As legendary physicist Nils Bohr once quipped: “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”. Any attempt to guess what the future might hold requires the careful balancing of an infinite number of variables and possibilities, from technological innovations to the people who might inhabit this imaginative fiction and their unique desires. Yet despite the nigh-impossibility of this task our efforts to predict the future have only intensified in recent decades, with the 20th century crammed full of optimistic marvels believed to be the wondrous inventions of tomorrow. Whilst many of these guesses were fantastical absurdities that have never, and perhaps will indeed never come true, others were immensely prescient and eerily accurate.
Here are 17 incredible historical advertisements that tried, with varying degrees of success, to courageously predict the future:
17. Seagram’s Whiskey Company predicted the evolution of sports bars as a popular recreational locale for future Americans
Today, watching popular sporting fixtures at a bar is so commonplace it is impossible to imagine life without it. Yet, it was not so very long ago that this was not just a technological impossibility, but the very idea of such an activity was non-existent. In 1946, Seagram’s Company, a Canadian manufacturer of whiskey, proposed in an advert the earliest known depiction of such an establishment: the modern Sports Bar. Claiming that “tomorrow’s box seats for the things you don’t want to miss can be your favorite restaurant, where, on full-scale screens, the game is covered in sight and modulated sound, play by play. Full-color television will bring you highlight news…the pageantry of parades… the performance of great stars. All on screens so placed that you can enjoy every scene without shifting your position.”
It was not until 1979 that the first modern sports bar opened in the United States: Legends, located in Long Beach, California. Founded by former NFL linebacker Dennis Harrah and surrounded by sports memorabilia, including an Indy racing car hanging from the ceiling, Legends claims to have been “the first establishment to use satellite technology to broadcast live sporting events”. Since then, proving Seagram’s accuracy, the industry has grown exponentially in numbers so that today more than 20,000 sports bars operate in the United States alone, truly becoming “tomorrow’s box seats” if not quite fully replacing the appeal of attending a fixture live.
16. “Air Curtains” were predicted to one day render traditional doors obsolete
Promoting the total elimination of doors for stores, at least during day-time with “a conventional door” fitted during closed hours, the “curtain of air” would provide “downward-rushing air” which “acts as a temperature and draft barrier to protect the interior”. Achieved by “rows of overhead nozzles” which would “direct filtered, warmed, (or air-conditioned) air downward”, “the air velocity” would serve as a “gentle breeze that won’t disturb women’s hair” but simultaneously strong enough to “keep out dogs and cats”.
Although the initial reaction to this technological prediction is perhaps incredulity and scorn, it might amaze that the “air door” is now actually a common feature of modern day life. Whilst old-fashioned doors themselves have not been removed in the manner assumed, the air curtain as described in the 1950s has been routinely fitted on a range of public buildings from shops, to airports, and even restaurants. Preventing air or contaminants from passing from one space to another, modern “air doors” work to maintain as neutral temperature and pressure difference as possible between the interior and exterior to impede natural dispersion. Not only increasing the cleanliness and preventing insects from entering, but this method also reduces the heating requirements of the establishment by decreasing lost heat. It is estimated that an air curtain pays for itself in saved heating bills after only a few years of operation.
15. Advances in technology resulted in claims of futuristic “scientific matchmaking” to identify the perfect human mates
Matchmaking is a longstanding practice of humanity, dating back to the ancient world wherein the Jewish “shadchan” or Hindu astrologer with an understanding of the system of “Jyotisha” performed important societal roles in the historical matching of couples. Similarly, the concept of arranged marriages dates from the earliest civilizations, surviving today within Orthodox Judaism via the “shidduch” and in many Asian cultures. More recently in history, the notion of romantic attachment has entered into the concept of formal family unions, with individuals engaging in the rigmarole of social functions and conventions to find that special someone.
Throughout all of these systems of mating, the underlying core principle has always been that there is an ideal result: the perfect mate. With the advent of modern science, this historic desire was unsurprisingly attached to new and exciting technologies. Beginning in the 1920s, publications began to predict a wonderful future in which a desirable and uniquely personalized mate could be found through science, claiming that whilst at present “marriage is a lottery” it could be improved to “give one a reasonable assurance of married happiness.” Among the many tests suggested as offering future generations the opportunity for a perfect marriage partner was the use of an “electrical sphygmograph” to measure pulse and breathing as a determinant of physical attraction, the use of same whilst observing an individual enduring suffering to calculate sympathy, the inhalation of potent body odors via a hose as a test of affectionate endurance, and the random firing of a gun to test nervousness in each other’s company.
