'The Wondrous World of 1990': A Look at Past Predictions of the Future

What did our visionary predecessors get right and wrong when looking 23 years into the future?

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A Los Angeles engineer thinks women living in an urban environment in 2000 will look like Vicki Dunlap. Dunlap, shown here February 21, 1968 wears body paint for insulation against the weather and air pollutants, including radioactivity. A computer necklace programs her day, governing the temperature of her oven, warning when her children will be home, and monitoring the guidance device of her car. Colored jewels are warning signals. Her hat is a receptor and transmitter for a two-way radio worn around arms, with the earrings supplying energy for radio and computer.

In the annals of history, 1990 will be remembered for the reunification of Germany, fighting in the Persian Gulf, Milli Vanilli, and a deluge of denim. We recently stumbled upon an article that ran in U.S. News & World Report on this date in 1967 entitled "The Wondrous World of 1990," predicting what life would be like in the great unknown of the future.

Some of the predictions are downright hilarious (imagine freight being shot across the country by missiles in mere minutes), while others are surprisingly accurate to current times, but were a bit off in 1990 (think video phones and tele-conferencing, and a virtually "cashless" and "checkless" economy run by computers). U.S. News also hinted at the invention of the GPS and even foresaw the feasibility of "Go-Gurt" (food eaten out of a pouch).

U.S. News did not foresee the exodus of women from the kitchen into the office, as evidenced by the use of "she" to describe the American homemaker and the assumption that "mother" still does the grocery shopping and cooking in the future. References to students, workers, motorists, and all other types of people use male pronouns. The racial attitudes of the era also seep into the article, with assumptions that more black people moving into inner-cities would require more police presence "just to keep society together." U.S. News also did not predict the influx of the Latino population in the second half of the 20th century.

We've come a long way since 1967, though Los Angeles remains shrouded in smog, we don't travel around in 2,000-mph super-supersonic jets, and there is still no cure for the common cold. Perhaps we will have the solutions to these problems before another 23 years passes by.

Note: While reading about what people thought 1990 would look like in 1967, enjoy a selection of photos of what 1990 actually looked like.


This story originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 1967, issue of U.S. News & World Report.


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The Wondrous World of 1990

Outlook for Young People

Today's youth faces a bright future in the America of tomorrow. Incomes are to rise spectacularly. The workweek will shrink. Amazing discoveries will lengthen life, make it more enjoyable. Here is a glimpse of the wonders that lie ahead.

Ahead for America lies an amazing new "age of miracles."

Peer into the future—to 1980, 1990 and beyond—and you see changes that will transform the country and its industry.

People can look forward to a revolution in the way they live, the way they work and the way they play.

Today's college students will enjoy the wondrous new America at the prime of life, in their early forties.

Underlying the transformation to come is a quickening in the tempo of development out of scientific discoveries already made. Says Dr. Richard G. Folsom, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: "The magnitude of change will expand, even explode."

For the America of the 1980s—a little more than a dozen years from now—the following transformations are being predicted by tough-minded businessmen, scientists, economists:

The country is to become steadily more crowded, but improved transportation and housing will ease much of the strain of today's living and commuting.

Industry, growing more automated, will produce fantastic amounts of wealth for all—and a shrunken workweek. One family in three in the 1980s will be earning $15,000 a year, in dollars of current buying power, compared with one family in 13 at present.

Doctors will be routinely transplanting hearts, kidneys and other organs by the mid-1980s—and sewing in artificial ones when needed. The drug industry, within 15 years, is expected to come up with a pill that can control or modify human personality.

Atomic power will be turning sea water into fresh water to make deserts bloom. Computers will reach the point where they will be used for some kinds of decision-making at the management level.

Sophisticated teaching machines will be speeding up the learning process, and translating machines will eliminate the language barrier in world communications.

In space, the U.S. will have established a permanent base on the moon.

Those are only a few of the wonders that the experts predict will unfold in America by 1990.

