100 Years Ago, Alexander Graham Bell Predicted Life in 2017

In 1917, the telephone’s inventor gave a speech that foresaw our modern world, from commercial aviation to the finite supply of oil.

Alexander Graham Bell hated few things more than summertime in Washington, D.C. He usually escaped to his estate in Nova Scotia, but one year obligations forced him to stay in the humid capital. Sweltering in 100°F heat, he wondered why humans had figured out how to warm a house but not how to cool one—until now. Nearby, President Woodrow Wilson had installed an ice plant that lowered the temperature in the White House to 80 degrees. By the time Bell read about it in the newspaper, he had already outdone the president. The cold air pumping–contraption he’d devised had brought the temperature in his room that day down to a chilly 65 degrees “with a delicious feeling of freshness in the air.”

When 69-year-old Bell told this tale in a speech to the 1917 graduating class of McKinley Manual Training School, the students went wild with applause. The clapping became “so insistent,” a local paper reported, that he was forced from his seat to deliver a surprising encore. “Could postage stamps be used in transportation of persons?” Bell asked. He’d thought of charging a flat rate for public transport, but the cost of building additional roads was too high. Perhaps, he ventured, according to the paper, “the flying machine will be the solution.”

Bell’s speech—called “Prizes for the Inventor: Some of the Problems Awaiting Solution”—reflected on a century of progress and looked ahead with remarkable foresight. In it he marveled at the advances made in the past century: Gas lighting had evolved into electric bulbs, humans could “see our own hearts beat,” and automobiles replaced horse-drawn vehicles. He then went on to predict the commercial airplane, solar panels, and the need for renewable resources. Gilbert Grosvenor, Bell’s son-in-law and the editor of National Geographic magazine, asked for the text and published a revised version in the February issue. Now, one hundred years later, Bell’s predictions and warnings remain prescient.

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