What the Future Looked Like Way Back When

1941 photo showing plane mechanics and the future of plane travel with TWA plane
TWA mechanics at Laguardia Field resemble men from space after donning metal propeller hubs in 1941.

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Decades ago, dreamers, scientists and futurologists envisioned life in the 21st century as something straight out of "The Jetsons." There would be flying cars, moon vacations, dinners in a pill and a variety of fashionable metallic jumpsuits. While many of the past predictions are humorous and wildly inaccurate, our ancestors did get some things right. In fact, about 40 percent of the 135 advanced technologies predicted in 1960 to become reality by 2010 by the Japan Science and Technology Agency are real technologies. Here, we'll take a look at what the past got right (cellphones and the Internet) and what they didn't (the intelligence pill and the four-hour workday).

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Robots and computers

black and white photo of young girls playing with robot toy in 1973
Two young girls play with General Turtle, an electronic robot toy, 1973. The toy can turn, avoid obstructions, and trace its path on paper.

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One of the most popular future predictions was the increasingly important role robots and computers would play in our daily lives. While robots do help with many tasks, they’re not nearly as popular as science fiction once led us to believe they might be. A 1968 Mechanix Illustrated article predicted that robots would be doing our housework by 2008, and inventions like the Roomba have made this a reality. However, advances in household robotics haven’t reached the heights predicted by a 1996 (yes, 1996) New York Times article that said “kitchen robots” would assess our dietary needs before preparing our meals.

Futurists were a bit more correct on the subject of computers. According to the Mechanix article, “the single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from assembling shopping lists to keeping track of the bank balance.” But while computers were seen as important in the 21st century, not everyone was expected to have one. In 1966, reporter Stanley Penn wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “it is unlikely everyone will have his own computer any time soon,” and the Mechanix article echoed this: “Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs.” Futurists even saw the Internet as being important in our current society: “Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits.”

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black and white photo of woman demonstrating a flying car concept in 1960
A demonstration of the Ford Levacar Mach 1 concept vehicle, a 'flying car', circa 1960.

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Flying cars were a popular prediction, and in 1940, Henry Ford said, “Mark my words: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming.” In 1973, Henry Smolinski tried to bring such a car to market by fusing a Cessna Skymaster plane with a Ford Pinto; however, Smolinski and his pilot were killed when a wing strut detached from the car. The FAA approved the first flying car in 2010, which sells for more than $200,000.

According to a 1968 Mechanix Illustrated article, by 2008, Americans will travel between climate-controlled domed cities in cars that don’t require steering and reach 250 mph. Auto accidents will be a thing of the past, thanks to traffic computers that keep vehicles 50 yards apart. Google has tested a self-driving car, but sadly, more than 30,000 people die in U.S. car accidents each year.

Public transportation was also expected to change dramatically by the 21st century. The Mechanix article predicted hubs called modemixers where commuters would ride tube trains powered by compressed air, or they could board rockets or hypersonic planes. While the U.S. military has developed hypersonic aircrafts, we’re not blasting off to work quite yet. Still, in 1900 John Elfreth Watkins Jr. wrote in the Ladies’ Home Journal that trains will one day travel at 250 mph. Today’s high-speed trains can travel more than 300 mph.

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Home life

a model of an all electric home of tomorrow by GE in 1960s
The all-electric house built almost entirely of prefabricated plastic panels was unveiled as General Electric Company's concept of the 1964 American home.

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Homes in the 21st century were expected to be dramatically different places. In 1966, Arthur C. Clarke wrote in Vogue magazine that houses would fly by 2001 and entire communities would head south for the winter or relocate simply for a change in scenery. Meanwhile, Mechanix Illustrated thought all homes would be assembled from prefabricated modules, allowing homes to be constructed in a day, and building materials would be self-cleaning, so no paint or siding would ever chip or crack.

But perhaps the greatest home achievements would take place in the kitchen, where even if “kitchen robots” aren’t serving us, meal preparation is still much easier: “The housewife simply determines in advance her menus for the week, then slips prepackaged meals into the freezer and lets the automatic food utility do the rest.” While meals aren’t exactly prepared like this today, the 1968 article did get our disposable culture right: Meals are “served on disposable plastic plates. These plates, as well as knives, forks and spoons of the same material, are so inexpensive they can be discarded after use.”

It was also predicted that we would see great advances in refrigeration technology, with homes that could keep large quantities of food fresh for a long time. This technology would also allow us to enjoy foods from around the world: “Fast-flying refrigerators will bring delicious fruits from the tropics within a few days. The farmers of South America, whose seasons are opposite to ours, will supply us in winter with fresh summer foods which cannot be grown here."

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 French fashion designer poses with models wearing nurses uniforms designed by Cardin in 1970
French fashion designer poses with models wearing nurses uniforms designed by Cardin.

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For the most part, fashion has not gone the way our ancestors thought it would. (A 1950 Popular Mechanics article predicted we would wear rayon underwear that chemical companies would buy from us to convert into candy.) Still, some predictions were correct. In 1910, Thomas Edison wrote, “The clothes of the future will be so cheap that every woman will be able to follow the fashions promptly, and there will be plenty of fashions. Artificial silk that is superior to natural silk is now made of wood pulp. I think that the silkworm barbarism will go in fifty years.” He was half right: While inexpensive clothing is mass produced today, silk still comes from silkworms that are killed for the material.

Another popular prediction was the emergence of the futuristic, one-piece jumpsuit, implying that people of the future would be more concerned with efficiency than with style. But Pierre Cardin disagreed. In the 1960s and 1970s, he unveiled space-age, avant garde collections that weren’t always that practical. In this 1971 photo, models wear the Cardin’s nurse uniforms of the future.

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vintage photo of woman working on huge computer and tape IBM machine
A woman works in a room with a teletype machine and an IBM 729II computer tape storage system.

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Futurists predicted a much more technologically advanced office, with workers making calls on their “TV phones” and using tablet computers with "infrared flashlight" writing utensils.

The average workday would be just four hours, according to Mechanix Illustrated, but that doesn’t mean we’d have free time to visit our friends in other domed cities. Our ancestors thought we’d need that extra time to keep up with the world's rapid technological advances. Jobholders were expected to rent tapes from libraries after work and bring them home to watch on TV as part of necessary ongoing education programs.

How are you paid in this futuristic society? According to Mechanix Illustrated, “Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.” I’d say they got this one right.