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Here's what 2023 has in store, as predicted by experts in 1923

The start of 2023 is the perfect time to revisit experts' century-old predictions about the world.
Yuri Cortez
/
AFP via Getty Images
The start of 2023 is the perfect time to revisit experts' century-old predictions about the world.

Forget flying cars. When scientists and sociologists in 1923 offered predictions for what life might look like in a hundred years, their visions were more along the lines of curly-haired men, four-hour workdays, 300-year-old people and "watch-size radio telephones."

That's according to Paul Fairie, a researcher and instructor at the University of Calgary who compiled newspaper clippings of various experts' 2023 forecasts in a now-viral Twitter thread.

They include projections about population growth and life expectancy, trends in personal hygiene, advances in industries from travel to healthcare and even some meta-musings on the future of journalism itself.

"In reading a forecast of 2023 when many varieties of aircraft are flying thru the heavens, we do not begin the day by reading the world's news, but by listening to it for the newspaper has gone out of business more than half a century before," wrote one newspaper (which was neither identified nor entirely off-base).

Fairie told NPR over email that he's always loved looking at old newspapers, first for an elementary school project (on microfiche), then as a political science Ph.D. student and now in his free time.

"Since last summer I've been sharing themed collections of clippings on Twitter, and I thought it might be fun to look at what people were thinking about 2023, but 100 years ago," he wrote. "Digging through archives is a fun hobby โ€” it's weirdly relaxing to read about what people were thinking decades ago."

He also thinks it's revealing that many of these century-old predictions were about things people worried about at the time and that remain a source of concern for some today.

For instance, predictions about men curling their hair appear to stem from "a general worry about anything that challenges gender norms," while talk of a four-hour workday is seemingly part of a larger conversation about the promise of automation.

Some predictions proved way more prescient than others (consider it a sliding scale between smartwatches and telepathy). Fairie says his big takeaway is "just to be modest about the certainty of predictions a century out."

"If there's one thing I've learned from putting this together," he writes, "it's that I have absolutely no idea what a century from now will be like."

Here's a selection of the โ€” understandably rose-tinted โ€” 2023 predictions he found, and how they panned out.

Advancements in health and beauty

Several seers described a world full of healthier and more beautiful people (though only one explicitly linked those two ideas).

One writer predicted the eradication of cancer, as well as tuberculosis, infantile paralysis (also known as polio), locomotor ataxia and leprosy.

Another went with the headline "Fewer Doctors and Present Diseases Unknown; All People Beautiful."

"Beauty contests will be unnecessary as there will be so many beautiful people that it will be almost impossible to select winners," they continued. "The same will apply to baby contests."

Some focused on the personal grooming and style trends that made up the standard of beauty itself.

One anthropologist, reportedly versed in masculine and feminine trends, declared "curls for men by 2023." A similar prediction appeared in the Savannah News, which also forecast that women will "probably" be shaving their heads.

"Also the maidens may pronounce it the height of style in personal primping to blacken their teeth," it added. "Won't we be pretty?"

Living longer and working smarter

Some newspapers predicted that the average person would live longer in 2023, though the exact amount varies based on whom you ask.

One said the average lifespan could reach 100 years, though certain individuals could make it to 150 or even 200. Another cited a scientist who put the average at 300 years.

"Quite a change," the article reads. "We of today have been living that long about once a month."

For context, the expected lifespan of someone born in the U.S. decreased last year to 76.4 years โ€” the shortest it's been in nearly two decades.

In another optimistic outlook, mathematician and electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz predicted that people would spend even less time working ("No More Hard Work By 2023!" that headline blared).

Steinmetz believed "the time is coming when there will be no long drudgery and that people will toil not more than four hours a day, owing to the work of electricity," the paper declared, adding that in his vision "every city will be a 'spotless town.' "

And where exactly would all these people be spending their (long and leisurely) lives?

Several publications posited that technological and industrial advances would make more parts of North America more habitable, estimating the U.S. population at 300 million and Canada at 100 million in 2023.

Yes and no: The latest estimates from Worldometer put the U.S. population at 335 million and Canada at more than 38 million.

Gizmos, gadgets and other innovations

Naturally, there were also advances to dream about in science, technology, transportation, communications and other fields.

First, the products: One writer proposed that people will be wearing "kidney cosies," which they compared to teapot cozies for one's internal organs. Another posited that utensils and dwellings will be made largely of "pulps and cements."

Next, the flying: Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss predicted that by 2023 "gasoline as a motive power will have been replaced by radio, and that the skies will be filled with myriad craft sailing over well-defined routes," which the Minneapolis Journal deemed "an attractive prophecy."

Elsewhere, the opening of a new "Polar airline" was cheered for making it possible to fly from Chicago to Hamburg โ€” via the North Pole โ€” in just 18 hours (as opposed to the roughly 13 hours most direct flights take nowadays).

There was also considerable excitement about the prospect of wireless and paperless communications.

One writer envisioned a world in which Pittsburgh and London take orders "on talking films" from merchants in Peking, and "1,000-mile-an-hour freighters" deliver goods before sunset.

"Watch-size radio telephones will keep everybody in communication with the ends of the earth," they added, hitting the nail on the head.

Archibald Low โ€” the British scientist and author who invented an early version of TV and the first drone, among other things โ€” wrote that "the war of 2023 will naturally be a wireless war," thanks to "wireless telephony, sight, heat, power and writing."

He went a step further, according to one newspaper account:

"Professor Low concludes that it is quite possible that when civilisation has advanced another century, mental telepathy will exist in embryo, and will form a very useful method of communication."

Low, an esteemed "futurologist" of his era, made many other โ€” and more accurate โ€” predictions about the 21st century.

They include the rise of smartphones and dictation, contemporary department stores, the internet and, arguably, British TV phenomenon Strictly Come Dancing.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.