Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thomas A. Edison - Great Inventor, Mediocre Prophet.

The year 2011 according to Thomas A. Edison.

In 1911, Thomas Edison, who should have known better, made a number predictions about the technology of the future.  Among the things he got close:
The steam engine is emitting its last gasps. A century hence it will be as remote as antiquity as the lumbering coach of Tudor days, which took a week to travel from Yorkshire to London. In the year 2011 such railway trains as survive will be driven at incredible speed by electricity (which will also be the motive force of all the world's machinery), generated by "hydraulic" wheels.
Most of our trains are diesel, or diesel electric powered (a technology which was already in use in 1911), but many are powered by electricity.  I think the hydraulic wheels is hydropower, which is a minor, but still important source of electricity.  I think we'll give him this one.
But the traveler of the future, says a writer in Answers, will largely scorn such earth crawling. He will fly through the air, swifter than any swallow, at a speed of two hundred miles an hour, in colossal machines, which will enable him to breakfast in London, transact business in Paris and eat his luncheon in Cheapside.
He pretty much nailed, or even underestimated that one. But a few missed by a mile:
The house of the next century will be furnished from basement to attic with steel, at a sixth of the present cost — of steel so light that it will be as easy to move a sideboard as it is today to lift a drawing room chair.
Nope, houses are still mostly wood, with drywall instead of plaster (ask me how I know).
Books of the coming century will all be printed leaves of nickel, so light to hold that the reader can enjoy a small library in a single volume. A book two inches thick will contain forty thousand pages, the equivalent of a hundred volumes; six inches in aggregate thickness, it would suffice for all the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And each volume would weigh less than a pound.
Nope, but I'm sure a Kindle would impress the hell out him.  No need to carry the print on pages, just print it out on a flat surface when you want to read it.  All connected to a world circling library, able, at least in theory to bring all the written knowledge in the world to your finger tips, if you can find your way to it.
"Gold," he says, "has even now but a few years to live. The day is near when bars of it will be as common and as cheap as bars of iron or blocks of steel. "We are already on the verge of discovering the secret of transmuting metals, which are all substantially the same in matter, though combined in different proportions." Before long it will be an easy matter to convert a truck load of iron bars into as many bars of virgin gold.
Now, that one's almost funny. The value of gold has, if anything, increased relative to inflation.  While a nuclear reactor can and does  transmute elements, making iron into gold in bulk is still not even a glimmer on the horizon. He did understand that the value of gold is related to it's rareness; if it were as common as iron, it would still be used for costume jewelry, electronics and chemistry.

Really, though 3 out of 5 ain't that bad.  A hundred years is a long time, and a lot happened in between.

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