How One Wealthy Brit in 1930 Imagined the Home of 2030

How One Wealthy Brit in 1930 Imagined the Home of 2030
A page from Earl of Birkenhead's 1930 book The World in 2030 A.D. (Graphic: Angelica Alzona)

What will homes of the year 2030 look like? They might feature revolutionary technology or humanity’s sad best attempt at robotic pets. They might be blissfully dumb or they might be just too smart and terrifying. But those are all relatively new predictions, for the most part. What did people of 100 years ago imagine for the houses of 2030? Looking back at century-old archives of particular origins predictably turns up a mixed bag of techno-optimism and blatant bigotry.

Frederick Edwin Smith, otherwise known as the Earl of Birkenhead, released a book in 1930 called The World in 2030 A.D., imagining the techno-utopian promises of a century hence. Smith, a conservative politician in England, was a close personal friend of future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Much like Churchill, who performed his own prognostications in the 1930s, Smith had some disgusting ideas about colonialism and race, on par with many of his prominent contemporaries.

Some of his ideas for tech in the home of tomorrow were partially innocuous and not that far off.

From The World in 2030 A.D.:

To those who choose to stay at home, rather than depart by air for a remote resort, 2030 will offer attractions far in advance of anything possible to-day. The development of broad­ casting and television will enable a family, gathered round its own atomically radiant hearth, to watch and listen to a variety of spectacles. On a screen let into the wall of the room where they are gathered, plays will be projected stereo-scopically in full natural colours. From a concealed loud speaker the voices of the actors will emerge as from their owners’ mouths — not, like the talkies ” of to-day, as if muttered through a lamp-glass darkly. It will be possible to create in a private house the exact illusion of physical presence at a stage performance hundreds of miles away.

By this means everyone will be enabled to assist at performances by the most gifted actors and actresses of the day. Any piece can be revived “for one night only” at a moment’s notice. In this case, a perfect talking film recorded on a previous occasion will be sent out through the transmitting apparatus

The quotes around “talkies” should remind you just how far technology has come. When Smith was writing these words in 1930, the tech enabling movies with synchronised voices was brand new. The first feature-length “talkie” was released in 1927 under the title The Jazz Singer (and included Al Jolson in blackface).

As we can see from Smith’s predictions, this living room image — a “stage performance” more like a physical presence in the room — was much more advanced than our 2D-TV images of today. And yet, the Earl didn’t believe this would be the death of live performances, a prediction that will be tested while things like concerts are reemerging, as the covid-19 pandemic dwindles in the U.S.

I do not believe, however, that this perfec­tion of engineering ingenuity will prevent packed audiences from gathering to attend the performances of superlative artistes. The atmosphere of a crowded theatre or concert­ hall possesses an attraction which can never be reproduced in a private house where only two or three are gathered. The mass emotion of a first night at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, or at Covent Garden in London, or at La Scala in Milan — so easy to recall and so difficult to define — adds enormously to the prestige and excitement of the occasion. So long as human nature remains unchanged, it will always be preferable to be present at such scenes rather than to watch a perfect simulation of them in one’s own home.

Smith’s ideas about the home of the future came bundled with incredibly racist rants, with Smith writing about how the “yellow” and “brown” races “threaten the white domination of the world.” Smith also had incredibly backwards ideas about everything from gender roles to labour relations.

In this passage about the future households of employed people, Smith opines how their servants would be able to work just 13 out of 52 weeks a year, flipping many of the home’s chores back to the “married couples.” Yet, women will still work as unpaid housekeepers and nurses in the home of 2030 simply because they love to do it, according to the Earl.

From the book:

It is certain, therefore, that the ordinary household arrangements which suffice to-day, will prove inadequate for the needs of 2030. In spite of the myriad labour-saving devices’’ which will doubtless have multiplied by that date, and will have converted the English domestic interior into the semblance of a machine shop, many married couples will find housekeeping beyond their powers. Perhaps they may find refuge in large communal establishments, equipped with private bed­ rooms and studies, but sharing refectories, libraries, music-rooms, lounges, nurseries and kitchens. The management of these synthesised homes may be undertaken by the large number of women who adorn every generation and who, to the eternal benefit of their friends and relations, find their greatest happiness in discharging the duties of housekeeper or nurse.

I do not believe that any amount of organised education can turn such women from domestic occupations and cares.

Ah, yes. No amount of formal education can get women to stop dutifully doing their women-y stuff, apparently.

Smith also believed that agriculture would go extinct by 2030. Farming would survive as little more than a “rich man’s hobby,” as he put it, since everything needed for human nutrition would be created in laboratories.

As he writes in his book:

In 2030 science will make the city a self-supporting unit, and Britain a land of laboratories capable of feeding no matter how many millions of mouths without importing a ton of foodstuffs. Many will bewail such a prospect, for they insist that a flourishing agricultural peasantry is the only sound basis of any political life. It will be necessary when agriculture goes into irrevocable decay, to plan the evolutions of a stable industrial society. Such an undertaking should not he beyond human wit. The agricultural basis of society, which has existed for so many centuries, was itself evolved from nomads and savages. To reconcile such folk with the peaceful static life of the husbandman needed a far more violent adjustment than will be necessary to urbanise the descendants of the world’s present agriculturists.

And while science aided in the creation of new foods, like Impossible Burgers, the vast majority of humanity’s food is still produced outside of a scientific lab in those old-fashioned farms.

Smith died September 30, 1930, not long after his book of predictions was published. The Earl was known to be a heavy drinker and the cause of death was pneumonia caused by cirrhosis of the liver. He was 58 years old.

And while his predictions about homes of the future had some worth in a technological context, there are plenty of things he got wrong.

British rule in India will endure. By 2030, whatever means of self-government India has achieved, she will still remain a loyal and integral part of the British Empire.

So much for that.