11 Thomas Edison Predictions That Came True—Or Didn’t

Mar 2, 2011 by

11 Thomas Edison Predictions That Came True—Or Didn’t

Writing in Cosmopolitan in 1911—then a general-interest magazine— U.S. inventor, Thomas Edison, predicted what the future would bring. He was spot on about some things, such as speedy airplanes, but “absolutely wrong” on others, said Paul Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  Here are some of Edison’s predictions from his 1911 vantage point.

Nickel Books

Among Edison’s misses: that books (pictured, Dublin’s Trinity College library) would be made of nickel, which Edison thought would make a cheaper, stronger, and more flexible material than paper.

“Certainly he never foresaw what’s happening in terms of e-ink—digital replacing books,” said Israel, also the author of Edison: A Life of Invention.

After Edison semiretired in 1908, he became the “nation’s inventor philosopher,” and his influence persists today, Israel said.

“While we maybe don’t have quite the faith in technological progress that his generation did,” he said, “Edison as a symbol of American innovation still resonates in the culture.”

Tractors

“The coming farmer will be a man on a seat beside a push-button and some levers,” Thomas Edison told Cosmopolitan.

Tractors and battery-driven plows that would “mellow the earth more rapidly than ever horses could” were part of “great improvements” impending in farm machinery, Edison said.

He also predicted, correctly, that farms would experience a “great shake-up” driven by scientific knowledge and the introduction of big business.

For example, Edison said that farmers were “shy of brains,” and that “in place of the present farmer will come a shrewd businessman who will be at once a soil-chemist, a botanist, and an economist.”

Israel said, “That’s what happened to farms—small farmers have largely been displaced by modern farm businesses.” (Photograph by Amy Toensing, National Geographic)

Smartphones

Thomas Edison foresaw that the day will come when telephones will “shout out proper names, or whisper the quotations from the drug market,” according to the 1911 Cosmopolitan article.

“With some of these smartphones, that’s completely conceivable—someone could come up with an app,” Israel said.

Many advances in telephone technology have grown out of Edison’s invention of the phonograph, he added. (Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic)

Steel Furniture

Thomas Edison told Cosmopolitan that steel furniture (pictured, stools in a modern kitchen) would completely replace wooden furniture.

“The babies of the next generation will sit in steel high-chairs and eat from steel tables,” Edison said. “They will not know what wooden furniture is.”

That’s because the alloy is lighter and cheaper than wood, and could even be “stained in perfect imitation” of mahogany and other woods, Edison said.

In the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturers began experimenting with steel office furniture in a big way, though wood remains a key ingredient of even the most modern home.

Poverty Eliminated by Technology

A beggar in Rome disproves one of Thomas Edison’s 1911 predictions: that “there will be no poverty in the world a hundred years from now.”

“Poverty was for a world that used only its hands,” Edison told Cosmopolitan. “Now that men have begun to use their brains, poverty is decreasing.”

Such a technocentric sentiment was not unusual at the time among “typical business progressives” like Edison, Israel noted.

“There was a lot of belief … that technological progress would create such an abundance of wealth and good that it would do away with poverty,” Israel said.

“That clearly has not happened.” (Photograph by Paul Wilson, My Shot)

Machines not Menial Labor

In 1911 Thomas Edison told Cosmopolitan he had no doubt that machinery (pictured, robotic car welders) “will make the parts of things and put them together, instead of merely making the parts of things for human hands to put together.

“The day of the seamstress, wearily running her seam, is almost ended,” he predicted.

Machines taking over menial labor was a common and progressive notion at the time, Israel noted, and eventually became “the world we live in today,” Israel said.

“Now, of course, we’re in a situation where we’re concerned about the ability of the economy to fully employ people, [as there’s been] so much displacement by automated machinery.” (Photograph by Bruce Dale, National Geographic)

Alchemy Perfected

Alchemists stretching back to at least the Renaissance have dreamed of artificial gold (pictured, bars issued by a gold ATM in 2010)—and Edison was no exception, according to Israel.

In 1911 the light bulb inventor predicted that it was only a question of time before the U.S. manufactured gold. Because of the resulting glut, gold would “not much longer lure” as a commodity.

He was partly right—in modern times, scientists have manipulated atoms to create synthetic gold in the lab, and it’s an ongoing project at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Overall, the idea of artificial gold doesn’t seem that surprising now, when “we’re creating all sorts of insane materials,” Israel said.