14. During the 19th century, it was believed that someday mankind would possess the technological power to replicate one of the most famous biblical miracles and to walk on water
The notion of humans someday possessing the power, aided by technology, to walk across bodies of water is nothing new. Inspired by the biblical story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, Leonardo da Vinci invented a pontoon shoe using similar mechanics to cross-country skiing in the 15th century. Whilst in the late-19th-century an overly imaginative designer envisioned a future embracing these and other methods of amphibious travel. Among the incredibly ingenious, if immensely bizarre modes of achieving this egress, the unknown inventor asserted that in the future people would use such pontoon shoes, aided by inflatable balloons, to casually walk on water, in addition to the riding of a bicycle akin to a penny farthing but employing a water wheel. Even more fantastical, the designer clearly also believed that the same techniques could be applied to non-humans, with horses and carriages similarly illustrated as traveling atop the still waters by these means.
Biologically speaking, this feat is impossible for humans, for to replicate the water-running of a basilisk lizard it has been estimated that a human would have to run at a speed of approximately 67 mph – almost three times the average speed of Usain Bolt’s 100 meter world record and expending 15 times the energy limitations of our species. Consequently, since 1858, beginning with H.R. Rowlands, more than 100 water-walking inventions have been patented in the United States alone, many of which were subtle deviations and iterations of the same core design stemming back to da Vinci. Unfortunately for these inventors, as remarked, indeed ironically by one of the more recent inventors, “none of them actually work”.
13. In 1949 it was predicted by Popular Mechanics that in the future computers would only weigh 1.5 tons, a naively conservative assumption with the benefit of hindsight
The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (or ENIAC) was one of the earliest general-purpose computers ever created, capable of solving numerical problems through reprogramming and possessing the estimable status of being Turing-complete. Designed primarily for the calculation of artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory, with its first assignment the study of thermonuclear weapons, the ENIAC was popularly known as a “Giant Brain” for its immense computing power. Whereas a human would take 20 hours to calculate a particular trajectory problem, an ENIAC would do so in just 30 seconds, rendering 1 ENIAC hour equivalent to 2,400 human hours.
Less convenient, however, was that the ENAIC cost $500,000 ($6.5m in 2018) and, due in part to its required 30,000 vacuum tubes, weighed approximately 30 tons. Predicting the future condition of modern computers, the scientific magazine Popular Mechanics famously claimed in 1949 that “computers in the future may have only 1000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1.5 tons”, with the power to “do in a few hours what a human mathematician couldn’t do with a million pencils in a hundred life-times.”
12. During the 1960s and 1970s, “Sea Cities” were proposed as solutions to growing populations in existing major urban areas
With the post-World War II population boom and rapidly expanding city populations during the later decades of the 20th century, it is unsurprising that imaginative futurists believed these issues would be solved in a host of unorthodox solutions. Among the less accurate, and most fanciful of these technological wonders was the “Sea City”. Sea Cities were, as the name suggests, literally floating on the ocean waters. Building off of the work of American architect Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s, in 1979 Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis designed an incredible, technologically advanced settlement for human habitation on the high seas. A “pyramid-shaped structure”, serving as a “self-contained city” instead of “building more suburbs or tower blocks” in existing population centers, the “sea city” would serve as an “archology”: the perfect blending of architecture and ecology to create a low-impact human settlement.
Essentially “one huge building”, complete “with shops, schools, playgrounds, and homes, all within walking distance of each other” and hence “no need for cars” and thus “no congestion”, this idyllic city would recycle of all its waste to maintain “ecological balance with its environment”. Coated in solar panels for the production of electricity, and supplied by ship and air, the sea city would serve as an ideal home for workers in the field of seabed mining: “sure to be an important activity in the 21st century”.
11. Engineers of the 20th century were anxiously anticipating the arrival of the jetpack and, sadly, we are all still waiting
The jetpack has been a focal point of human technological imagination for over a century, with countless fictitious depictions throughout popular culture and persistent public enthusiasm for the eventual delivery of the exciting mode of travel. Beginning with Jules Verne in 1886 predicting the future development of “flying machines” that might allow mankind to walk upon the air, by the 1930s humanity was eager for the invention that might elevate them to the skies at will but also optimistic that it would come relatively soon. However, the sort of device demonstrated in the above advert, believed at the time to be a near-future creation, remains an elusive goal of modern technologists and inventors.
