John Jacob Astor IV: The millionaire who dreamed of the future

The night of April 14, 1912 was the last time that a young Madeleine Astor would see her husband, the millionaire John Jacob Astor IV, alive. They had only been married for a few months, and, after a long honeymoon in Europe and Egypt, during which he had gotten pregnant, they had decided to return to the United States. But for their journey back, they had the misfortune to choose to embark on the RMS Titanic.

John Jacob Astor IV was born in 1864 in one of the richest families across the United States, thanks to the empire created by his great-grandfather, the first John Jacob Astor, an empire born not just from the most legal businesses, as their ancestor began amassing part of his fortune thanks to the opium trade. John continued to grow the family business, built the Astoria Hotel in 1897, near the Waldorf Hotel, owned by a cousin of his, to later form the legendary Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He was also a lieutenant colonel during the Cuban War of 1898, where Americans fought and defeated the Spaniards. But apart from standing out thanks to these facets of millionaire and military, Colonel Astor was a man interested in science and technological advances.

John Jacob Astor IV and Madeleine Force_american financial titans_patrick dwyer
Image courtesy of maypm at

In 1894 he published a novel that would fit in the early science fiction of the late nineteenth century, contemporary with the works of H. G. Wells. The work, entitled “A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future”, takes us to the still distant future of the year 2088, dominated by an American superpower, presenting a world of technical wonders such as a global telephone network, devices powered by solar energy, transatlantic planes, space travel by gravitational energy and countless imaginative -and, in some cases, successful- technological predictions. It also offers an unrealistic but romantic vision of Jupiter, full of jungles and assorted monsters, and a Saturn inhabited by spirits that allowed to see the death of oneself, both planets under a terraforming process through environmental control systems. Especially striking is the way the system for interplanetary travel is described, using the orbits of the planets of the solar system and its gravitational fields to impulse and vary the route of spacecraft fields. This is the method we have used to travel with many of the probes sent by NASA to the edge of our solar system, such as the famous Voyagers I and II.

Inventing was another one of his passions, patenting varied and curious things such as a bicycle brake, a vibratory disintegrator to produce fertilizer from mosses, a pneumatic device to fix roads, and he also helped develop a turbine. This interest in technology soon led him to forge a friendship with one of the geniuses of invention: the renowned scientist Nikola Tesla. Astor funded many of Tesla’s projects, and the inventor lived for nearly two decades at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, taking “advantage” from time to time from his friend, when he could not afford to pay the hotel bill.

But the relationship between them was not the way they would have wanted it. Astor wanted to finance the commercial development of  fluorescent lamps and oscillators in which Tesla had already started working, but the inventor, in a typical display of little practical sense, always dreaming of doing increasingly amazing things, preferred to take advantage of the Astor money on other issues, like his ill-fated experiments in Colorado Springs with the famous Wardenclyffe tower with which he intended to transmit energy and set up a system of intercontinental telecommunications, which ended in failure, since it finally had no funding to continue the research. Astor felt that his friend had partly deceived him into thinking that the investment was for the development of fluorescent lamps, which cooled their relationship. In 1912 Tesla re-established contact with his old friend, looking for funds to finance one of his new ideas, a device-lift, but the misfortune did away with this due to Astor’s death on the Titanic.

RMS Titanic_american financial titans_John Jacob Astor IV_patrick dwyer_
Image courtesy of Jim at

The fateful night the legendary ocean liner ran into an iceberg, the only thing that Colonel Astor could do, initially reticent to believe that the Titanic was sinking, was finally putting in a safe place his young pregnant wife (Madeleine was only 19 years old) by sending her to one of the lifeboats. Astor tried to accompany his wife, but the first boats were only for women and children, so he had to stay on board. Witnesses said he had helped, up to the very last moment, to accommodate passengers in lifeboats, but like so many things in history, these events are diluted in the legend. His body was recovered days later and buried in the Trinity Cemetery in New York, thus marking the end of one of the patrons of technical advance of the early twentieth century.


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