The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
FLYING CARS AND FOOD PILLS.COM
This is a story about optimism. This is a story about technology. This is a story about the world changing in front of peoples' eyes, changing so quickly, so completely, so totally amazingly that in the midst of some of the darkest days of modern times people clung to the conviction that the future, no, the Future, would inevitably be better than the dreary present.
This is a story that speaks to today, where so many of us have stopped feeling optimistic, lost that assurance that technology could lift us out of gloom, even while being bathed in the greatest, deepest, widest flood of technology even put into the hands of ordinary individuals.
This is the story about the past future, what historians call the Consensus Future because everybody agreed on its look and feel and on the particular technological marvels that it would feature. Flying Cars and Food Pills. Robots, Rockets, and Rays.
That Future said little or nothing about what people thought the future would look like. For nearly three-quarters of a century, people projected their hopes and dreams - though occasionally also fears - into a better world than the one they inhabited. Flying Cars and Food Pills were never intended to be part of their everyday lives; they were metaphors for tomorrow, a niftier, faster, smoother, glorious tomorrow free of the cares and drudgery of their todays. Their Future is totally explainable by their present.
Every page of this site needs to be read through that understanding. I call it Carper's Law.
Carper's Law: The Future is Never About the Future. It Is Always About Today.
That's me. Steve Carper. I've been immersed in this world since the 1960s, and buried in serious full-time research for several years, uncovering a history that never has been fully reported. The world of the Consensus Future is seen all over the Internet, true: the pictures and images and art and movies of the past future are amazingly wonderful. They've even gotten a name. Retrofuturism. Many delightful websites are devoted to them, and thousands of casual fans post their latest discoveries.
An image ripped from context is like a Greek vase sold on the black market, though. Without context, it can't talk to us and reveal what it meant to the people who made it.
How can we know what people thought 50, 75, 100 years ago? They left clues, thousands of them, needing to be sifted out of the sands of time just as in any archaeological dig.
For one thing, you'll see a lot of humor on this site, which might surprise you. Humor is a surprisingly great research tool. Humor depends on recognition: it isn't funny if you aren't in on the joke. Studying what humorists joked about tells you exactly what was trending in the public mind at the time of writing. As an added bonus, it's sometimes possible to find the exact serious news article or scientific discovery that spawned the writing. Check That Synthetic Food of the Future for an example.
Popular media also depended on timeliness. Books, magazines, radio, movies, comic strips, comic books, newsreels, advertising, and finally television sought the largest possible audiences. Speculation about what the Future might be like, sometimes based on the latest pronouncements or discoveries by scientists, sometimes made up of hare-brained nonsense to achieve earlier versions of clickbait, always went over well. Scientists and other experts, seldom the bearded, unworldly elderly stereotypes portrayed in movies like the Marx Brothers' Horsefeathers or the Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper romp Ball of Fire, themselves wanted to share their vision directly with the public and did so in series of books of popular nonfiction or in sometimes spectacularly illustrated magazine articles.
Some of these events grew so big and symbolic that they create dividing lines in history. Although in truth I could use almost any date from the Industrial Revolution as a starting point - and I'll happily bombard you with examples from Benjamin Franklin onward - the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition inspired the genre of future predictions. The American Press Association commissioned 74 then-famous experts to look forward 100 years to the world of 1993 and syndicated the results for weeks to newspapers across the country as literal stereotypes - a metal ready-for-printing page preset on tin sheets - that editors could add to the rest of their news. Millions thrilled to these glimpses of often surprisingly accurate futurity, and then millions more visited the Fair itself and took home stunned reports of a technologized future. But as Marx should have said, history repeats itself, first as wonder, then as farce. By 1962, the Consensus Future was old hat, a series of clichés that could only be laughed at, and was, in the cartoon television series The Jetsons. Flying Cars and Food Pills, Rockets, Robots, and Rays, all were fodder for the adventures of the George, Jane, Judy and Elroy Jetson. They didn't kill the Future, but they danced on its grave.
A reality forgotten today, eclipsed by its later success, is that the literature of the future, a genre called Science Fiction (SF), was also considered to be dying in 1962.
A small group - mostly young, mostly men, mostly technophilic, mostly American - who found each other through the letter pages of the gaudily-covered SF magazines and formed groups and friendships and marriages while influencing the next generation of working scientists. They cared about the future, but mostly about the Consensus Future, a world that pervaded their writing, and also limited it.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. THE PRESENT IS BIG WITH THE FUTURE
The earliest visionaries share their optimism about the huge changes coming.
Life in 1843 was getting far too easy, said Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Change came so quickly that even spoofs were accepted as reality.
All the jokes that can be invented have been invented.
5. YESTERDAY AT THE EXPOSITION
L. Frank Baum predicts the future of 2090.
6. INVENTIONS THAT OUGHT TO BE INVENTED
Hudson Maxim provides a clear-eyed look at what the present demands from the future.
Collectible cigarette cards apotheosized science anf forecast the future from 1935.
8. MEN WHO PLAN BEYOND TOMORROW
The future will be planned by men who are so brilliant they even planned ahead by aging whisky.
9. SUPER-TRANSPORT ON SUPER-HIGHWAYS
During WWII, super-streamlined transportation would race down the empty roads to nowhere.
10. MOVING AHEAD
What the Future would look like, as taught to 6th graders in 1945.
11. MARVELS OF SCIENCE
The atomic bomb! The jet plane! The air purifier! Everything that was new in 1946 was a marvel of science! For four issues.
What in the Future World? More predictions about more technology from 1946.
13. I'D LIKE TO SEE THEM MAKE...
... glow in the dark typewriter ribbons, hands-free telephones, and sneeze traps, say readers of Popular Science.
The women at NASA take a big step to end the atomic bomb, that is, Miss Atomic Bomb.
15. PREDICTIONS - THE FIRST LOOK BACK
Satirists had a jaundiced view of the future way back when, old even when looking back from 1955.
16. NEW DEPARTURES OF TOMORROW
A 1955-56 ad campaign that predicted today's future ... but set it in the 1960s.
17. QUAKER STATE'S "YEARS-AHEAD" CAMPAIGN
The concept "cars of tomorrow" would use a motor oil already "years ahead."
18. ELECTRICITY MAY BE THE DRIVER!
Flying cars, domed-backyard pools, robot hedgetrimmers: why knows what electricity could bring in the future?
19. DISNEYLAND'S BATHROOM OF TOMORROW
When you took your kid to Disneyland in the 1950s they could see... giant valves!
Where to find and research more about the Future's past and my present.
Send me comments, suggestions, questions, musings, trivia, links, and whimsy.
SF is an endless source of what the public knew about the Future. SF writers read the newspapers, the books, the scientific articles, went to the movies, listened to the radio, and converted it all into fiction. Almost as important, the artists who illustrated the covers of their books and magazines left behind indelible, iconic images that shaped our mental pictures of the Future more than any other single source.