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The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America

11 Areas of Future Life Covered in The Tricentennial Report

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The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America

In 1976, to celebrate America's bicentennial, Atlantic Richfield Company put out a call—in the form of newspaper, magazine, and television ads—for average citizens to write in and respond to dedicated questionnaires predicting what life would be like when the country celebrated its tricentennial in 2076. Sixty thousand people wrote in.

"It was like one of those talk shows in which people call in to the local radio station and share their opinions on some critical issues of the day," reads the intro of The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America, which was published the following year. "Only in this case, the entire country was plugged in at once." The report is 70-plus pages of analysis interspersed with excerpts from specific letters and even pictures from respondents of all ages. They're arranged roughly thematically, but the themes range from overall impressions of the future world to detailed developments in industry to even fictionalized narratives of daily life.

Technology moves so fast that while some letters still read like science fiction, there are inklings of truth in others. Even for those predictions that are still far-fetched, it's interesting to consider if we're moving toward or away from them. We pulled 11 different topics touched on in one or more of these letters about life in 2076, and we promise to check back in on them in 62 years.

1. Unfettered Optimism

I see a world of peace and beauty. The air is clear and invigorating. The tall, clean, stainless and blue tinted glass business/living complexes seem to blend with the greenery that abounds everywhere...There is no anxiety, no loneliness. There is happy activity and tranquility...Man has controlled disease, population growth and his hostilities.

It seems safe to assume that Jane Petti of Brooklyn, New York, represented an extreme outlier on the spectrum of how hopeful respondents were for the country's future. And since she doesn't seem to provide even an outline for how we should go about not only setting aside hostility but also curing all diseases, we're destined to fall short of the utopia she's envisioned.

2. The Catastrophizers

Not everyone thought the future would be all stainless buildings and abundant greenery. In fact, plenty of people wrote in with bleak prognoses that exaggerated the worst parts of contemporary life.

Irene Sarraf of Howell, New Jersey, wrote ominously that "Spaceships have been arriving daily to take aboard the few scattered survivors left after the havoc."

Andrew Grzanka of Piscataway, New Jersey, used questionable science for his prediction: "A great part of the earth has collapsed due to the removal of vast amounts of coal and minerals," he wrote.

Bruce Povall of Pleasantville, New York got creative; he delivered his prediction in the form of a fictional story about the futuristically-named Nemo Outis, but his prognosis was even darker. "It was short, as such wars go, ending after a week of all out scientific warfare," he wrote. "The net result was the near total destruction of mainland Asia, large parts of Europe, the Mideast, Africa and of course, the United States."

3. Sustainable Energy

The report says that of all issues, the matter of sustainable energy drew the most responses and that "nearly everybody agrees that what is most urgently needed is a substitute for the diminishing, costly fossil fuels we are now so dependent on." Some people suggested nuclear fission or nuclear fusion as a replacement, but solar power seems to have been the most popular replacement.

"Because scientific fact has shown fossil petroleum reserves will run out in the near future...I would like to see a full-speed switch to solar and other natural forms of energy," wrote Bruce Hilde of Moorhead, Minnesota.

"Sunlight is always available, free," backs up Tom Stafford of Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Frances Schleissner of Chatsworth, California, offers a very thorough take: "Many different ideas for fuel are being explored such as hydrocarbon fuels, nuclear fission and fusion, thermal gradients and solar generators. As a long-term means for providing energy without the concomitant production of potentially lethal byproducts, I feel that solar energy is the most practical."

4. Rationing energy

One of the solutions to the energy crisis suggested in a number of letters was to limit or heavily discourage usage by law, a stark contrast to the continued excess that has come to pass.

"I think the best way to solve our energy problems would be by making laws on how much energy you can use," offered Charlotte Walck of Longmont, Colorado.

"The best way to solve our energy problems is to give each family an energy allowance annually, for a stipulated price, whether it be for gasoline, utilities, etc. Once this allowance has been fully utilized any additional usage should be extremely expensive so as to encourage conservation," Richard Kleinbaum of NYC suggested.

5. Food

This take on futuristic food came from Sikeston, Michigan high schooler Karla K. Adams:

In the year 2076 there will be several changes in the world. We will be eating capsules and pills instead of food. At the Fourth of July picnic our baskets will be stuffed with barbecued chicken pills and potato salad capsules.

Scientists will have discovered that human consumption of meats and vegetables is hazardous to human life. For this reason livestock will be kept only as pets and vegetables will be grown only as ornamental plants...

Another major accomplishment of these tasty capsules would be the fact that sloppiness at the table would be eliminated.