Now look a bit further ahead, to the shape of the future by the year 2000:

Medical scientists see the virtual elimination of bacterial and viral diseases—from the common cold to pneumonia. The life span will be pushed from 70 years, today's average expectancy for an infant, toward 100 years.

There will be food enough for all the world from harvesting the sea and from fabricating synthetic protein from such sources as crude oil.

Weather will be controlled, say the scientists—at least on a regional scale. U.S. astronauts will land on Mars before the end of the century.

The genetic code, which determines the characterizations that pass from parent to child, will be unraveled—opening up the possibility of preventing the passing on of hereditary defects.

And scientists see the creation, in the laboratory, of primitive forms of artificial life by the year 2000.

Dreams into reality. Seem impossible? Before dismissing it all as a pipe dream, think back a mere 10 years. A scant decade ago—

There were no man-made satellites in the sky. The intercontinental missile was no further along than the drawing boards. There were no commercial jets. Nor were there any commercial atomic-power plants. Computers were just beginning to be used by business.

Invention and discovery in the decades ahead are foreseen outshining anything in the past. Says David Sarnoff, board chairman of Radio Corporation of America: "Whatever the mind of man visualizes, the genius of modern science can turn into fact."

Man's dreams, in short, have a way of coming true.

First, the People

Beverly Hills 90210, season 1 cast

For a look at the America of the future, start with people.

Population of the U.S. by the year 2000 is forecast at 300 million—about 100 million more Americans than now. The increase will be equal to two Great Britains or five Canadas.

Overcrowding will grow as a problem because nearly all the added population will squeeze into urban areas. At present, about two thirds of the population lives in cities and suburbs accounting for barely 10 per cent of U.S. land area.

By 2000 A.D., about 80 per cent of the larger population will be jammed into urban areas. Population density will be up to 700 persons per square mile in metropolitan areas, as against about 400 persons now.

New cities: good or bad? The swelling mass of urban dwellers is to require a huge rebuilding of present cities and creation of whole new ones. Each year in the coming generation the nation will add the equivalent of 15 cities of 200,000 each.

A grim view of the large cities of the future is given by Philip M. Hauser, a University of Chicago sociologist:

"Should present trends continue, the central city will be disproportionately Negro; many will not be educated to assume the rights and duties of American citizens, and the major increase in government expenditures will be for police—including the National Guard—just to keep society together."

Negroes in the U.S. are expected to grow to 44 million by the year 2000—just under 15 per cent of the nation's people. Negroes now number about 24 million, or 12 per cent of total.

Looking closer at the city of the future—

Today's trend toward "strip" cities—huge population belts melding together—is to continue far into the future. Planners see nearly solid development from San Francisco to San Diego, Calif. Another high-density strip will include Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit. Yet another will stretch from Chicago to Minneapolis. By 2000 there is expected to be a "coastal crescent" that reaches from Miami, Fla., to Houston, Tex.

Many city planners fear that such sprawling masses will be beyond the ability of local governments to handle. A widening role for federal planners is envisioned to permit overcrowded areas to function.

What might the new cities of the future be like? One possibility for a "supercity" is being put forth by scientists at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. They described a score of 100-story apartment buildings in a double circle around the rim of a wheel-shaped city. The high-rise buildings would house a community of 250,000.

Commercial areas, schools, theaters and government offices would be located throughout the complex. Transportation in the city would be by automated monorail, subway and moving sidewalk.

Urban life without autos. The 1-mile diameter of this supercity of the future would have bicycle paths, golf courses, parks, streams and lakes—and no automobiles.

Barring autos from the center of cities is expected to be a growing trend by the 1980s. A major reason: to cut down on air pollution caused by exhaust fumes.

A California official recently called for a ban on all gas-burning autos in the State by 1980.

Electric cars, however, are seen as a possibility for city driving in the 1980s, if a ban on autos proves unpopular.

The number of cars in America, over all, is going to keep on climbing. By 1990 there will be about 150 million cars in the country—about double the number today. And that doesn't count the growing truck traffic.

