Recently, a writer imagined what it’d be like if Paris had a proper, inner-city, high-speed train system:
“A vector tube some twenty centimeters in diameter and two millimeters thick ran the entire length of the track between the two rails; it enclosed a soft-iron disc, which slid inside it under the action of several atmospheres of compressed air provided by the Catacomb Company of Paris. This disc, driven at high speed within the tube, like a bullet in its barrel, drew with it the first car of the train.
But how was this car attached to the disc inside the tube, since this disc would have no communication with the exterior? By electromagnetic force.
In fact, the first car carried between its wheels magnets set on either side of the tube, as close as possible without actually touching it. These magnets operated through the walls of the tube on the soft-iron disc, which, sliding forward, drew the train after it, the compressed air being unable to escape through any outlet.
When a train was to stop, a station employee opened a valve; air escaped and the disc remained motionless. As soon as the valve was closed, the air pushed on, and the train resumed its immediately rapid progress.”
The name of this writer is Jules Verne and ‘recently’ is the year 1863.
It’s an excerpt of his lost novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was buried in a safe he’d left his grandson for over 120 years. It was only upon its official publication in 1994 that the world found out how many of Verne’s extrapolations proved to be correct.
Here’s a guy imagining Elon Musk’s Hyperloop in a time when there was no internet, no computers, no TV, no telephone, no cars, no planes, not even radio. What sounds like the description of a modern subway system, high-speed railway, or maglev train today, then sounded like complete madness.
And yet, he got it right. The Hyperloop may be the most radical example, but he also saw cars, skyscrapers, street lanterns, fax machines, elevators, basic computers and the world wide web. He envisioned alarm systems, feminism, drones, department stores, EDM, and even the cruel electric chair.
Verne is a genius, of course. An outlier. But the way he went about making his predictions isn’t. When he projected the world 100 years into the future, Jules Verne didn’t just write a diary of pipe dreams. He looked at the reality he lived in. He researched contemporary science, society, and technology. He saw the problems of his time and ideas that might one day become solutions to those problems. And then he assembled a vision of what might come next.
Mankind is the only species who can simulate what’s going to happen. We’re not exactly masters of this ability. We’re terrible at guessing how long things take. We suck at predicting other people’s emotions and reactions. Or what the consequences of our actions are. But if there’s one thing we never give ourselves enough credit for, it’s this:
Our ability to imagine the future.
Because once we start doing that, we don’t stop until we’ve built it.