6. Marriage

Another student, Sheri Lynn Brown from Sylmar, California, worries about how a more automated life will lead to widespread boredom, but also extrapolates a radical change to our current social structure based on the changing norms of the '60s and '70s:

Customs have changed much in the last 20 years, so I think that in 100 years I believe we won't have marriage. Families won't be important as they are now. Everybody will do his own thing.

7. City-scapes

Everyone seems to agree that the future will see even more of a shift to further urbanization. The cities of 2076 are meticulously planned and essentially revamped from scratch with detailed, organized layouts. Arthur R. Carroll of Flushing, New York goes all in on the grid-structure:

My idea is a plan for the city of the future. Population of each city should be limited to 1,000,000 and overcrowding eliminated. The city should be laid out in a huge square with numbered streets and avenues only, not names. All avenues would be six lanes wide. One section of the city would be limited to commercial buildings, a second section to apartment buildings and residences. There would be areas restricted to shopping centers. There would be an automatic overhead monorail system run by the city (no fare charged).

The appeal of cities seems to be that they can accommodate growing populations while still leaving room outside their borders for agriculture. Here's how Donal Hawk Jr. of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania imagines it:

My idea for the Tricentennial is what I call complexes or a city in one building. These could replace the old cities and use spaces economically...A population of 8,000,000 people could be fitted in a 16 square kilometer (5 square mile) area. I gave each person a 10 meter square room and figured out the area needed and doubled it to account for halls and other needed areas.

The main purpose of these cities would be to save land to be brought back to nature and to create more farm space for food production.

8. Beauty Standards

Most letters avoid day to day minutia, but in a long, sprawling note from Ralph Doty of Cambridge, Massachusetts comes this gem of the unintended consequences of a return to almost feudal life:

...[S]ince most of the population will be barely subsisting on the results of their agriculture, almost everyone will be thin. Consequently, fatness will be considered a singular mark of beauty in a woman, and parents of marriageable daughters will starve themselves to stuff their offspring. Matchmakers will travel from town to town, displaying photographs of obese beauties to bachelors with money and an urge to marry; fashion will dictate loose dresses with puffed sleeves to counterfeit curves. Perhaps the bustle will come back.

9. The Government

People in 1976 were understandably wary of the government—they had just lived through the Watergate scandal, after all. Their letters, then, are a form of wishful thinking in which politicians are more open or the central government plays a far reduced role in their lives.

"I think we should take away most of the services the government performs and have individual companies bid for the work," wrote Linda Custer of East Hartford, Connecticut.

"Let's start by making it mandatory that each candidate be required to give the public such information as educational background, political ties and past work record," Lewis Wilson of East Orange, New Jersey wrote. (He might be happy to learn that the current news cycle surrounding political campaigns reveals all sorts of personal history far more sordid than previous employment.)

Ed Archer of Brooklyn, New York suggested a radical solution to governmental incompetence, a training program for politicians:

The curriculum would stress the fundamentals of the American constitutional system with emphasis on leadership training, while preparing the student for a career in certain area of government. Graduates would be obligated to a service in government for five years.

10. More radical change

Some people thought the current government couldn't be properly reformed, and that the following hundred years would reveal a need for an all new system.

Allan LeBaron's letter suggested that "We need to rewrite the Constitution."

"We should have a national Council of Elders, a group composed of capable, wise, detached individuals, appointed for life, who would be responsible for supervising studies of alternative courses of action," suggested Fred Floodstrand of Crystal Falls, Michigan, who may have been reading too many Superman comics.

11. Space Travel

What would be the point of predicting the far-off future if not to anticipate space travel?

"Even if the light barrier in never surpassed, I think I can safely say that in 100 years we will have reliable star travel," Martin Halbert of Houston, Texas predicted.

Rather than serve as a backup to a failed Earth habitat, as is often the case with extraterrestrial colonies, Norm Honest of Wantagh, New York anticipated how our space developments would benefit inhabitants back on Earth:

I visualize in the year 2076 space colonies, each housing tens of thousands of people. These colonies will serve as bases for the future exploration of space. They will beam down all the solar energy the earth requires and they will supply us with unlimited amounts of precious ore obtained from the moon, asteroids and other planets.

Christopher Placak of Charlottesville, Virginia was not so hopeful:

If we can set some sort of goal, such as attempting to send men to Mars by 1985, or reach the nearest star by 2010, it would unify the people and provide a tremendous boost for technology. It could help the economy and maybe give some people a place to go after 2010, if we blow the hell out of this planet and make it unlivable.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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