Through efforts in the 1950s, including the Thiokol Chemical Corporation’s nitrogen-fueled “jump belt”, the Hiller “VZ-1 Flying Platform”, employing two engines, propellers and a fan, to the “Bell Rocket Belt” in 1960, the closest these experiments were capable of achieving was 21 seconds of trust. Despite this limited real-world capability, the latter device was famously piloted by James Bond in the 1965 movie “Thunderball”, renewing popular interest in the creation of the jetpack due to its greater-than-life propulsion. By 1994, the jetpack had technically been invented, but was only usable in outer space: the SAFER, or Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue, for use when an astronaut comes untethered during a spacewalk. Several efforts have continued during the early 21st century, including failed attempts by the Myth Busters team in 2005, Swiss pilot Yves Rossy, who crashed into the Strait of Gibraltar after trying to fly over the Swiss Alps with a kerosene-burning winged jetpack, and the mere illusion of jet-propelled flight via the Jetlev: a water-propelled jetpack which can hover people are heights of 30 feet.
10. Future homes would have no need for kitchens, with food delivered by pneumatic tubes from a centralized preparation center upon order
In 1925, in a speculative report detailing conditions in Berlin from ten years in the future, Inventions Magazine boldly predicted the end to home cooking. It claimed that, rather than being prepared at home, food would instead be sent upon order en masse to households. However, not merely a home delivery service, “whizzing at mile-a-minute speed through pneumatic tubes far beneath the streets” would be “thermos bottles each containing part of some housewife’s meal.”
Contending that meals would be selected from “a 300-page menu book distributed to each apartment house and home within a radius of ten blocks of the gigantic central kitchen”, orders would be placed for a specific time and prepared in “huge galvanized troughs and pots”. A vast network of said tubes would subsequently deliver the orders, eliminating the need for the very existence of kitchens in the future home. Although not lacking in foresight, it must be noted that there has been at least some accuracy in the outlandish prediction. Until closure in early 2011 a McDonald’s restaurant in Edina, Minnesota, operated what it claimed to be the “world’s only pneumatic air drive-thru” wherein ordered food was sent via pneumatic tubes from a strip-mall kitchen to the drive-through located in the middle of the parking lot. Equally, despite lacking the pneumatic tube aspects of food delivery, the growth of home-delivered takeout in recent decades mirrors the prediction of a decline in home cooking.
9. In 1946 it was claimed that in the future one might “trade your trouble for a bubble” and embark on a relaxing day inside a rolling pleasure ball
Among the most incredulous of these imaginations, in the February 1946 issue of Amazing Stories Magazine illustrator James Settles laid out a unique vision of the future: a leisure vehicle resembling what can only be described as a pinball. Harnessing the peaceful uses of atomic energy, these unfortunately named “huge rolling cross-country pleasure balls” would be used by humanity during their extensive leisure hours as part of the broad, if inaccurate, belief that the advent of the atomic age would see mankind give up work almost entirely. As the article claimed, humanity “will have most of the day to pursue as he pleases, either for pleasure, or in pursuit of a hobby, or in art, or in just plain being lazy.”
With the delightful catchphrase of “trade your trouble for a bubble”, these machines would be constructed from “transparent plastic” and “balanced by interior gyro stabilizers controlling a suspended core” as they traveled around a giant “track-ring”. The ring itself would be “magnetic” and “powered by the atom” allowing the ball to move both forwards or backward. With no motors, “just the simplest of gadgets”, these balls would house “pleasure palaces” consisting of “games, terraces, ramps, restful lounging places, dance floors” and “swimming pools” to provide the opportunity to “while away a day”. Suffice to say, this future did not occur and nothing in the slightest has been implemented in the decades that since followed.
8. The “Man from Mars Radio Hat” was supposed to be the future of radio technology, but instead ended up being given away as a promotional item and discontinued within five years
The radio hat was a portable radio system woven into a pith helmet, also known as a safari hat, capable of receiving signals from stations within a 20-mile radius. Unlike many of the items on this list this product actually reached completion, being introduced to stores in early 1949 as the “Man from Mars Radio Hat” and sold for $7.95 across the United States.
Manufactured by the Merri-Lei Corporation, at the time a leading supplier of party hats and novelty goods, the company sought to expand into the battery-operated radio market with an innovative new product. Offering alleged advantages over existing portable radios, including being supposedly waterproof, easy to carry, and fashionable, being available in multiple colors, the device claimed to weigh less than a single pound in total. Despite successfully garnering widespread attention in both the technological and popular magazines of the day, the product never truly received more than the novelty status afforded to the other products sold by the corporation. In fact, one gas station in California offered the hat as a promotional item to people buying their fuel. Within just a couple of years advertisements had stopped, and within a few the hat was completely out of production cycles.
