The Futures of the Past



I was excogitating recently about the 1950’s-era visions of the future that we would have supposedly seen as early as the 1970’s. You know them. Art Deco style moon bases replete with shag carpeting and jetpack-laden, silver-leisure-suit-wearing androids delivering space-food which was constructed by our personal home computer–and who can forget the nuclear powered flying ’57 Chevys? I had to ask, though, where is it all? This space-aged wonderland was supposed to have arrived decades ago, leaving us time to enjoy the fruits of science-fiction long enough to get Lost in Space by the late-1990’s and to be Terminated by self-aware machines by the early-2000’s. Instead, the closest thing we have to flying ’57 Chevys are floating ’57 Chevys.  Driven by Cubans on their way from Havana to Miami.

One can’t help but wonder if America had not devolved down the path of New Deal-inspired welfare statism whether we would actually have some of those space-age technologies, but I digress. I thought it would be a neat diversion to look at what some envisioned the future to look like, and compare it to what the future-as-we-know-it looks like.

How they envisioned it:

A 1925 postcard saw the New York City of the future bristling with fantastical flying machines and littered with Victorian-era and what appear to be Queen Anne or French Empire Style skyscrapers. The card was based on a 1911 concept sketch by Richard W. Rummel. The back of the card tells the story:

“FUTURE NEW YORK will be pre-eminently the city of skyscrapers. The first steel frame structure that was regarded as a skyscraper was the Tower Building at 50 Broadway, a ten story structure 129 feet high. There are now over a thousand buildings of that height in Manhattan. The best known skyscrapers are the Singer Building, 612 feet high, the Metropolitan Building, 700 feet high; and the Woolworth Tower which towers above them all and rises to a height of 790 feet. The proposed Pan American Building is to be 801 feet high.”

How it happened:

New York City of the real future has few flying fortresses, yet today is brimming with skyscrapers. The Big Apple today boasts 228 buildings with heights eclipsing 500 feet and can claim 5,818 high rises. The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, completed only 5 and 6 years after the concept post card, respectively, were built in Art Deco designs, not the old world designs predicted above. They reach heights of 1,250 feet and 1,046, respectively. Much of the rest of New York City, like most major cities, is a menagerie of towering glass and steel edifices–too bad that, unlike the concept design from 1925, that many of those towers have served as canvases for glowing billboards and advertisements:


How they envisioned it:

A later creation is shown here, discovered by Ryan Panos. Depicted in Popular Science Monthly is a proposal from the early 1920’s to ease New York City’s traffic congestion problems. Gustav Lindenthal’s (Hell Gate Bridge 1917) idea required building a vast structure of steel-cable suspension airways suspended from the tops of skyscrapers. Monorail trains entered from elevators in the buildings themselves would transit through the hanging airways while transporting commuters.

How it happened:


New York decided to stick with their Subway System, which began operation in 1904. The New York City Subway has expanded to be the vast network that was proposed by Lindenthal, spanning 421 stations. Over one-hundred years later, who knew that the Subway would not only be a place to get from home to work by avoiding traffic, but also a place to pee in the corner and have strange men dangle their unmentionables in your face while you try to get through the latest Shade of Grey novel. Instead of being suspended high above the city, however, New York City’s rails (smartly–wouldn’t want people killing themselves by jumping off those elevated tracks, am I right? …Ahem.) are mostly underground, though there are some elevated subway tracks:


How they envisioned it:


Popular Science did not stop there. Another solution to congestion was variously tiered stratification of the city streets. The uppermost level for pedestrians, and then subsequent levels for various modes of travel, and parking underneath most of the buildings. We see this idea over and over again in past visions of what the future should look like, not just in Popular Science’s 1925 vision of what 1950 might look like. This orderly scenario was possibly inspired by the popularity of the burgeoning socialist movement at the time.

How it happened:


Dreamers of the 20th century apparently underestimated either our ingenuity or our tolerance for sitting in traffic for a couple of hours. Behold!  Today’s cities are however notably free of Morlocks, so there’s that.

How they envisioned it:


“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” Habakkuk 2:2

How it happened:


The Apple Ipad was released on April 3rd, 2010. Upon bringing the Ipad to the world, Steve Jobs found that the people used the device only to worship ‘Angry Birds’ and green pigs, so Steve smashed the first tablets in his fury. This story is mostly true but some of the details of this series of events may have been lost in translation. Since, however, tablet computers have revolutionized game playing for all ages.

