A Brief Visual History of the Future


If there’s anything to attest to humanity’s belief that the future is what we make of it, it’s our unceasing obsession with mapping it out. Depictions of the future date back to drawings on cave walls and continue as 35 mm film and HTML; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey basically features an iPad, and yesterday on the Daily Beast, three architecture firms imagined what our cities will look like in 2030. But surpassing our obsession with the future is a newer fixation on the history of predicting the future (here’s a cinematic one), which is the topic of this fall’s issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, which comes out this week. Check out our gallery of quaint, outdated, and scarily accurate images of the future through the eyes of the past after the jump.

An 1850s cartoon depicts a future of balloon-filled skies. Drawings of ballooning transport became popular after Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Balloon Hoax,” a false story about an adventurer’s trip across the Atlantic Ocean, was published in and then retracted from a newspaper in 1844. The real first transatlantic balloon trip occurred, and crashed, in 1919.

In an 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast predicted that Manhattan’s skyline would soon exceed the height of Trinity Church, then the tallest building at 281 feet.

According to German chocolate company Hildebrands circa 1900, by the year 2000 people would be eating chocolate and tipping their hats from blimp-like, propeller-driven air balloons.

The Viennese sci-fi artist Frank R. Paul’s conceptions of the future changed throughout his career illustrating for pulp magazines. This is his vision of the future metropolis in 1928.

High Ferriss’ 1929 book The Metropolis of Tomorrow features illustrations of a shockingly realistic future Gotham-like New York.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of the future city was less dazzling than pragmatic and more anti-city than city. His plans for Broadacre City, revealed in his 1932 book The Disappearing City, lay out a futuristic suburbia.

The hosts of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose theme was the future, crafted a “World of Tomorrow,” as they saw it, in Flushing Meadows.

By 1942, Frank R. Paul’s future had morphed into the more high-tech, techno-colored “Future Atomic City.”

Traffic is just as bad in futuristic space as it is on Earth, according to this 1950s German illustration.

The future cities of the 1960s were highly mobile — the one above has its own legs.

The 1970s anticipated a wonderfully green future, even in space. Above is a drawing of an imagined space station.

The imperialistic megalopolises of the 1980s’ future, like this one from Blade Runner (1982), pondered a bleak technological takeover.

Today’s tomorrow is just as uncertain, but that hasn’t stopped us from becoming cartographers of the future. Cartoonist Steven M. Johnson, featured on The Dish, predicted the invention of something like the Roomba vacuum in 1991 and, more recently, drew a future of protective swimming pool moats.