Donate

Fifty Years Hence (Popular Mechanics, 1932)

This publication by Winston Churchill was summarized by Daisy Joo, with edits by Francis Runge. The original paper can be accessed here.

Winston Churchill is primarily known as a politician, but he also has other lesser-known identities as writer, historian, and science-fiction-enthusiast. In Fifty Years Hence published in 1932, Churchill’s multi-faceted interests commingle to produce a moral forecast of the future based on the premise that technological progress is cumulative and exponential. “We know enough to be sure,” he wrote, “that the scientific achievements of the next fifty years will be far greater, more rapid and more surprising, than those we have already experienced.” According to Churchill’s predictions, the future would not be limited to “materials thirty times stronger than the best steel,” “schemes of cosmic magnitude,” or “an engine of six hundred horsepower weighing twenty pounds and carrying fuel for a thousand hours in a tank the size of a fountain pen.” Certainly, some of Churchill’s predictions read as truly science fiction; however others seem eerily prescient: “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 through the window.” He continued, “The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous.” The predictions are surprising. Even more so when the orientalist attitudes of Churchill’s time seep through, and we more acutely feel the distance between the article’s publishing date and today: “Mankind has sometimes traveled forward and sometimes backward, or has stood still for hundreds of years. It remained stationary in India and in China for thousands of years.”


Of most interest to New Harvest readers is Churchill’s prediction regarding cultured meat and “synthetic” foods: 
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. Nor need the pleasures of the table be banished. The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural products from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.


This prediction is made with a measure of certainty, bolstered not only by the power of scientific progress but also through the conclusion that current methods of food production are largely inefficient and wasteful. For example, regardless of whether one is a vegetarian or a person who enjoys food of the “secondhand form” (i.e. meat), it is unfortunately true, Churchill points out, that “in all their processes... ninety-nine parts of the solar energy are wasted for every part used.” 


It is wasteful to raise a living being only to harvest a piece of it and to discard the rest. Instead of concentrating on potentially harmful technological capabilities like nuclear power, Churchill argues that it would make more sense to concentrate on potentially helpful technology - technology which helps improve the world through its efficiency and economy. 


Fifty Years Hence examines the scientific progress of recent times and the great potential science has to change our world. Considering the rate at which science has grown, and the many changes that have taken place over such a short period of time, we can see why Churchill was inspired to write what he did. Churchill encourages us to use our imaginations when meeting domestic challenges, to collaborate and think creatively when handling any new problem or difficulty. Our newfound scientific powers should instill the sense that there is not much we can't do if we put our minds (and cultures) to it!