How they envisioned it:


According to Bing Translator’s deciphering of German, I’m told that this depiction from the 1950’s (clearly) of what cities would look like by the 1970’s was created by Klaus Burgle. His vision was marked by the post-war nuclear age’s trademark optimism. Everything, including old European cities, would be rebuilt to create a sleek, modern technological paradise. Nuclear powered cars and trains, elevated super-highways, and happy three-child families where dad not only smoked, but mom was empowered too and she smoked Virginia Slims. Not a teenaged mother or divorcee to be found.

How it happened:


Not too shabby. We have the elevated super-highways in most cities, like Orlando’s I-4 interchange, pictured above. Of course, our country’s rabid fear of anything nuclear may have something to with the fact that we are not driving nuclear powered Buicks yet.

How they envisioned it:


The Chicago Tribune ran a series in the late 1950’s called ‘Closer Than You Think’ about many of the innovations that they expected to see come to fruition. Here, they expected to harness solar power and small fuel cells to create solar powered cars.

How it happened:


Unfortunately, no one who drives alternatively powered cars looks nearly as cool as even the folks depicted in the Chicago Tribune. And, though many devices operate using photo-voltaic cells these days, the technology is still far too inefficient to power cars on a large scale. There are plenty of alternatively-fueled vehicles on the market today, however. Most of these cars are electric, and thanks to the researchers at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, we have been seeing more parking spaces adorned with photo-voltaic cells–providing both a shady parking space and a great place to recharge your car. Of course, at this stage almost all alternatively-fueled vehicles look like toy R.C. cars and run like they come equipped with a lawn mower engine. As you can see, one such toy car is the solar-powered Prius, above. Solar power is becoming a great way to supplement already existing power sources, but we have not come to the point where we can harness the sun to do much more than that on a large scale, and the technology is still too expensive.

How they envisioned it:


As seen in this Utopian view of the future found in the pages of Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future, by Joseph J. Corn, the 1970’s were resplendent in tight sweater t-shirts, hot pants and an odd obsession with jetpacks. Not only would the cities of the future be encompassed inside climate-controlled bio-domes, but you would float to your next vacation destination (work weeks would have by then been reduced to 20 hours a week due to the advent of computers–hah) by JETPACK. Oh, and don’t forget about the floating cities.

How it happened:


Well, we have jetpacks. If that Martin jetpack contraption looks safe to you, you can score one for a cool $86,000. Climate-controlled bio-domes, computer assisted vacations and yes, V-neck sweater t-shirts are nowhere to be found.

How they envisioned it:


And… I don’t know what to do with this. The pre-Victorian sensibilities of the 1820’s saw the future being defined by the revolutionary technology of their time, which was steam. Developed in the very late-1700’s and early-1800’s, the steam engine would apparently be used to power hulking… walking machines (?), tea pot-shaped steam powered carriages, and flapping flying machines.

How it happened:


While their visions were limited by their conceptions of future technology, they didn’t do too badly, considering it was the early 19th century. People can fly and cruise via planes and cars, nowadays, but far less stylishly. Our more vulgar senses of fashion may not have come up with a steam powered walking machine, but for those who have lost the ability to walk, we have come up with a tad more garish solution:


Still waiting on the tea pot car. Oh, wait, never mind, I forgot about the Prius.

How they envisioned it:


Just a year after the Soviets launched Sputnik I into low-Earth orbit, the Chicago Tribune ran this outlandish prediction: that we would see space stations in the sky in no time. We hadn’t even been to the moon yet, but Americans’ optimism about our space faring future knew no bounds.

How it happened:


Yes, it’s mostly just solar panels. Yes, we may have to hitchhike with Russian cosmonauts in order to get there, and yes, it is a dismal cry from what most imagined space stations to look like, but by golly, 15 years and $150 billion dollars later, we have the International Space Station. Visible by the naked eye from terra firma, the ISS is a joint project between the U.S. and four other space agencies, which the U.S. funds something like 90% of and shares equally with everyone else. Congratulations America, you bought a timeshare condo for the world in space!

How they envisioned it:


Another Chicago Tribune teaser speculated on the future of farming. According to the Tribune, farms would soon be manned by robotic implements and remote-controlled tractors and overseen by a hovering command center.

How it happened:


In 2013 we have not seen too many robots take control of farms and flying radio-controlled command centers don’t seem all that necessary since the advent of GPS. However, the vast industrialization of farming has led to a great deal of automation on the biggest farms, and though robots are certainly doable, on the smallest farms the vast incursion of cheap illegal migrant workers has made robots an unnecessary luxury. Until robots can also landscape, looks like we’re stuck.

How they envisioned it:


The minds of the late 1950’s envisioned future classrooms being more crowded, necessitating classes which would learn via “sound videos” and “electronic tabulating machines”. Every student would get his own personalized teal calculator, too.