“This notion that one can create artificial gold is sort of mundane compared to what we’re creating in the present day.” (Photograph by Eliot J. Schechter, Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Electric Trains Blow Away Steam Power

The demise of the steam engine and the rise of the electro-hydraulic train (pictured, a bullet train in Taiwan in 2006) is another century-old Edison prophecy.

Edison told Cosmopolitan that waterwheels would make electricity to run railroads that traverse water-abundant states, particularly in New England.

“The steam locomotive is blowing its last blasts for millions of people,” the 1911 article said.

And in highly populated urban areas, that’s been partly true, Israel said.

“He had talked about [the train grid] being water powered. It isn’t, but nonetheless, the Northeast corridor, between Washington and Boston, is electrified.” (Photograph by Sam Yeh, AFP/Getty Images)

Reinforced Concrete For All

These concrete houses in Dalian, China, are in some part thanks to Thomas Edison, who revolutionized the cement industry with his creation of the long kiln, Israel said.

In 1911 the inventor claimed that “men are lunatics” to keep building with bricks and steel, rather than concrete laced with steel reinforcing bars, or rebars.

“A reinforced concrete building will stand practically forever,” he said. He also predicted that by 1941, “all construction will be of reinforced concrete, from the finest mansions to the tallest skyscrapers.”

In the 1920s skyscrapers were largely steel-reinforced concrete, Israel noted.

But since the end of WWII, more architects have built tall buildings with steel frames with glass rather than steel-reinforced concrete, Israel noted. (Photograph by Fritz Hoffmann, National Geographic)

Universal Peace

In the 1911 article—just three years before World War I—Thomas Edison said the “piling up of armaments” would “bring universal revolution or universal peace before there can be more than one great war.”

As Israel points out, this, “of course, did not happen.”

Even so, the atomic bomb created a stalemate between the U.S. and Soviet Union “because of a threat of mutual destruction” (pictured: a 1960 bomb shelter).

“In that sense there’s some truth to [Edison’s] idea.” (Photograph by Patti McConville, Getty Images)

Airplanes

Thomas Edison’s understanding of artificial flight (pictured, a jet plane over Bermuda in 2010) was limited, but he informed himself by observing nature—in particular, the agility of the bumblebee.

“Suppose you had four million trained bumblebees attached to wire wickerwork on which was seated a man,” Edison said in the 1911 article—eight years after the Wright brothers’ triumph. “Can’t you understand that if the bumblebees were signaled to fly, they would lift the man?

“I believe mechanical bumblebees could be so attached to a flying machine that they would lift it straight up.”

Robotic bumblebees aside, Edison foresaw flying machines that would carry passengers at more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) an hour, Israel said.

Israel also offered his own prediction of what Edison would think of life in 2011.

He “would be as much of an enthusiast of modern technology,” Israel said, “as he was about technology of his period.” (Photograph by Mike Theiss, National Geographic)

26 Comments

  1. Jeff

    If you want change walk away from everything they taught you, dream what is not thought about, and there is change

  2. Vanessa Aching Davenport via Facebook

    There’s a union of GAstronomic Rabbis? Cool

  3. Cliff, you made that up.

  4. David Traub via Facebook

    Marconi was robbed.

  5. Edison was also wrong about the “pow”. Half pig, half cow. He actually went to work on this hybrid project, but was stopped by the Union of Gastronomic Rabbis in 1919. It was really too bad because it would have stopped a lot of dinnertime arguments about “what’s for dinner Honey? Ham again!”

  6. Cool!!! I love this stuff!!!! Rock on with this!!! Add as much trivia as you all can find!!! : ) <3

  7. Lewis Latimer, former slave, helped Alexander Graham Bell get his telephone patented and perfected the filament in the prototype lightbulb for Edison’s competitor, extending the life of the bulb and making it efficient and affordable enough to become the home & city utility we know and love today.

  8. John Sanders via Facebook

    cool, i never heard of thsi guy before

  9. David Traub via Facebook

    Fermi!!!!!!!!

  10. John Sanders via Facebook

    Tesla !!!!!!

  11. Very interesting – Thanks again Brooke

  12. Beloved..
    ♥´¯)¸♫´¯)
    (¸♫´(¸.♥´´¯`•.¸¸.♫´¯`•.¸¸.♥
    ´¯`•.¸¸.´¯`•.¸¸.♫*In Loving Gratitude ♥

  13. David Traub via Facebook

    I too love doing the research. The computer is so much easier than dragging out the Brittanica and updating with stickers!

