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Searching the Past for the Future

Have you ever wondered what people in the past thought the future would be like? What kinds of inventions they thought would revolutionize the way we live? When I look back at what people thought our present would look like, I feel a little cheated in some ways (I mean, where is my jetpack?), while in others I’m thankful that we advanced in a different direction.

All of my waxing nostalgic about past ideas of the future is inspired by Popular Science, which has graciously (in partnership with Google) created a searchable archive of their magazine’s 140 year history.

In the world of Popular Science, a quick search can take you anywhere. For example, I searched “visions of the future,” and the first piece to pop up was an August 1925 article about the architect Harvey W. Corbett and his vision of what cities of the future would look like. Corbett had a vision of grand cities, with multilayer structures enabling different kinds of driving (fast, slow, mass transit, etc.) and different kinds of living. Corbett created buildings stacked high into the sky, and separated vehicle traffic to areas below the hustle and bustle of modern pedestrian life. Perhaps this sort of vision should have been expected from a man known for building skyscrapers and high-rise apartments, but it’s inspiring because it represents a vision of the future where some of the enduring problems of big-city living and urban development are solved:

Of course his vision didn’t come true, and certainly not by 1950, but that isn’t the point. Corbett tried to think of impossible, inconceivable things that would one day help us alleviate the problems he saw in his present. His ideas were big and ambitious, and potentially risky, but he had a dream for a better future. This kind of thinking continues to be essential to human progress. It inspires us, enlightens us and challenges our sense of what is possible. (Editor’s note: Our Project Hieroglyph, a collaboration with Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling and other top science fiction authors, aims to do precisely the same thing. Check it out here.)

The Popular Science archives are full of the wonderful, the odd and the slightly crazy (not to mention the fantastic ads). Some of these ideas might make you laugh, while others will make you happy that we went in a different direction (e.g., airplanes vs. giant airships). But some of these ideas might amaze you and might make you think “why not?” I hope when you’re aimlessly wandering around the internet and you stumble upon this, you find something that inspires you to think “what if?” and imagine a totally different future.

Visit the archives at popsci.com/archives