Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2334:
LOOKING BACKWARD

by Andrew Boyd

Today, Looking Backward. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The word Utopia first appears as the title of a book written by Saint Thomas More in 1515. Utopia is fictional nation describing More’s vision of a perfect socio-economic system. Three centuries after its publication, similar ideas would emerge in a movement known as utopian socialism. Utopian socialists envisioned a world free of social class and private property. These were the nonviolent dreamers who predated communism.

Edward Bellamy was such a dreamer. And in 1888 he published Looking Backward, a book that describes a vision of the world in the year 2000. The story is actually told in the year 2000, through the eyes of a man who has awakened after falling asleep a hundred years earlier.

Looking Backward is a cornucopia of utopian fancies. Young men only work from age twenty-one to forty-five. There’s no money, only equally apportioned government credits. Private enterprise has willingly given way to the state – a natural course of events according to Bellamy. Everyone is happy and fulfilled. Bellamy’s vision was so attractive to some that his book sold millions of copies worldwide. One-hundred and sixty-two Bellamy clubs formed in the U.S. alone, each hoping to realize Bellamy’s utopian ideal.

Hidden in the pages are visions of technology. Shopping in Bellamy’s year 2000 sounds remarkably like a visit to IKEA. Shoppers view goods in vast stores filled with everything imaginable. Lounges are provided for shoppers to relax. After shoppers choose what they want, goods are delivered directly to their home from a central warehouse. The biggest difference with today’s supply chain is that delivery is via a system of large pneumatic tubes. The process is so efficient that goods arrive before the shopper returns home. Fed Ex and UPS aren’t quite that fast, but they’re trying. It’s an amazingly prescient vision given the state of commerce during Bellamy’s time, where small, street-front shops were the norm.

In most of his predictions, however, Bellamy is sorely off the mark, reminding us just how difficult it is to see the future. Citizens can listen to their choice of music at all hours of the day, but it’s live music arriving over telephone lines. (Alexander Bell was issued a patent on the telephone ten years before Looking Backward was published.) There’s no concept that music can be stored on something like a CD. Everything is orchestral. Rock, pop, jazz – Bellamy couldn’t imagine such things. Nor would he have approved if he could.

Television is nowhere to be found, but books are widely accessible. There’s no hint of automobiles, cameras, computers, genetic engineering, or electric toothbrushes. Men retire to a separate room after dinner to smoke cigars. Women are genteel objects to be protected. The soccer mom and the minivan weren’t in Bellamy’s future.

In fairness, Bellamy never intended to focus on technology. He touched upon it when it suited his larger purpose. Still, we have to ask ourselves. If he had foreseen the future of technology, would it’ve been part of his Utopia?

I'm Andrew Boyd, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


E. Bellamy (1888). Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887. Signet Classic series with introduction by William James Miller. (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2000).

Timeline of the Telephone. Accessed February 19,2008, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_telephone.

Utopian Socialism. Accessed Febraury 18, 2007, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopian_socialism.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.