Winston Churchill's 1932 Predictions for 50 Years Hence

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"The great mass of human beings, absorbed in the toils, cares and activities of life, are only dimly conscious of the pace at which mankind has begun to travel," Winston Churchill wrote to open his predictive essay in the March 1932 edition of Popular Mechanics, which sought to both illuminate this exponential progress and also to extrapolate it into the future.

Not yet prime minister, Churchill's byline reads "former British Chancellor of the Exchequer." The essay itself had appeared in different forms under the same bold headline—"Fifty Years Hence"—in different magazines the year before, and would be further edited before appearing in "Thoughts and Adventures," a collection of essays that Churchill published in November 1932.

There is tremendous passion for the scope of human progress evident in the prose. The predictions, although interesting especially in their accuracy, are almost secondary to Churchill's intent to convey just how far we'd come in the preceding generations:

A priest from Thebes would probably have felt more at home at the council of Trent, two thousand years after Thebes had vanished, than Sir Isaac Newton at a modern undergraduate physical society, or George Stephenson in the Institute of Electrical Engineers. The changes have been so sudden and so gigantic, that no period in history can be compared with the last century. The past no longer enables us even dimly to measure the future.

This, however impressive, also presents a problem for the task he has undertaken:

There are two processes which we adopt consciously or unconsciously when we try to prophesy. We can seek a period in the past whose conditions resemble as closely as possible those of our day, and presume that the sequent to that period will, save for some minor alterations, be similar. Secondly, we can survey the general course of development in our immediate past, and endeavor to prolong it into the near future.

He then concludes, "Only the second is open to us now, and this only in a partial sphere."

Nevertheless, Churchill ventures some specific predictions with admirable foresight. About new forms of energy:

If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, it would suffice to drive a 1,000-horsepower engine for a whole year. If the electrons—those tiny planets of the atomic systems—were induced to combine with the nuclei in the hydrogen, the horsepower liberated would be one hundred and twenty times greater still.

And communication:

Wireless telephones and television, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their owner to connect up to any room similarly equipped and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head in the window.

Talk of genetically-enhanced food:

New strains of microbes will be developed and made to do a great deal of our chemistry for us. With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e., the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future.

And where that food will be grown:

Vast cellars, in which artificial radiation is generated, may replace the cornfields and potato patches of the world.

The final paragraph concerns itself with human reproduction and genetic tinkering. Multiple versions exist—some more incendiary than others. In Popular Mechanics, he writes that

There seems little doubt that it will be possible to carry out the entire cycle which now leads to the birth of a child, in artificial surroundings. Interference with the mental development of such beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil.

The piece ends there, but a later version carries this vision of specialization from birth to a sinister, scifi, and anti-Soviet conclusion:

The production of creatures, for instance, which have admirable physical development, with their mental endowment stunted in particular directions, is almost within the range of human power. A being might be produced capable of tending a machine but without other ambitions. Our minds recoil from such fearful eventualities, and the laws of a Christian civilization will prevent them. But might not lop-sided creatures of this type fit in well with the Communist doctrines of Russia? Might not the Union of Soviet Republics armed with all the power of science find it in harmony with all their aims to produce a race adapted to mechanical tasks and with no other ideas but to obey the Communist State? The present nature of man is tough and resilient. It casts up its sparks of genius in the darkest and most unexpected places. But Robots could be made to fit the grisly theories of Communism. There is nothing in the philosophy of Communists to prevent their creation.

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December 5, 2014 - 3:00am
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