How did our grandfathers imaging our present? Robert Langkjær-Bain of Fivemedia has an excellent article with some (often hilarious) illustrations answering that very question.
With AirCar completing its first flight on June 28th, 2021, maybe we’re finally approaching the realization of that old dream: a flying personal means of transportation:
However, we’re already 11 years behind, if this postcard from 1882 is to be believed. Showing the skies above Paris in the year 2000, it imagines a world where everyone’s flying… even though the means of transportation seem rather unusual:
Even postmen use a flying contraption to deliver the post in this 1899 illustration of a flying postman by French artist Jean-Marc Côté:
Of course, the flying postman would presumably be delivering junk mail, since all important documents are now shared by email – a development not even the wildest 19th-century imagination could have foreseen.
In the House
The artist had somewhat better luck with the “electric scrubber” – a device to help with house cleaning. While not exactly an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner like a Roomba, at least it correctly predicts the demand for a type of labor-saving house-cleaning device:
The floor in question may be dirty because of the Electric Dog – man’s electric best friend. This vision from 1923 predicts a robot canine companion that readers can construct for themselves. It’s fairly simple: a battery-powered rolling contraption that uses a magnet to follow a metal cane. It may have a cute face, but don’t expect this dog to roll over, play catch, or seek help if you fall into a well. And if its wheels leave dirt on the floor, well, the electric scrubber surely can handle it.
The idea of artificial pets doesn’t seem so outlandish nowadays, but beyond a few early adopters of mechanical companions, it’s a concept that exists mostly in the realms of cyberspace, exemplified by digital home assistants and AI-powered video game characters.
As for how the house would be kept warm, the answer is simple: nuclear energy. Specifically, a sealed radium boiler.
As Electrical Experimenter reported in 1919, “radium power, light and heat for apartment and dwelling will seem as much of a commonplace to those of future generations as soft coal furnaces seem to us”. Interestingly enough, if you place the radium in a nuclear factory, you may have something close to this early vision of clean energy.
Of course, “man must not remove too much radium from the earth or the earth may freeze to death.” Even though global warming was not yet a concern, worries about climate change certainly were.
If you thought that a Star Trek communicator was the first time someone came up with the idea of a mobile phone, then think again. As early as 1918, people were envisioning the invention of the telephot, a device that would allow one person to see another while talking on the telephone:
While they got the cables and size wrong, they did get one thing spectacularly right: their belief that “everybody would wish to have such an instrument.”
Teaching was set to become a pretty easy job by the year 2000, according to this prediction from 1901. The teacher simply feeds history books into a machine, while an assistant (or perhaps a pupil making amends for bad behavior?) turns a crank, sending the content of the books, somehow, through wires to the headsets worn by the pupils, and thence into their minds. Now, that’s one prediction I wish were true!
War couldn’t be left untouched by the amazing machines we’d enjoy in the 21st century. Appropriately featured on page 666 of the Electrical Experimenter magazine, the Gyro-Electric Destroyer was the brainchild of its editor, Hugo Gernsback, who designed it in the hopes of a speedy end to the horrors of WWI. As the Electrical Experimenter reported:
“This 45-foot monster is steered by a large gyroscope wheel… The destroyer runs at a speed of from 40 to 60 miles an hour and due to its huge diameter it rolls with ease over trenches and other obstacles.”
While the Gyro-Electric Destroyer is probably as impractical as an Imperial AT-AT Walker, you have to admire Gernsback’s persistence: this unlikely tank was featured repeatedly on several issues of the magazine, with Gernsback answering reader questions about it.
Year 1999 AD
More recently, in 1967 the electrical goods maker Philco-Ford produced a short film called Year 1999 AD, imagining how its future products might transform the typical home. The family in the film are the lucky owners of a space-age car, a huge wall-filling TV, and a vast home computer that helps the family (more specifically, the mother) plan meals. We also see her husband using the computer to check the bills for the clothes she bought online. So, they got some things right even if others make us chuckle:
For more futuristic ideas, check out the original post on Fivemedia!
Be careful what you wish with the data fed straight into student’s minds. Integration of chips into brain function is being worked on – mostly to stimulate movement for paralysis or quiet seizures and such, but it’s easy to see where that could go.
Perhaps we’ll soon have something like a chip-reader port – or wireless receiver – implanted connected to our brain and people will just buy the knowledge they want to access and insert it. Or have it fed to them whether they want it or not. Limitless instant facts without experience to get them, and wisdom to use them, is a terrifying but also awe inspiring prospect.
It sure makes for an interesting sci-fi novel 🙂
Hilarious! Let’s all keep track of the forecasts of today and check them out a few decades from now. Oh wait, absent some new telemere lengthening bioengineering and medical advances, a few decades may be beyond my expected lifespan. Oh well.
You never know, John! We may yet see those super-long telemeres yet 🙂
Thanks for this nice overview, Nicholas! What grandiose ideas and ideas did the people have back then. Somehow we seem to miss this today. Except of course writers like you, with “Heaven for Toasters” etc..xx Michael
Lol – you’re too kind, Michael!!!
This is amazing! Everything old is new again! Thanks for the interesting post.
“Everything old is new again” – I love that!