7. In 1955 it was predicted that just eight years later people would carry around portable air conditioners on warm days to cool their surroundings
Air conditioning itself is not a new invention, dating to prehistoric times in which ice and snow were used by our ancient ancestors for the purposes of cooling. This practice continued well into the 19th century, where ice harvesting and transportation remained an important industry for European elites who stored their frozen coolants for later use. Among the earliest modern techniques of air conditioning, Benjamin Franklin contributed to these initial experiments in 1758 by determining that evaporation could be used to lower the temperature of an object below the freezing point of water. Franklin, however, was scared by his findings, announcing that “one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day”. These endeavors culminated in the first large-scale electrical air conditioner, created by inventor Willis Carrier in 1902, with the introduction of such machines in a residential capacity vital to the great migration into the Sun Belt in the United States during the 1920s.
By the 1950s, with the advent of refrigeration, air conditioning became a common feature of comfort in homes, workplaces, and the accelerating automobile industry. However, although portable air conditioners did eventually take off they most certainly did not in the form assumed by this advert from 1955. Asserting that just eight years later, in 1963, people would carry around miniature air conditioners to cool the air around their person, the advertisement patently overstated the advantages of the technology over the far simpler and cheap fan. Equally, the advert overlooked the possibility of air conditioners being included in the surroundings themselves, such as on public transport, in shops, or at places of work or home, as they indeed have been in recent years.
6. The Segway was predicted more than thirty years prior to their creation but was inaccurate when it came to design and the popularity of use
In 1962, Italian weekly publication Domenica del Corriere made a bold prediction: that in the future humans would not move via ambulation as we had since the dawn of time but instead employ machines to move us on our behalf. As can be seen in the illustration above, the magazine determined that in the not so distant future wheeled upright contraptions would mechanically transport humans in a standing position. Equally, these individuals would be sealed within enclosed cases, presumably to protect from wind, rain, and as a safety precaution. Credit must be given, to a certain extent, for the accurate imaginations of the publication, for by the 1990s such a device was indeed invented: the Segway. Developed by The University of Plymouth and BAE Systems, the Segway was successfully patented in 1997 as a self-balancing wheelchair.
Indeed, one can almost excuse the wild overestimation by the magazine in the 1960s, as contemporary excitement for the impending machines reached fever-pitch in the early 2000s. Venture-capitalist John Doerr claimed the Segway would be more important to humanity than the Internet whilst Steve Jobs incredulously stated that the invention was “as big a deal as the PC”.Released in 2002 to much public fanfare, the Segway, whilst commercially successful, failed to become anything more than a curiosity and object of occasional use. It most certainly did not become, as was predicted in both the 1960s and 1990s, the future of human movement. Today the Segway is predominantly used by tourists for sightseeing and by police departments, but, ironically, cannot be legally marketed, per its original patent, as a medical device. Despite efforts to do so under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the FDA has refused to accredit the Segway with this license due to a lack of supporting evidence of medical benefit.
5. The Amazon Kindle, of sorts, was first predicted in 1935 as an electronic book depository and viewer to be used from the comfort of your armchair
Books have been part of everyday life for centuries, serving as a repository of knowledge and culture for civilizations and a critical aspect of daily life in the modern world. Consequently, with the expansion of education and efforts to eradicate, successfully for the most part in the western world, illiteracy, it is perhaps unsurprising that someone predicted the eventual compartmentalization of the written word into a compact and portable technological storage unit.
In 1935, in the April edition of Everyday Science and Mechanics, the e-reader was first designed, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, under the title of “the book reader of the future”. Designed around a seated armchair, a projected screen is situated at an elevated height at eye level in front of the individual. With an adjustable focus and page-turning by remote, “miniature film” would carry “photographs of book pages” for display on a “ground glass screen” for the convenience of the homeowner. This prediction, although wrong in terms of the size of the reader, has largely become true to the credit of the magazine. In 2007 the Amazon Kindle was released and widely proclaimed as the beginning of the end of printed books. Whilst this apocalyptic end has yet to transpire for hard copies of literature, the e-book market share has since risen to just over 25% as of 2018 and is set to continue growing in the years to come.
4. During the early 20th century it was predicted that all non-domesticated animal life would be made extinct. Instead, modern conservation efforts have sought to achieve precisely the opposite.
