We Westerners seem to spend an awful lot of time dreaming about the future -- and we always have. In fact, this was one of philosopher Alan Watts' major explanations for modern unhappiness:
"The power of expectations is such that for most human beings ... the future is more real than the present, which cannot be lived happily until the future is bright with promise. [People] fail to live because they are always preparing to live."
At the same time, our need to fantasize about what's to come is part of what makes us such fascinating creatures (whether or not those fantasies make us happy), and what makes the study of past ideas about the future -- which is now our present -- especially fascinating. Take, for instance, predictions of the year 2000 made at the turn of the 19th century. The blog Paleo-Future has many examples, but my favorites are two intensely vivid series, one French and one German, distributed by a candy and chocolate company of the era. Some are just totally crazy -- and quite possibly meant as jokes -- like this one:
At the School
They have a machine that can grind up books and transmit their knowledge directly into your brain, but the machine is hand-cranked. (You can't make this stuff up.) What I love about old visions of the future is that they usually look a lot like the time in which they were created, save one or two details; their concept of the world was so firmly rooted in 1900 that, you know, of course things will still be cranked by hand in 2000.
Summer Holiday at the North Pole
How strangely prescient! Are those polar bears floating away on a melting ice cap?
Heating with Radium
No, the people in this picture aren't suicidal. Marie Curie didn't know the radium she was experimenting with would kill her, either -- and neither did the watchmakers who used it to paint the glow-in-the-dark faces of their timepieces (and licked their brushes). Of course, they were indirectly onto something: radioactive materials heat plenty of modern homes, just not with plutonium rods thrown into our hearths.
Madam and her Toilette
That's some kinda fancy bathroom ya got there, lady. And that device at her fingertips looks suspiciously like a laptop.
Long before "greenhouse effect" entered our lexicon, some Germans thought this would be a great way to keep out of the rain. Ahh, the stagnant, filthy, breeze-less city. Someone crack a window!
A Chemical Dinner
No, they're not dropping acid. They're eating a chemically-enhanced dinner, just like we do every night. No, seriously: have you ever read the back of a package of hamburger helper? I'm surprised we're not all sterile mutants.
A Phonographic Missive
Forget email -- I'd rather have my servant-girl bring me my messages on an LP! Ahh, such luxury.
Cars of War
I think this happened on the 405 freeway last week. C'mon now, what kind of utopian vision of the future includes a drive-by?
Ship and Railway
Damn the logistics, we need this now! Where are those McFly 2015 people when you need them?