Government controls over all types of vehicles are expected to multiply to prevent monster traffic jams.

A Ford Motor Company official, A.J. Goldenthal, envisions by 1990 separate automated lanes built into the interstate-highway system. He illustrates the effect on a trip from Detroit to Washington, D.C. —

The motorist drives to the entrance ramp of the automated lane for a checkout of his car. Such a check, with electronic gear, takes 10 seconds. The driver then punches out his destination on a device which transmits the data to a central computer. The computer's job is to forecast traffic loads at different points on the highway. The car radio, says Ford's Goldenthal, then informs the driver to accelerate to 75 miles per hour. If the driver does not accelerate, the roadway takes over control.

The car then is on automatic guidance, with the computer smoothly merging the car into the automated lane. The driver then can play chess with his family, dictate office memos, watch TV. A built-in refrigerator provides snacks. In Washington, D.C., the computer will switch the car onto the proper exit ramp.

Instead of private cars—. Public transportation, too, is pictured as undergoing radical change in the next 20 years—

Supertrains zipping between cities at 200 mph... planes that take off vertically and then level off to increase speed, shorten flight time... helicopters that can carry several hundred passengers... super-supersonic jets that will far outspeed today's proposed SST, with its promise of speed of about 2,000 miles per hour. By the end of the century, some experts predict, freight—though not passengers—will be shot across the continent by missiles in a matter of minutes.

Size and wealth of the economy in the America of the future will be measured in trillions. Output of goods and services—total spending in the country—is expected to exceed 2 trillion dollars—2,000 billion—by the 1990s. In 1966, total spending was 739.5 billion dollars.

Production and wealth, forecasters say, will rise faster than population, so that incomes will climb steadily. Example: Income of the average U.S. family last year was about $6,600. By 1990, average family income will be up to $12,000—measured in buying power of today's dollars.

The typical worker now puts in about 2000 hours a year on the job. In 20 years this is expected to drop to 1,700 hours or less. The four-day week will arrive, in other words.

New ways of work and leisure. Job patterns will be reshaped. Listen to William L.C. Wheaton, director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California:

"When incomes double... some of the population will prefer two 20-hour-week jobs, to keep busy and increase income. Others may prefer to work six months and play six.

"Still others may prefer to work very hard for 10 or 15 years so that they can retire at 40 and indulge in other activities for the rest of their lives.

"The professions would never get any rest. The very nature of their work makes them completely dedicated to it."

Machines will be producing more and more of the nation's wealth. By 1990, only one out of every four workers will be needed in production jobs—compared with about one in two workers today.

What will there be left for people to do? Answers you get from economists may be startling in a country where working at a job is considered wholesome and not working is a cause for guilt feelings and anxiety.

Says University of California's Dr. Wheaton: "The very definition of work will change, as it is already changing.

"We will pay people to go to school, to keep them out of the labor market, as well as to learn….

"Community-organization efforts, the leadership of certain recreation activities... formerly regarded as voluntary activity may be defined as 'work' and be paid….

"When a quarter or a third of the population can produce all the essentials of life, those of the remainder who desire a function will find it, and society will support the activity in one way or another, and honor it."

The "Super Growth Industry"

President George H.W. Bush waits to answer a question from a student at Farnsworth Elementary School in Chicago on June 8, 1990 where he read part of a book to them.

Education is to become a "super growth industry." Take colleges. There are now about 5.6 million students enrolled in college. By year 2000 the ranks of college students are seen swelling to 20 million.

Part of the campus crush will be by former graduates who will be forced to come back for refresher courses. Educators expect growing numbers of jobs to become obsolete, requiring workers to go back to school to learn new ones.

Says Dr. Herbert Grosch, at Tempo, General Electric's long-range-planning organization: "School can be used to take up a major portion of a person's life. You can see it coming. A student will get his bachelor's degree, then his master's, then his Ph.D., then his postdoctoral, and then his post-postdoctoral. He will be in school until his thirties, supported all the while.

"It will keep him off the streets. That's a problem with our young people today, and it's bound to get worse."

