Aug 29, 2022 - Technology

Past artists' visions of the future are coming true — sometimes

A diptych showing people on electric rollerskates and hoverboards.
Left: "Auto rollers" by Jean-Marc Côté et al. circa 1900; Right: Michael Tran and Katie Rodriguez ride hoverboards on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in 2015. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

What’s Next usually focuses on, well, what’s next. But today we're going back in time.

  • Two of Axios' visual journalists, Aïda Amer and Shoshana Gordon, curated a series of images showing what people in bygone eras imagined the future would bring.

Why it matters: Our wildest dreams are sometimes not too far off from reality, and though we may not get the details right, it's striking how often we get close.

Robot conductors:

A midcentury photograph of a large robot standing next to a woman playing the cello.
1939: Elektro, a mechanical man at the New York World's Fair, "conducts" a cellist. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A modern photograph of a robot arm holding a conductors wand, directing a live orchestra.
2017: "Yumi" becomes the first robot to conduct a charity opera concert. Photo: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Drones:

1929: Sci-fi character Buck Rogers operates the control board of "an air-ball." This illustration originally appeared in Philip Francis Nowlan's novella "The Airlords of Han" in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. Image: via Wikimedia Commons
A man using a first-person headset to pilot a drone.
2018: A drone pilot wears a first-person view headset in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Electric trains:

Hand drawn image of two people walking towards a train with elevated wheels and an aerodynamic engine.
~1900: "Electric trains" by French artist Jean-Marc Côté and other artists. Around 1900, they created "En L’an 2000," a series of postcards predicting what life would look like a century later. Image: via Wikimedia Commons
A shinkansen bullet train in Japan.
2022: A Japan Railways shinkansen bullet train leaves the platform in the town of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Autonomous cleaning:

Hand drawn picture of a maid in the 1900s directing a robot to clean the floors.
~1900s: "Electric scrubbing" by Côté et al., as part of the series, "En L'an 2000." Image: via Public Domain Review
A rmodern day robot cleaning the floor.
2021: A robot named "Franzi" cleans the entrance area of a hospital in Munich Neuperlach, Germany. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images

Yes but: Some predictions haven't panned out — at least not yet.

1893: W. Cade Gall thought this outfit would be all the rage in 1993. Image: via Public Domain Review
A man in the center of a flying platform held up by balloons.
1709: A Brazilian priest’s design for a flying machine. Image: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A hand drawn picture of people walking on water by using balloons.
~1900: German chocolate company Theodore Hildebrand & Son created this postcard for the Paris World's Fair, predicting that by 2000, we would be able to walk on water with the aid of personal balloons.
A magazine cover from 1924 showing a man and a woman in an embrace while hooked up to a computer.
1924: Science and Invention magazine showing a happy couple, with their vital readings well matched by an electrochemical computer and read out on a meter needle. Image: via Internet Archive
Go deeper