Perhaps unsurprising given the popularity of racialist theory at the turn of the 20th century, most notably the emergence of the concept of the “Ãbermensch”, in addition to the existing and historical use of animals for tasks such as carriage pulling or riding, several inhabitants of the early 1900s predicted that in the future animals would fall entirely under the dominion of humans as our servants. The earliest known example of this prediction stems from the December 1900 edition of Ladies Home Journal, in which a piece by author John Elfreth Watkins Jr. asserted all other wild animal life would become extinct in the near future. The exception to this annihilation would be those of use to humanity and thus domesticated, with Watkins claiming that there would be “no wild animals except in menageries”.
This train of thought continued at least until the above article, dated from the November 11, 1926, edition of the Galveston Daily News, in which an article was run entitled “To Find Some Use For Every Wild Animal”. Predicting that rather than merely existing as they had throughout the preceding millennia, “the day will come when the wild creatures of the earth will have to pay their way or become as extinct as many forms of animal life have in the dim distances of the past” and that “unless an animal can contribute something definite to human life – food to be eaten, clothes to be worn, labor to lighten the burden of man – then his doom is sealed and the last of his tribe will one day pass out of the picture”.
3. In 1901, it was predicted that by 2001 New York City would become a city in the clouds wherein people traveled by balloon
In the wake of the works of the early science fiction writers, especially Jules Verne, expectations and hopes about the future of technology were abundant at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps foremost among these speculative dreams were flying machines, a vision only enhanced by the successful creation and flight of the first plane by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
Published in Collier’s Weekly Journal of Current Events in 1901, American illustrator Frederick Strothmann predicted an imaginative and incredible future for New York City by the year 2001. Among the technological innovations Strothmann believed the present generation would enjoy whilst living in an immense high-rise environment, akin for video game aficionados to the city of Columbia from the Bioshock series, the main modes of transportation were prophecized to include floating trams and hot air balloons. Concurrently, Strothmann depicted a world in which wireless telephones were the norm, in addition to compressable food tablets as sources of nutrition.
2. General Motors foresaw, incorrectly, the elimination of the home kitchen and the replacement of cooking with instant-cooked machine-produced meals
Keeping in line with the beliefs concerning the continuation of automation, especially in the household, during the immediate post-war period of the 20th century, it was commonly assumed, as noted earlier, that food production would no longer be practiced by humans. Announcing in 1955 that the housewife of the future need only “set the table…then set the dial”, future meals would become easy with the “miracle meal-getter”: the “SUPER CHEF”. Naively assuming the product to be nearing commercial readiness, despite the total absence of many of the necessary technologies, General Motors optimistically predicted that by 1965 the machine might be operational in American homes. Cooking your “favorite food”, after easy selection from a menu, “to perfection by infra-red ray”, the SUPER CHEF “assembles your choice from a vast freezer storage” and “serves it by conveyor in a matter of seconds”.
Sadly the Super Chef did not transpire, with the magazine’s claim that “maybe tomorrow it will be a reality” so far never coming true. The closest we have arrived at would be the emergence of the modern fast food industry, with the invention of the “McDonald’s Speedee System” in 1948 resulting in the ability to be served food just minutes after placing an order. At least in this author’s opinion, whilst the speed is impressive, one cannot consider said food to be “cooked to perfection”.
1. In 1956, the Central Power and Electric Company foresaw the future of automobiles as being driver-less
It might appear that self-driving cars are a modern consideration, brought about by the immense advances in information technology and artificial intelligence in the 21st century, but in actuality the concept goes much further back in the popular imagination. In 1956, the Central Power and Electric Company predicted that in the future, human drivers would become obsolete and that, instead, “electricity may be the driver”. Predicting that ‘one day your car may speed along an electric super-highway”, the automobiles “speed and steering” would be “controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road”. As a result of these technological improvements “highways will be made safe”, eliminating “traffic jams”, “collisions”, and the risks caused by “driver fatigue”.
The prediction has proved surprisingly accurate for a concept considered so outlandish at the time, with self-driving cars derided by many as pure science-fiction and regarded even today by some, incorrectly, as dangerous oddities. Although incorrect in the assumptions concerning the method of achieving self-driving cars, with artificial intelligence, global positioning, and cameras the current optimal means rather than embedded infrastructure, nevertheless, self-driving cars are almost ready to be commercially available. Road tests conducted over the last few years have successfully ironed out the creases and before 2030 autonomous cars will drive freely across the roads of Europe and North America, greatly reducing vehicular accidents and improving road safety.
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