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Writer H.G. Wells Loved To Predict The Future, But Some Of His Prophecies Were Eerily Accurate

Aug 22, 2020

Image: H.G. Wells predictor of the future - victorianweb.org
 
H.G. Wells was among the leading sci-fi writers of his era according to historicalpost.com. His towering novels include The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds – to name but three. So it’s easy to see that his legacy as a visionary endures to this day. Yet while Wells’ most famous works are found in the fiction section, some of his predictions of the future turned out to be spookily accurate. And one particular prophecy seems especially relevant today.
 
Wells is, of course, credited with shaping the way we see the world. His incredible imagination placed Wells among the most regarded writers of his generation. During his lifetime, however, no one could have known just how accurate Wells’ vision of the future would turn out to be.
 
Yet, as far as we know, Wells didn’t predict the details of his death. The writer eventually died of unknown causes at his London home on August 13, 1946, at the age of 79. But Wells did provide a suggestion for his epitaph: “I told you so. You damned fools.” And when you take a look at some of the prophecies Wells made throughout his life, you’ll agree that this inscription couldn’t be more fitting.
 
Herbert George Wells was born in Bromley, a suburb of southeast London, on September 21, 1866. He came from a working-class family, with his mother, Sarah, having worked as a domestic servant and his father, Joseph, as a gardener. By the time Wells was born, however, the family had acquired an inheritance that enabled them to open a shop.
 
The store sold sporting goods – no doubt reflecting Wells’ father’s interests as a professional county cricket player. The shop didn’t make enough money, though, and the business eventually failed. As a result, Wells’ family were plunged into economic hardship, and his mother returned to work as a domestic servant.
 
Yet Wells had shown an early love of books. When he was around eight, you see, the future writer broke his leg in an accident – leaving him bedridden. So, to keep his son occupied, Wells’ father brought him books from the local library. These works opened up whole new worlds for Wells – and inspired him to start writing himself.
 
However, it was Wells’ mother’s time working at Uppark country house in Sussex, England, that clinched the deal. Wells spent a winter at the stately home between 1887 and 1888. And while there, he had access to the owner’s extensive library. So the writer began devouring all the classics, including Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia and the works of Daniel Defoe.
 
Before pursuing a career as a writer, though, Wells tried and failed to become a draper. He also tried his hand at being a chemist’s assistant – but that didn’t work out either. Wells then worked as a teacher while continuing his studies. And at the age of 18, he gained a scholarship to the school that would later become the Royal College of Science in London.
 
During Wells’ time at the school, he primarily studied biology – but also learned about astronomy, chemistry and physics. All the while, he continued to write and even published a short story entitled The Chronic Argonauts while still at college. The tale focused on the subject of time travel, setting Wells on the path to becoming a prolific sci-fi writer.
 
The Chronic Argonauts would be a precursor to Wells’ novel The Time Machine, which came out in 1895. The book told the story of an English scientist who invents a time-travel device. And it proved popular – turning Wells into an overnight writing sensation.
 
Yet while The Time Machine is an entertaining read, Wells used the book to touch upon issues of science and society. Some of the topics he explored included evolution and class conflict. Such subjects became recurring themes in his work, too. This is particularly true of his later books, which focused more on social commentary than science fiction.
 
After The Time Machine, though, Wells continued to pioneer the genre that would become known as sci-fi. These included 1896’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, which features a scientist who creates a new species through his horrifying experiments on animals. There was also The Invisible Man, Wells’ 1897 book, which follows a scientist who unleashes a reign of terror after turning himself – you guessed it – invisible.
 
In 1897 Wells released The War of the Worlds in serial form in both the U.K. and the U.S. The story details an alien invasion that starts in southern England. It was among the first works of literature to explore an imagined conflict between mankind and an alien race from outer space.
 
Of course, The War of the Worlds proved popular and influential. It has inspired many movies, comic-book adaptations and television series. Perhaps most memorably, though, Orson Welles’ version – which aired on American radio on Halloween 1938 – allegedly caused panic when listeners didn’t realize that the reports of an alien invasion were fictional.
 
So it’s Wells’ many works in the sci-fi genre for which the writer is best known. He is often credited as a “father of science fiction” alongside the French author Jules Verne and publisher Hugo Gernsback. And it’s fair to say that Wells had a major influence on how people saw the future.
 
In the latter part of his career, however, Wells steered away from sci-fi to focus on his passion for social commentary. As we’ve mentioned, the writer covered topics such as class and inequality. Some of his later novels even focused on lower-middle-class characters, making heroes out of store workers, clerks and teachers – which had rarely been done before.
 
Then, around the turn of the 20th century, Wells became an outspoken socialist. In 1903 he became a member of the Fabian Society, which campaigned for social reform and believed that socialism was the best political system. Wells later disagreed with the group’s methods, however, and tried to seize control of the socialist organization.
 
Wells also released non-fiction works, such as his Anticipations. That book came out in 1901, and in it Wells detailed some spookily accurate predictions regarding what the future of humankind might look like. And it was thanks to this work, as well as Wells’ sci-fi novels, that the writer gained a reputation as a visionary.
 
In a 2016 article for U.K. newspaper The Guardian John Higgs – the author of Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century – said of the writer, “Wells’ visions of the future remain unsurpassed… [He] saw the coming century clearer than anyone else.”
 
