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Metro Pulse The Way the Future Was

What did Knoxvillians at the last turn of the century predict for 2001?

By Jack Neely

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  As we buy jet airline tickets over the Internet, we may congratulate ourselves on how far we've come in science and technology and democracy, often flattering ourselves that those little people in the past—say, a century ago—never even imagined this.

It seems clear that if you got a boatload of people from the very beginning of the 20th century and shipped them here, they'd be baffled, fascinated—and a little disappointed.

If predictions from Knoxville newspapers of 1900 and 1901 are any indication, McKinley-administration Americans did imagine this, or something like it. They even figured we'd be considerably farther along than we are now.

Take the airplane. It hadn't even been invented in 1900. But that year a Knoxville Journal columnist pictured air travel being a much bigger part of late 20th-century life than it is. Fantasizing about Jan. 1, 2001, he wrote, "Looking from our offices on the 27th floor of the Journal-Sentinel Building at Church and Prince [later Market Street], the sky is almost black with hundreds of flying machines heading in every direction and coming from and going to all parts of the world."

Or telecommunications. Nobody had ever seen a radio in 1900. Even wireless telegraphy was still experimental. But that year, one Journal columnist predicted that by the end of the century, electronic communications would make newspapers obsolete. Another wrote that "every village in the world will be in instantaneous telephonic communication with every other." Another columnist-prophet predicted "common electric machines...in general use by which we see and communicate with people in every part of our world as well as the inhabitants of Mars and many other worlds...."

Another columnist for the same paper (these were all unsigned) wrote, "Books, as they are printed now, will not be in use. The wisest sayings of the wisest men of the preceding centuries will be preserved on metal tablets or plates." He didn't happen to call them compact discs.

Electricity was still an amazing new marvel without limits. By 2001, it could even extinguish fires—again, "instantaneously." Farmers could use electricity to magically mine phosphate fertilizers from beneath their own soil; then relax "under the shade of a tree and by gently turning a crank" till and fertilize their land. If that weren't enough, in 2001 "stovepipe joints are made to match and fit perfectly, without the use of profanity."

By 2001, house servants are rare. "By an electric appliance costing less than $5, a lady can touch a button and thoroughly clean and air a room within 15 minutes. Of course, this includes cleaning carpets, windows, furniture.... Housekeeping which 100 years ago was regarded as drudgery is now fun—a real, joyful picnic."

He added that "fighting cats...disagreeable mothers in law, scolding wives, squalling babies are now kept quiet and pleasant by this wonderful agent known as electricity.... Drunken, wife-beating husbands who fail to provide for their families....in the same way are promptly drawn into submission...." And all this wonderful electricity will be "manufactured by the Tennessee Dam Company."

Hydroelectric power envisioned in Knoxville, 33 years before TVA. The prophets of 1900 thought we'd be doing a lot better with conserving our resources than we actually are. "Heat from the sun will warm our houses and cook our meals," wrote W.D.P., "and power derived from the winds and from the waves of the sea will drive all the machinery." And, perhaps a related idyll, cremation of the dead would be typical in 2001, perhaps "legally enforced in every state in the Union."

The 20th-century development that might be most surprising to them was the one that was almost there in 1900. Though two of our newspaper prophets predicted massive roadbuilding in Knox County—one predicted over 100 miles of "vitrified roads" by 2001, another 1,000 miles—they're apparently for horses. None of the prophesies mention the internal-combustion engine as being of any special consequence to 20th Centurions. In 2001, while trains are faster and bigger, horses have gotten faster, and personal airships are commonplace, those noisy, smelly German things called "automobiles" just aren't in the picture.

Perhaps the most poignant predictions aren't about technology as much as human nature; in 1900, journalists had reason to believe it was improving rapidly. "Bribery and rascality in elections" wrote one, will be "unknown" in 2001. "Scandal-mongers have almost disappeared from the face of the earth, and are seldom heard from" in the late 20th century. And both prize fights and cockfights would have become "obsolete."

"War will be a spectre of the past," wrote "W.D.P.," a Republican columnist for the Journal. "The great battleships will be sent to the junk shops." But then he adds his conditions for world peace. "The world will be divided between the Russians and the Anglo Saxons (including the Germans) and an everlasting treaty of peace signed and sealed....The American flag will float from Cape Horn to the North Pole."

A few days later, another Journal prophet may have taken issue with W.D.P., agreeing that the 20th Century would see the end of war—he specifically predicted we'd see no war after 1925—but adding a gig that two nations which had "boasted more than the others of their enlightenment and Christianity" were "trying to conquer two small remnants of nations whose only crimes were that they loved independence...."

A few turned true: "The Ruler of Russia will be elected by the people." The route the Russians took to get there was somewhat more circuitous than the 1900 prophets envisioned.

"Magnificent cities will spring up in the very heart of Africa," predicted one. "Irrigation will make Egypt again the richest spot on the globe. Palestine will by the same means be transformed into a garden."

And "There will be revolutions in France and Guatemala." (Guatemala has covered for any revolutions France failed to have.)

And the Republican prophet put in his two bits about the next election: "The historian...will speak of Theodore Roosevelt as the successor of President McKinley. Roosevelt's successor will come from the middle west or the South."

Now, that's spooky. At that writing, McKinley was the freshly re-elected president. Roosevelt was just his angry young vice-president, a rabble rouser who was hardly a shoo-in as the 1904 Republican nominee. No one could have guessed that in September, 1901, McKinley would be shot and Roosevelt would become president, an event hardly less likely than Roosevelt's earning the Republican nomination on his own.

Of course, Roosevelt was indeed succeeded in 1909 by Cincinnatian William Howard Taft—and then by a Southerner, Woodrow Wilson.

Predictions about Knoxville are less reliable. One predicted we would have replaced our old courthouse with a new one on a hilltop in South Knoxville—but that we would still cherish Staub's Opera House, "thoroughly improved and greatly enlarged, is still the leading theater of the Marble City." (After decades of decline, it was torn down in 1956.) UT would have expanded and moved to a new campus on House Mountain. A nine-story building of Tennessee marble would go up on Gay Street, incorporating the Chamber of Commerce offices, a Knoxville Art Gallery, and an auditorium seating 10,965. Market Square would enlarge to St. Peters' proportions, from Clinch to Vine (now Summit Hill). And Southern Railroad would increase its business, building a "palatial structure" downtown several blocks long. In front would be a statue of railroad promoter Barney Braine, with the inscription in marble: "Boys, I told you so."

Some predictions about Knoxville's sprawl are eerie; one predicted that Knoxville, then a geographically tiny cluster around downtown, would by 2001 extend from Strawberry Plains to Loudon.

"Knoxville will be a city of 250,000 people and the largest city in the state," wrote another prognosticator. "Chattanooga will be a close second." That population figure, right between today's city-limits population and Knox County's population, is close enough, but the prophet didn't count on the more-massive growth of Nashville and Memphis.

Perhaps less seriously, one prophet predicted Knoxville would host the "largest possum farm and possum-oil factory in America—for the manufacture of patent Medicinal Possum Oil. The establishment is of unique design, being in the shape of a possum and 100 feet high...even in its grin...exactly possumlike."

If there was any of the portentous anxiety about the future that's common today, it wasn't obvious in 1900. The only remotely negative prediction for the 20th century was that it would exhaust East Tennessee's coal mines. One prophet declared that by 2001, pessimism itself would be abolished.

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