How it happened:


Classroom sizes have actually gotten smaller over the years, but apparently teachers and students have gotten lazier–distance learning is all the rage in the 21st Century. Your teacher can be thousands of miles away, instructing the class via video camera. Each desk is fully stocked with more than a fancy slide rule–they have fully functioning, portable computers, and depending on the classroom, if a student has a question, they can simply speak into the microphone at their desk and an automated camera will pan to their location. Each lecture can be fully recorded and played back at the students’ whim via the inter-web. An important point, considering the world of 1958 did not expect that students could waste their classroom time using Facebook on the classroom computers. Of course, such facilities also do not have windows. We would not want students dreaming, much less waving at their friends in a gyrocopter.

How they envisioned it:


Interestingly, 1950’s optimism about the future never considered the material and resource scarcity that would make their dreams of floating cities too expensive or too impossible (then again, supply and demand is a tough concept for even today’s American–see: Democrats). They always seemed acutely aware of future manpower shortages, food shortages, space shortages and teacher shortages, though. Perhaps they thought that Americans would reproduce at the replacement rate forever, who knows. In any case, this Chicago Tribune piece saw fully automated warehouses, manned by robots as the next big thing.

How it happened:


They were right, though. Warehouses all over the world are being run by robots. Supply Chain Digital recently documented some of the most successful efforts at automation, from companies such as Nike, Fed Ex, UPS, Wal-Mart, IKEA, Netflix, Coca-Cola, Zappos, and of course Amazon recently spent $775 million purchasing Kiva Solutions in order to improve efficiency at their 18 fulfillment centers nationwide. The little orange robots could not only ease the burden on their human co-workers, who had been walking 13 to 15 miles a day in the warehouses, but they could also perform 3 to 4 times as much work. Can you say Cylons?


The robot assisted work days are just the tip of the iceberg. Some facilities can save money at night by having robots perform all of the work, and by turning off the lights in their warehouses (machines don’t need to see). Vast warehouses like Amazon’s above will soon be devoid of humans–and more productive. All will be right with the world, until the machines inevitably turn on their human masters.

How they envisioned it:


Here we have another 1920’s-era concept piece. The Future of Radio by Hugo Gernsback appeared in 1922, and oddly enough, predicted the many uses by 1972 of that new-fangled radio technology. Among these uses, were radio controlled airplanes (drones, anybody?), power distribution, crewless ships controlled remotely (GPS controlled naval vessels), correspondence by radio (fax machines), radio clocks (atomic clocks), television and automatic radiophones (video-phones or skype), radio business controllers (think smart phones or remote controls), and a radio heater (?).

How it happened:


Making fun of past futures is kind of like making fun of old photos of your parents from the 80’s (the trendier it is at the time, the worse it will look in 20 years–you’ve been warned). It’s too easy. But, Gernsback did a pretty good job. While not a whole lot of this stuff existed in the typical office by 1972, we have most all of it right now (sans the scary ball of radio power in the background). The only difference nowadays is that most offices are in India, not the U.S. Maybe the dude above over did it, but the modern office is replete with inordinate amounts of screens, as we see below:


How they envisioned it:


Yep, that’s a glowing ball of light designed to make it daylight 24-7. Thanks, Chicago Tribune!

How it happened:


Sorry guys.

How they envisioned it:


Flying saucers predicted in the 50’s?

How it happened:


Okay, I think we’re done here.

Revisiting the foresight, the successes and the failures is not just an exercise in Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but gives a great deal of insight into the human psyche, the limits of the human imagination (steam power to radio power to nuclear power being the paradigm each era approached futurism from) and the culture of the time. Though these days futurism is dominated by apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios (The Walking Dead, Hunger Games), the 1990’s, a decade dominated by seemingly limitless economic success and innovation, saw the Sci-Fi genre blossom with new Star Treks and the Stargate series, as well as a bevy of movies that predicted boundless human expansion. The post-war 50’s and 60’s saw similar optimism, as did the Roaring 20’s. The Depression-era is notably devoid of much futurism.

All in all, there have certainly been hits or misses in the past when prognosticating about the future, but that doesn’t change how fun it is to look ahead. Looking to the past is just as fun as looking to the future, and when you are looking to the past’s future it is even more fun. What will the next 50 years hold? Downloading our minds into avatars? Extending lifespans? Eradicating disease? Eating each other and devolving into mindless animals?


David Teesdale, wonders if anyone remember’s Marty McFly’s 2013? Flat screen T.V.’s, Skype and video conferencing and home fax machines (albeit on dot-matrix printers)… All we are missing is the hover-board.

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