“The splendors of this age outshine all other recorded ages,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1871. “I have seen wrought five miracles—namely, the steamboat, the railroad, the electric telegraph, the application of the spectroscope to astronomy, the photograph.” He died in 1882, missing the invention of the machine gun by three years, the gramophone and radar by five years, and the diesel-fueled internal combustion engine by ten years.
“We don’t like their sound,” an executive at Decca Records said in 1962, rejecting The Beatles, adding, “and guitar music is on the way out.” The same year, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The book is dead. That is to say sometime before the end of the present century, the last printed book will roll off the presses.”
“Six days, six weeks. I doubt six months,” said Donald Rumsfeld, on February 7, 2003, about the duration of the Iraq war. “Whatever happens in Vietnam, I can conceive of nothing except military victory,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1967. Four years before that, Robert McNamara asserted, “The war in Vietnam is going well and will succeed.”
To rival the 1,063-foot-tall Eiffel Tower, nearly twice the height of the Washington Monument, planners of the Chicago Exposition of 1893 presented the Ferris Wheel, which was 264 feet tall. While the wheel was slowly spinning, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a paper in which he proclaimed the end of the frontier phase of American history.
Questions asked in TV commercials aired in 1993: “Have you ever borrowed a book thousands of miles away? Or sent someone a fax from the beach? Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down? Have you ever watched a movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?” The answer: “You will. And the company that will bring it to you? AT&T.”
“The history of the twentieth century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire,” reads the Statement of Principles for the Project for the New American Century, June 3, 1997. Among the signatories were Dick Cheney, Francis Fukuyama, Dan Quayle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeb Bush—but not George W.
On July 23, 1995, in New Mexico, the astronomer Alan Hale saw an unidentified fuzzy object in the sky. He emailed the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. In Arizona, Tom Bopp saw the same thing. He telegrammed the bureau. The comet was named Hale-Bopp the following day. Believing that a UFO was traveling behind it, thirty-eight members of The Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide on March 26, 1997, six days before the comet reached its perihelion.
By the end of the century, a report by the National Science Foundation in 1982 predicted, 40 percent of American homes will have “two videotex service”—a term describing the emergent conjunction of communications and computing. A U.S. Census report found in 2000 that 42 percent of American homes used the Internet. The first year the census started tracking U.S. computer usage was 1984.
Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835—two weeks after the perihelion of Halley’s Comet. “I came in with Halley’s Comet,” Mark Twain commented in 1909. “It is coming again next year. The Almighty has said, no doubt, ‘Now there are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” He died on April 21, 1910—one day after the comet had once again reached its perihelion.