Predictions are generally received with huge skepticism because they are not immediately verifiable; the burden of proof lies in the cycle of time. Over centuries, the shocking truth in the prophecies of the 16th century French physicist Nostradamus are well known. For decades, science fiction writers such as Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and George Orwell have projected future realities. Along with these, the educated guesses of Leonardo da Vinci, Tesla and John Elfreth Watkins, and the technological leaps of sci-fi movies have quite a few instances of forecasted future have turned into predicted reality.
The Great Fire of London in 1666
Nostradamus predicted, “The blood of the just will be demanded of London, Burnt by the fire in the year 66.” A fire in Pudding Lane near London Bridge turned into a raging inferno. Although loss of life was minimal, destruction included 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, and 44 livery halls, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Man on the Moon
In 1865, Jules Verne predicted the landing on the moon in his novel ‘From Earth to the Moon’, albeit in a projectile fired from a cannon. More than a hundred years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were launched into space, as the Apollo 11 set off from the present day Kennedy Space Center.
A hundred years before the debit card made its appearance, sci-fi writer Edward Bellamy described the financial card in 1888. In ‘Looking Backward, 2000-1887’, he wrote, “A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen…and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, whatever he desires.”
In 1900, fifteen years before the first phone call was made by Alexander Bell, American engineer John Elfreth Watkins wrote an article titled ‘What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years’, after consultations with the ‘greatest institutions of science and learning’. In it, Watkins predicted, “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.” A mere seventy three years later, Motorola’s Martin Cooper made the first mobile phone call; the world’s first handheld mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, was launched in 1983 for the public.
In 1909, renowned inventor, Nikola Tesla predicted to the New York Times, “It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages all over the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus.”
The Atomic Bomb
According to Dr. Patrick B. Sharp, H.G. Wells’ forecast of the atomic bomb was an extrapolation from the work of Frederick Soddy, a British chemist working with radioactive elements. In Wells’ 1914 novel, ‘The World Set Free’, he wrote, “He set up atomic disintegration in a minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrated in its turn in the course of seven days, and it was only after another year’s work that he was able to show practically that the last result of this rapid release of energy was gold.”
In 1911, Hugo Gernsback accurately described the radar in ‘Ralph 124C 41’, “A pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light ray is reflected from a bright surface… By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area. Sooner or later these waves would strike a space flyer. A small part of these waves would strike the metal body of the flyer, and these rays would be reflected back to the sending apparatus. Here they would fall on the Actinoscope, which records only the reflected waves, not direct ones.
…From the intensity and elapsed time of the reflected impulses, the distance between the earth and the flyer can then be accurately estimated.”
iPads and Online Newspapers
Cult classic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke collaborate with Stanley Kubrick. Inventions like the ‘Newspad’ – the precursor to the iPad – and online newspapers feature in the novel, “When he had tired of official reports, memoranda and minutes, he would plug his . . . Newspad 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.”
In his book ‘1984’, George Orwell introduced the frighteningly claustrophobic world of surveillance, the idea of ‘Big Brother’ constantly monitoring every citizen’s every move. In the 21st century, we’ve come to realise that this surveillance state is our reality, with the NSA and other government agencies snooping into public and private spaces without a warrant.
Even movies have contributed to the predictions of technological innovations. ‘Back to the Future’ (1989) predicted drones, biometric devices, hands-free gaming consoles, video phones, video glasses and waste-fueled cars among others. ‘Gattaca’ (1997) predicted home genetic testing, ‘Weird Science’ (1985) imagined 3D printing, ‘Total Recall’ (1990) depicted driverless cars, and ‘Minority Report’ (2002) predicted the ubiquitous presence of a touch interface.
It has to be acknowledged that the contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci influenced the scientific minds of the future. His drawings of engineering inventions include spring powered cars, knight robots, tanks/armoured vehicles, parachutes, helicopters, gliders, and the machine gun. These inventions aside, Da Vinci’s works included a series of humorously enigmatic texts, ‘Prophecies’.
Other predictions that became reality were Arthur C. Clarke’s positing of geosynchronous satellites in his manuscript ‘Wireless World’, John Elfreth Watkins’ forecast about digital photography and television, and Gernsback’s prediction of video phones.
Among notable modern predictions, author and scientist Raymond Kurzweil’s contribution is a whopping one hundred and eighty predictions, with an 86 percent accuracy rate. Examples include his 1990 prediction that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998; in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, and yet another which is now reality, that exoskeletal limbs would let the disabled walk by the early 2000s – many companies have the technology to make this, and much more possible.
As technology progresses, future generations will definitely experience instances of scientific predictions morphing into reality. The fate of esoteric predictions of the past are still open to interpretation.