September 27, 2011
After the first successful powered flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, it seemed like only a matter of time before everyone would be zipping around in their own personal aircraft. But if commuting to work via personal aeroplane was the future, how might the design of cities have to change to accommodate them? The most pressing issue was, of course, runways. But everyone knows that the metropolis of tomorrow has its eyes fixed skyward. So, where in a cramped and ever more vertical city like New York or Chicago might commuters be able to take off and land? On the tops of buildings, of course.
The June 1919 issue of Popular Science Monthly magazine envisioned the city of the future with circular tracks for taking off and landing. An article by Carl Dienstbach laid out the possible pitfalls of trying to move aircraft through American cities. “Clearly, city streets, flanked by high cliffs of architecture, lend themselves about as well for airplane landing and starting as they do for ice-boating.” Dienstbach laments the fact that no one has yet invented an airplane that can “rise almost vertically from the ground,” (the first functional helicopter wouldn’t appear until the 1930s) but he explains that a man named Mr. H. T. Hanson has proposed a method of getting around this hindrance. “He would build the platform in the form of a circular, high-banked track — a track that would be constructed of light but strong iron gratings, so that sun and air would still find their way to the streets below.”
Dienstbach asks readers to imagine taking off each day from their home in the country toward their city office 80 miles away. “An hour after you have started from your own grounds, the lower part of Manhattan looms in sight. There are three great suspension bridges that span the East River.” Believe it or not, I scoffed at the idea of an hour long commute until I remembered that I live in the delightfully car-congested metropolis of Los Angeles.
And what might our rat race aviator do with his aeroplane after making his landing in a pseudo-fishbowl? It was imagined that the tops of the buildings upon which these circular runways rested would contain giant elevators so that the airplanes might be shuffled around and stored while their owners went about their busy work day. I guess they thought of everything.
I first encountered the future during a family trip to Disney World’s EPCOT Center in the early 1990s. Walt Disney had envisioned EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) as a utopian, enclosed city that would be erected in central Florida. That vision never came to pass. Instead, in 1982, EPCOT opened as a theme park—a sort of permanent World’s Fair—showcasing the technological promises of tomorrow. Yet, in the span of a decade, EPCOT had already begun showing its age. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the silver jumpsuit future that EPCOT was selling didn’t feel like the 1990s; it was the future as imagined in the 1980s.
People are drawn to futurism for the wondrous spectacle of it all. Yet, those captivating images of personal jetpacks and flying cars also offer a window into history that is unlike any other. Past visions of the future reflect American hopes and fears in a fantastical way, and thus do so with unique honesty.
During World War II, for instance, the American public clung to the promise that the sweet material rewards of their sacrifice were just around the corner. A 1944 poem from Dorothy Roe, the women’s editor of the Associated Press, distilled the sentiment quite succinctly:
After the war . . .
We’ll just a press a button for food or for drink,
For washing the dishes or cleaning the sink.
We’ll ride in a rocket instead of a car.
And life will be streamlined . . .
After the war.
I’ve spent the last five years researching and blogging about what is popularly known as “retro-futurism.” In doing so, I’ve assembled an enormous private collection of material culled from used bookstores, eBay, Amazon and generous individuals who have donated their own relics. My archive begins in the late 19th century—with books like Edward Bellamy’s classic utopian novel Looking Backward—and covers every decade of the 20th century.
If there’s one vision of the future I’ve never encountered, it’s the status quo. Futurism, for most people, is about the best and the worst that will befall us. Sure, some individuals may romanticize history and cry out that society must return to some idealized version of the past that may never actually have existed, but very few people imagine tomorrow as being exactly like today.
I’m tremendously excited about Paleofuture’s new home at Smithsonian magazine, and I look forward to you joining me in my continuing exploration of the futures that never were.