1880 forecast: electric lights, yes; airplanes, no

Capt. Robert Forbes was wrong. In a letter, dated Sept. 17, 1881, he predicted that 100 years hence people would travel between Boston and San Francisco by pneumatic tube, wars would be settled by international referees, and the English language would have eliminated many of its useless consonants.

He also believed the Atlantic would be calmed by oil purposely poured on its waves, smoothing the way for oceanic shipping. (What he lacked in foresight, he made up for in scale.)

Captain Forbes's letter was one of 27 in a Century Box sealed 100 years ago by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, a company of militia chartered in 1638.

Last week, in Boston's bunting-draped Faneuil Hall before an audience dotted with the red lapels of formal military uniforms, the box (with a similar capsule assembled in 1930) was cracked open last week as part of Boston's 350 Jubilee celebration.

Though not as spectabular as the 2,000- pound hot fudge sundae served on nearby Boston Common, the box proved an intriguing window on the outlook of 19 th-century Americans.

"Gradually but surely, the electric light is gaining ground," wrote Maj. Charles Stevens, the Ancient and Honorable's commander in 1880. "I firmly believe that in the larger cities it will eventually be used in private homes."

Major Stevens also believed the world as a whole was growing better every year, even though women had recently won the right to vote "in some elections."

A prominent clergyman of the 19th century, the Rev. Edward A. Horton, had a much bleaker opinion of creeping modernity. He considered airplanes "a pipe dream" and the bicycle "a useless novelty." He grumped that lack of good servants was a constant problem and complained of "lower-class people holding weddings and funerals in building to which they would not normally have access."

Women, in his opinion, dressed in a vulgar fashion and were seized by a mania for furniture and rugs. Civilization as he knew it was crumbling: "Horseback riding," he wrote gloomily, "is in sad decline."

It was John D. Long, governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who made the most unusual contribution. Today, a politician would order a ghost-written letter from a speechwriter. But in 1881, John Long personally composed a lengthy, amateurish poem titled "The Ancient and Honorable," set to the tune "Auld Lang Syne."

The Century Box, a copper and silver capsule so well crafted it took several hours to pry open, was sealed inside a Fifty Year Box assembled by the Ancient and Honorable in 1930.

Contributors to the Fifty Year Box included President Herbert Hoover, Boston Mayor James M. Curley, and former President Calvin Coolidge. Despite being composed in the midst of the Great Depression, their letters to posterity showed dogged hope for the future.

"More progress will be made in the next 50 years than the last 300," wrote President Coolidge. "People must have enough faith in themselves to establish peace."

The Earl of Denbigh, commander of the Honourable Artillery Company of London in 1930, was less optimistic. "The changes of the last 50 years make me wonder about the coming 50," he said.

After a detailed analysis of post World War I Europe, the earl concluded by warning the America of 1980 that "Russia will be a great danger."

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