School in America's future will be as different from today's school as the little red schoolhouse of yesteryear. What's coming, say educators, are "educational parks"—grouping all schools from prekindergarten through college and including the community library, art gallery and activity center.

Robert G. Lamp, of Stanford's school-planning laboratory in the University's school of education, says that for future students "the textbook as we know it will disappear, the teacher will fill a different niche, and the student will receive most of his information from a computer."

Machines and the world of tomorrow. The industrial world is to face dramatic alterations. Entire new industries, based on engineering and technological advances, will become realities in such fields as mining, metallurgy, communications, electronics.

Computers will reach out to encompass more and more work in factories, offices—and the home.

George W. Mitchell, of the money-managing Federal Reserve Board, sees computers bringing a "checkless economy." People will simply tell their banks to pay out money, rather than writing a check.

Such a system would eliminate a mountain of costly paper work sorting and posting an estimated 60 million checks a day in the banking system.

Computers in half a hundred centers scattered around the nation would link up all banks and electronically keep track of all financial transactions, according to Mr. Mitchell.

A computer would automatically print out a notice to the person who is paying out the money, and a similar notice to the person receiving payment—notices that would go out by telephone or by mail.

Man to Be Computerized?

Mac from 1990

A virtually "cashless" economy through computers is seen as a real possibility by former Bell Telephone Laboratories scientist Hubert Heffner, now associate provost and dean for research at Stanford University. He says:

"It is quite reasonable to believe that in the future each citizen will be represented by a number and that this number, verified perhaps by his thumbprint, will be all that is required for every purchase which he makes.

"A computer will automatically check his bank balance, debit his account by the proper amount and credit the seller's account at the same time. With the storage of all such data, income tax can be collected automatically. In fact, the need for money in the form of cash will almost disappear.

"The telephone, with a suitable display device, can be tied into the regional computer so that one can dial an appropriate number—or more likely push buttons—and receive his current bank balance, the latest weather report, stock quotations, or airline schedules to New York."

In the field of energy, nuclear power is sure to play an ever-growing role in America's future. By year 2000, say power experts, half of America's electricity will come from nuclear power. At present only a tiny fraction of the nation's electricity comes from the atom.

Atomic power plants of huge capacity, experts believe, will bring about a merger trend in the power industry. "In the 1980s, I bet there will be only a dozen giant utilities in the country, instead of the several hundred companies you have today," says one electric-power specialist.

Size of nuclear power plants of the future is forecast by Garth Leeth, at GE's Tempo. He sees as technically possible a nuclear generating station in the Los Angeles area with generating power of 50,000 megawatts. Such a plant of the future, by itself, would be the equivalent of three TVA's.

Benefits of such a plant in the Los Angeles area would extend beyond the power itself. Heat generated by the nuclear reactor could be released in a way to force to an altitude of 19,000 feet the inversion layer that hangs over the city. Gone would be the smog problem for Los Angeles, says GE's Leeth.

In addition, a 30-mile-per-hour sea breeze would be drawn in over the Pacific near Santa Monica, and the pileup of warm air over the San Bernardino Mountains would condense out as rain over the desert all the way to Arizona.

Other atomic-power experts predict that water warmed by nuclear plants could be pumped into the Great Lakes, opening them up for year-round use.

Cheap nuclear energy coupled with chemistry will permit exploitation of low-grade concentrations of minerals, including those on the sea bottom.

On the ocean floor, says Dr. Philip H. Abelson, are manganese "nodules" which contain not only manganese but copper, cobalt, nickel, molybdenum, vanadium and zinc.

The continental shelves, it's well-known, are rich in oil, gas and sulfur. Less well-known, however, are the diamond-bearing gravels off the coast of southwest Africa, gold-bearing sands in sea areas off Alaska, tin ores off Malaysia.

Says Dr. Abelson: "Already major industrial organizations are quietly beginning to exploit the sea of the resources beneath it.

"The potential resources are tremendous. A scientific, technological, economic and political struggle for control of this wealth could be one of the major events of the next century."

