physical and mental improvement in mankind."

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