  14. Dearest David, I agree with so much of what you have noted and additionally, I need to clarify a few points regarding the infomation. Please note, I specifically referred to Tom Edison as the inventor of the “common usage light bulb” because it was just as you noted. Thomas Edison was not the originator of the light bulb but he made it practical and cost-effective to reproduce and to buy, which the early models by other inventors were not. Tom Edison was a masterfully creative innovator with had an astute business mind.
    And, you’re absolutely correct to reference William Friese-Green, who’s often regarded as the Father of Cinematography. Friese-Green actually did receive the first patent given for a camera that functioned with still frames that moved using perforated celluloid film, hence a motion picture camera.
    And, Friese-Green is even known to have sent an article about the patent’s approval to Tom Edison at Edison’s laboratory, because Tom Edison, was at the time, working on the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope, the motion picture camera and devices he patented after Friese-Green. But again this is where the creativity of innovation was significant. I say that because Friese-Green received a patent for something no one choose to reproduce or buy. So his motion picture camera was never used. While Edison made his device in conjunction with a device that could immediately be used for reasonably priced entertainment. The Kinetoscope was actually a peep-hole viewer. This device was installed in penny arcades, where people could watch short, simple films. The Kinetograph and Kinetoscope were both first publicly exhibited May 20, 1891. Even so, Edison was still likely not the primary developer, it was probably his employee W.K.L. Dickson who did most of the inventing of the devices.
    As for the phonograph that situation is far more complex. First, Charles Cros never made a phonograph or a device.
    And, there had been several different devices already created to catch and record sounds over the previous half century.
    But Charles Cros’ concept was unique because it used a diaphragm, just like Edison’s, which no previously concept had.
    Cros wrote his plans up, explaining his proposed method, in a letter sealed them in an envelope and on April 30, 1877 he submitted this sealed envelope to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.
    Now, Cros was a poet of meager means, therefore he was not in a position to pay a machinist to build a working model of his plans. He was largely content to bequeath his ideas to the public domain free of charge and let others produce them and bring them into practice. But, after the earliest reports of Edison’s similiar independent invention crossed the Atlantic Cros requested the Academy of Sciences open his sealed letter of April 30 and asked that it be read at the December 3, 1877 meeting of the French Academy of Sciences, so that he could be recognized and receive a measure of scientific credit for his priority of origination of the concept. But, the key point here is, Edison would have had no way of knowing of Cros’ concept. And while Edison did not receive his patent until several months after Cros theory had been read aloud in Paris Cros theory was neither published nor publicly known at the time Edison was already beginning to produce prototypes of the phonograph that were garnering press attention.
    The world is an amazing place and the human mind is a fascinating thing and synchronicity is mind-blowing sometimes.
    Love to you, sweet friend!!! Thanks, I had fun doing that research and I learned a hell of a lot!!! oxo <3

  15. David Traub via Facebook

    Sounds like a brilliant guy. To bad about timing and luck.
    My cousin is credited with Doppler radar at MIT. Somehow he didn’t get rich but at least he got the credit. That and 3.50 will get him a Starbucks.

  16. Marylyn D'Amore Kruger via Facebook

    My father was an inventor – he had a lot of patents, but no luck finding backers for his ideas. Edison was his idol. My dad had an idea of planes refueling in the air and wrote to the government, and they said thanks but it could never be done – now it’s being done. He also invented the first swifter type mop, but couldn’t get that off the ground either. Then there was the idea of a machine where people could take their own blood pressure in stores. He graduated from Milwaukee School of Engineering and was a draftsman/machine designer.

  17. David Traub via Facebook

    I always knew we’d have marble and granite surfaces in the kitchen of the future. Doesn’t that make me counter intuitive?

  18. David Traub via Facebook

    Forgive me but in actuality; William Friese Green invented the movie camera. Humphrey Davy invented the light bulb, and Charles Cros invented the phonograph the year before Edison. Edison was a patent savvy thief. He did make improvements on all of the above items but managed to get himself credited for the inventions. Check it out. (And other lies my Mother told me, haha)

  19. Call me a goofball will ya…Huh!!!

  20. He just appeared before a Senate committee testifying that he was the vicitm of elder abuse…He’s in hi 90’s now and smaller than I remembered him when he lit up the world…Ooooooohhh!!! Donna just told me that was Mickey Rooney who played the young Edison in the movies…Wow all this time I thought he was the real thingy…

  21. As an inventor, Edison was amazing.

  22. I share your lament, dear Kristen.

  23. “Poverty was for a world that used only its hands,” Edison told Cosmopolitan. “Now that men have begun to use their brains, poverty is decreasing.”
    If only all who use their brains also used their hearts….