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113-year-old letter predicted video chat, ‘convenient’ flight

Isaac Asimov’s predictions from the New York World’s Fair of 1964 have received considerable attention in this year, 50 years on. Now even older predictions have come to light in a letter written 113 years ago and recently found in the golden lion statue atop the Old State House in Boston.

The letter, titled “The Outlook for the Twentieth Century,” was written by George A. Litchfield, the business manager of the Boston Traveler, reports Kiera Blessing in the Boston Globe. Blessing writes that Litchfield predicted that we would be able to fly at our convenience or pleasure and without cumbersome machinery. Let’s give him partial credit on that one—I’d substitute “annoyance and discomfort” for “convenience or pleasure,” and today’s airliners strike me as pretty cumbersome. At least we no longer rely on the “bags of gas” of Litchfield’s era for most of our air travel.

He also expected the establishment of communications with distant worlds by mid-20th century, but we are still waiting for the interplanetary call to get through (although we can communicate with our own spacecraft traveling to distant worlds).

He successfully predicted Skype-like video chat: “We shall speak around the world,” he wrote. “We shall see the face of him with whom we talk.” He also predicted a major role for electricity and that motive power could be obtained from wind and water (as, of course, it could in his day).

He also predicted the demise of steam power, which, oddly, Blessing describes as among “…the more accurate of Litchfield’s predictions….” As Richard McIntosh notes in a letter to the editor today, the overwhelming percentage of electricity generation is powered by steam. And companies including Spirax Sarco do a good business selling steam products. I guess the reciprocating steam engines of Litchfield’s era don’t find much use anymore.

Litchfield concluded his letter as follows: “Let us hope, also, that the ‘lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and a little child shall lead them,’ and that the ‘nations shall learn war no more.’” Of course, that was a hope, and not a prediction.

You can view Litchfield’s letter here, and you can read Asimov’s 1964 essay in the New York Times here.

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