Closer than we think: How 19th and 20th century artists imagined the future

12 Mar 2016

19th and 20th-century artists' vision of the future and particularly life in the 21st century are either far off the mark or eerily accurate

Growing up on a healthy dose of The Jetsons, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Futurama, I learned to be obsessed with the future. These newspaper cartoonists’ ideas of tomorrow may not be on the money, but they are nevertheless fascinating and endearing.

Predicting the future is an unreliable business, but human beings are obsessed by it.

As far back as the 19th century, writers from Jules Verne to HG Wells tried to imagine how technology and humanity would evolve. In fact, 20th century cinema is defined by it; from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix series and Spielberg’s Minority Report and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

But in the newspaper industry in the late 19th century and in the 1950s, cartoonists tried to imagine a future of robots, airships, spaceships and much, much more that, to today’s reader, may seem quaint but not totally off the mark either.

19th-century visions of 2000

In this series of futuristic pictures, Jean-Marc Côté and other artists between 1899 and 1910 tried to envision life in the then-distant year 2000 in a the form of paper cards enclosed in cigarette/cigar boxes and later as postcards.

Due to financial problems, Jean-Marc Côté’s cards were never distributed and were discovered years later by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who published them in 1985 in the book Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000.

A 21st century postman

A 21st-century postman


The notion of robotic cleaners that no doubt inspired Roomba and Dyson


Battle cars!


Robotic farming!


Aerial firefighters


Instant tailoring – sure, why not?

An air battle in the year 2000

An air battle in the year 2000

The future as defined by the 1950s space race

Inspired by the space race and Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be put into space, the pop culture of the 1950s in terms of iconography and entertainment such as B-movies seemed defined by dystopian and fascinating visions of tomorrow.

In the 1950s, designer and artist Arthur Radebaugh thrilled millions of Americans with his illustrations for Esquire and The Chicago Tribune’s funnies section. During World War II, Radebaugh designed armoured cars but after the war became famous for his techno-utopian series Closer Than We Think, where he tried to imagine a future of robots, flying cars and jetpacks. At its peak, the column had an audience of 19m Americans.

The cartoons were usually accompanied by gushing commentary about the future of space travel and transport. For example, the 9 February 1958 edition of the strip included a quote about solar technology from a vice-president at the car company Chrysler: “Tomorrow the sunmobile may replace the automobile. The power of bottled sunshine will propel it. Your solar sedan will take energy from sunrays and store it in accumulators that work like a battery. This power will drive your car just like gasoline does today.” He wasn’t far off! Apple and Tesla take note.



The sunray sedan!


Farming by drone – yes, this is closer than you think


Robot warehouses. This has actually happened.


Computer-based learning. Still not a reality in most Irish schools


Space stations!

Looking to the future image via Shutterstock


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years