Simon James is the head of English Studies at Durham University in the U.K. and also edits the H.G. Wells Society journal. In 2016, explaining the writer’s legacy as a futurist, he told Smithsonian magazine, “Wells’ was an imagination in a hurry, he wanted to get to the future sooner than it was going to happen. That’s why he’s so predictive in his writing.”
 
Among Wells’ many accurate predictions were those concerned with modern warfare and how it would unfold in the future. He even foresaw the invention of tanks and wars that were fought in mid-air, thanks to the advent of aircraft. The writer also anticipated the Second World War.
 
Yes, in his 1933 book, The Shape of Things to Come, Wells forecast a worldwide conflict that would erupt within a decade. He predicted it would start in Eastern Europe before spreading across the globe to include all the major world powers. And, as you no doubt know, in 1939 the Second World War broke out when Germany invaded Poland, causing other European countries to act.
 
Yet while Wells wasn’t the only visionary to sense trouble brewing in the 1930s, the way he envisioned the nature of the war turned out to be pretty close to the mark. That’s because the writer spoke of widespread bombing raids and panic over gas attacks – both of which formed part of the horror of the Second World War.
 
And World War II wasn’t the only way in which Wells predicted the worst of humanity. He also foresaw the advent of nuclear weapons. This was back in 1914 when he released his book The World Set Free. In the novel, Wells imagined uranium-based “atomic bombs” that “would continue to explode indefinitely.”
 
But it wasn’t until World War II that atomic bombs were invented and first dropped over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These attacks killed and injured more than 200,000 people, forcing Japan to surrender and subsequently end the Second World War. However, the end of one battle ushered in a worrying age of possible nuclear warfare.
 
And Wells predicted some of the global developments after World War II. Namely, he foresaw the coming together of Europe after the conflict. He also believed that Britain wouldn’t fit well into this federalized new Europe and would align itself more with the U.S. and other English-speaking nations.
 
Of course, many European nations did come together in the wake of the Second World War. This was first as the European Coal and Steel Community and then the European Economic Community, in 1957. The E.U. as we know it today formed in 1993. And, after a public vote in June 2016, the U.K. became the first member to start withdrawal proceedings from the union.
 
What other accurate predictions did Wells make? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the writer was ahead of the curve on many technological advancements. For instance, in the 1936 film Things to Come – which Wells wrote, based on his 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come – he predicted the space race, acknowledging humanity’s never-ending quest for knowledge.
 
Wells even seemed to predict the 1969 moon landing in his 1901 book, The First Men in the Moon. The novel sees protagonists Mr. Bedford and Dr. Cavor undertake a lunar adventure. Unlike the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission, however, Wells’ characters found a sophisticated alien civilization known as the Selenites inhabiting the celestial body.
 
Further scientific breakthroughs that Wells foreshadowed included satellite television and laser weapons. The latter of these was laid out by Wells in The War of the Worlds. He imagined the invading aliens with an arsenal of advanced weapons, including the Heat-Ray. The futuristic device fired a surge of energy, powerful enough to burn through flesh and buildings.
 
And while laser weapons have not yet been perfected, they are under development. At the height of the Cold War, for instance, President Ronald Reagan planned to use laser technology to shoot down intergalactic nuclear missiles as part of his so-called “Star Wars” plan.
 
Another scientific advancement that Wells foresaw was genetic engineering. In his 1896 book, The Island Of Dr. Moreau, the titular character creates human-animal hybrids through his hideous experiments. And in the novel, it seems that Wells is wary of the idea of humans playing God, as Moreau’s hybrids ultimately turn on him.
 
So it would be interesting to hear Wells’ thoughts on human-animal chimeras that scientists have subsequently created in experiments. We will never know, of course. However, James told Smithsonian magazine that Wells’ writing often provided “a warning about the consequences of technology, in particular when you don’t think them through properly.”
 
Many of Wells’ predictions involved the future of society, too, and how humans would live in the coming decades. He even wrote about how the prevalence of motorized vehicles would lead to the growth of suburbs. Wells further anticipated that, in the future, people would communicate through a system not dissimilar to voicemail and email.
 
In his 1923 book, Men Like Gods, Wells wrote, “Except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone… A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless.”
 
Not only did Wells appear to foresee the prevalence of email communication, but he also seemed to predict the World Wide Web. In fact, Wells anticipated a kind of prototype of Wikipedia, which he named the “world brain.” He imagined that such a “World Encyclopedia” would be a force for good, helping humanity to make use of information that would, in turn, lead to world peace.
 
Additionally, Wells had a liberal attitude to sex and was known to have extramarital relationships. And in Anticipations, he predicted that strict codes of morality would disappear, and both men and women would expect greater sexual freedoms. So it seems that Wells foresaw the sexual revolution, which got underway in the 1960s – around 15 years after the writer’s death.
 
But while many of Wells’ predictions have since become reality, one of his most hopeful forecasts for humanity is yet to take shape. That’s because Wells imagined a world state run by a utopian government that would make sure that every single person received an education, a job that satisfied them and the liberty to enjoy their personal lives.
 
In his 1919 book, The Outline of History, Wells aimed to relay the history of humanity for the first time. And in doing so, Wells hoped to highlight our common origin as humans and unite us as one species that eclipses national, cultural and racial differences. To achieve this, then, Wells outlined what he called the “United States of the World.”
 
So while some of Wells’ predictions for the future are dystopian, it seems that – while highlighting some of the worst-case scenarios – the writer also offered us a way of putting our differences aside for the greater good. He imagined a brighter future for the world. And hopefully, like so many more of Wells’ forecasts, that one will come true too.

 


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