Science & Technology

What Was the Future Supposed to be Like 100 Years Ago?

When you imagine the future, what do you think of? Plentiful robot helpers? Of course. Personal jetpacks? Obviously. Underwater buses pulled by tame whales? If that one didn't make your list, then that's the difference between you and the futurists of the 1890s and 1900s.

What They Got Right

So there was this trend of futurism that took hold of the world as the century clock rolled over from 19th to 20th, and one of the most popular forms that it took was postcards. In France, it was a series of drawings called "En L'an 2000" by illustrator Jean-Marc Côté. In Germany, the images were created by the chocolate company Hildebrands. In any case, the imaginative futurists inevitably came up with one of two results: a prediction that was creepily accurate, or a prediction that was completely wrong (but usually still a little creepy). First up, we'll look at the ones that they got right.

  • Skype. Sure, they called it "Correspondence Cinema", but this is a video call if we've ever seen it. Wonder if it closes the first time that you hit the "X".
  • Roombas. Modern robot vacuums are a bit less obtrusive than the "Electric Scrubber" that Jean-Marc Côté dreamed up. Although Roombas can't squeegee windows.
  • Take 'n' Bake pizza. A December 1900 article in "Ladies Home Journal" made a huge number of predictions, including ready-made meals served by brick-and-mortar establishments. We don't usually serve them via pneumatic tube, though.
  • Jetpacks. Okay, maybe we don't have jetpacks yet. But we're on our way. Check out Boeing's new competition to design a fully functional, one-person flying machine by the year 2019.

What They Got Wrong

As cool as it is when people make a prediction that comes true 100 years later, it's almost even more revealing when they get something completely wrong. It really just goes to show how people think when they make these kinds of predictions about future fashion. Here's how else things got wacky.

  • Whale Buses. We can't imagine why these didn't catch on. Maybe it's the fact that so many whales are endangered, and aren't especially well known for their domesticity. Or maybe it's just that underwater croquet never blew up either.
  • Electric Education. Okay, we've got to give them half points for this one. Maybe computers are the electric schools that these are supposed to represent. But laptops don't involve grinding up books and siphoning them directly into little brains.
  • No More Animals. Also from that "Ladies Home Journal" article, futurists from the past apparently couldn't wait for the day that humanity finally defeated Mother Nature. Unfortunately, we're getting pretty close to bringing this to fruition... we're adding it to the list out of pure hope.
  • Robot Barbers. Somehow, more than a century ago, people could look at this tangle of limbs and razor blades and not feel absolute terror. To be fair, none of them had seen "The Terminator" yet.

Want to see how one the 20th century's premier futurists interpreted the predictions of centuries past? Check out Isaac Asimov's "Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000". When you buy or listen, you help support Curiosity.

Asimov's Predictions from the 1960s

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 19, 2017

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