Farms of the next millennium. Farms, as well as factories, will undergo broad changes. More land in the U.S. will be farmed—including all of the 55 million acres that have been taken out of production in recent years, according to farm experts. Size of the farm will expand. Huge farm corporations will handle thousands of acres. The small farmer will fade out.

By year 2000 there will be only 1 million farmers in America—as against 3.5 million today.

Feeding 7 billion mouths by year 2000 presents a challenge. Right now world population is only half that size.

Yet many scientists are confident that the food challenge will be met.

Says Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission:

"Most of our best authorities on the subject believe that from a scientific and technological standpoint it will be possible for us to produce enough food to sustain a population of from 25 to 30 billion people."

Menu for 1990. What will pass as "food" in 1990, however, will very probably be a far cry from today's menu. Eating habits will have changed to accommodate new foods. Among these: seaweed, ocean algae, synthetic protein. An example of the latter: oil companies have already manufactured protein-rich powder out of bacteria, yeasts, certain chemicals and crude-oil stock. Problem is to make it more palatable.

Conventional foods are to take new forms, be preserved in radically different ways—drawing on the experience now being gained in meals for astronauts.

Listen to C.W. Cook, chairman of General Foods Corporation.

"Many products will be packed in pouches, from which you eat directly, to which you add water, or perhaps just heat for a minute on the new stoves of the 21st century.

"Children will drink sterile milk that can be kept at room temperature. Mother will cook meals in minutes in a microwave or infrared oven. And processors will offer full soup-to-nuts meals, all in one handy package, that will make today's frozen dinners look like products of the Dark Ages.

"When the American homemaker, year 2000 style, goes shopping, she'll have a wider choice of foods. There will be foods designed for the very old and the very young; for more highly developed exotic tastes, for outdoor cooking it, which will still be a popular family ritual.

"More attractive foods will be available to meet 'following doctors orders' fun instead of persecution.

"But mother will make even less frequent trips to market, where she will insert her charge-a-plate, punch her order into a computer—and have it delivered to her car or even right to her home storage area."

The domestic setting. Outward appearance of the American home of the future, surprisingly, is not going to change radically, according to housing experts. "After all, most of today's houses aren't really much different in appearance from those of the 1930s." says a housing economist.

Production of houses, however, seems headed for big changes. The trend is toward fabricated panels and sections , made in a factory and assembled on the building site.

"It will get to the point where you will be able to order your house by catalog—living room A, kitchen 4Z, bedrooms 26C, and so on," predicts one authority.

Inside, the house of the future will be "climate controlled"—temperature, humidity, purity of air all taken care of automatically.

There will be no laundry room. Explains Dr. W.E. Shoupp, Westinghouse Electric Corporation scientist:

"It will be replaced by an inconspicuous unit... Soiled clothing will go in on one side… And dry, ready-to-use clothing will come out the other. So the coat closet will be combined with the dry cleaning."

But what about wrinkles? Answers Dr. Shoupp: "Ironing in the year 2000 will be a thing of the past. All clothing will be made from fabrics that come with permanent creases… Even the bums in the park will look like Beau Brummel."

Instant Communications

Cellular phones are being offered by many car manufacturers as optional equipment for drivers who can't bear to be out of touch, even on the road.

Television in the world of tomorrow will bring the world right into your living room—at the same time that events are taking place. Credit a universal satellite-relay system.

TV sets themselves will range from huge wall sets that can be hung anywhere to sets the size of a matchbox.

Video phones are to come into wide use—enable businessmen to set up conference calls and discuss company matters as though meeting in the same office. Such a development would help reduce the transportation crush. "Why travel for a belly-to-belly confrontation when a video phone would be much more efficient?" asks one electronics expert.

And so it goes, the amazing future that is to unfold. Every facet of life is to be changed.

From the executives, the scientists, the educators, the economists who are in on planning that is shaping the future, you hear one lament as they look toward 1990.

"We were born too soon. The best is yet to come."