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100 Years Ago, French Artists Predicted The Future With Eerie Accuracy

These postcards from France in 1900 show an artistic vision of what they thought the year 2000 would look like, including factory farming, RVs, and even Roombas (seriously).

Ask someone what the world will look like 100 years from now, and you’ll get some answers that are truly outrageous: Robots will take over the world and harvest humans for energy, while keeping us all calm by creating a vast virtual world for us to live in. Others, meanwhile, will be utterly mundane: Cars will get incrementally faster and more fuel efficient and will be slightly better versions of the cars we have now. Yawn, right?

But predictions such as those are decidedly less boring when you consider them in the context of these amusing postcards on the site of Public Domain Review. The cards, made between 1899 and 1910 by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists, depict a vision of what the world would look like in the year 2000. What’s most amazing isn’t what they got wrong, but the astonishing specificity of some of the things that they got exactly right.

Let’s start, though, with the whiffs. No vision of the future is complete without flying cars. If you ask people today about the world in 2112, they will, invariably, say we will have cars in the air. People are desperate to hold on to the idea of a future where you can take to the sky in your personal vehicle. Given our current auto accident rates, and the added damage a fall from thousands of feet in the air can do, it seems unlikely that we’ll get flying cars, unless driving software can take the guesswork out of personal mobility. Though stop to think for a second: How different is this vision than one when the skies are full of personal UAVs. Do you have to be in the flying car?

There also seems to have been a fixation on a future where we would spend large amounts of our life underwater, holding races on seahorses, upside-down fishing for seagulls, and taking rides on buses powered by whales. (Not to mention underwater hotels.) But these bad guesses also speak correctly to our present: The ocean remains almost entirely unexplored and unexploited (except for taking all the fish out of it). Perhaps even 100 years ago, French artists saw that we would be using up our resources and space on land, and so guessed that the sea would be the next logical place to move.

Seahorse races aside, it’s amazing to see what oddly specific and totally accurate visions of the future are in these postcards. Above, you can see that 100 years ago, someone knew that the Roomba would be coming to our living rooms. They also understood that farming was difficult and labor intensive, and it would be wonderful if machines could take over part of the process (though little could they predict we’d now be trying to undo that). You can also see a classroom in which all the students are connected and learning via electricity. An iPad isn’t quite a metal brain cap, but they were very close to the right idea. And then, most mundanely, they guessed that we would want houses that could also move on wheels. That’s right. In turn-of-the-century France, people were desperately waiting for someone to invent the RV.

What will the world look like 100 years from now? Our predictions will be the same amounts accurate and ridiculous as our predecessors. No one can predict sudden technological innovations that utterly change the world; few prognosticators would have guessed that we would spend hours a day staring at a screen, cycling through the summer vacation pictures of old acquaintances we don’t care about. But you can make some accurate guesses about the most annoying and inconvenient things in life (like that cars use a lot of expensive gas) and assume that, as society progresses, people might make a stab at making them better. And maybe, finally, give them wings.

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  • Blaise Zarco

    How is this surprizing in the year 1912?  (100 years ago)  Like saying someone predicted cell phones in the 1960's (when we has mobile phones).

  • Lomig Unger

    Interesting. One point i would like to emphasize : the flying car is always present because in our imagination, the "wing", the "flying stuff" are symbols of "spirituality", "going further". Maybe it's just a symbol showing that people still have faith in the futur ? The flying car as an optimistic vision of the future, going up, going free and making us better ?

  • Alexandre B

    The pictures are funny, the only advances are mechanical and in animal mastery. Not fashion.
    The box that transforms books into knowledge which is obviously just a light-hearted picture., the box that transforms eggs to chickens is move believable, it's like an improved incubator they had back then.
    It's even harder to predict the far future nowadays; it's harder to be knowledgeable in all fields of science at once, the pace is faster, too.

  • molton

    I'm sorry but thats not an envisioned roomba, its more like a coat rack with arms, that thing better double as a coat rack or it would take up too much space and be an eyesore when it's not being used for electric scrubbing.  Maybe those double doors in the picture is the electric scrubber closet.

  • Danico

    I think we might see flying cars given that we currently have domes but all technology start with military use wait till apple hits the consumer even when they aren't aware they need one

  • Jesse Sublett

    I love this post. I'm a little shocked at the astringent "I. Am. Not. So. Impressed." comments. Perhaps each of them is actually Bill Gates posting anonymously? Perhaps. They. Are. Windows. Users.

  • Cherie Roe Dirksen

    Ha ha!  This is great...I especially loved the electric scrubber.  'Intensive breeding' reminds me of the revolting chicken battery farms (it's a pity that one came true!). Gosh, and 'at school' reminds me of Pink Floyds 'The Wall'.  Very interesting archived pictures here, thanks for sharing.

  • Ralph Winn

    Seeing that the Wright Brothers flew in 1903 - I don't see anything in these illustrations that suggests current technology. Still they are wonderful examples of fantasy illustration.

  • Anish

    Nothing in those pictures suggest that computers would be in widespread use a 100 years from then, so it doesn't click for me.

  • Stephen Stanley

    I do believe you're looking at an application of the "infinite monkeys" problem, the one that states that, given enough immortal monkeys randomly hitting keys on typewriters and enough time, one of them will produce the complete works of Shakespeare.  It's random chance at work, augmented by physical principles, if the artist was aware of them, or just pure dumb luck if not.  Given the number of artists working at the time, it would actually be more surprising if none of them got it right.

  • Guillaume

    The "infinite monkeys" theory really doesn't apply to this situation at all. It's not too big of a stretch to say that these artists had enough foresight to predict generally what we might be doing given what they saw in their own lives. 

  • Cherie Roe Dirksen

    The artist(s) in question were working with the future possibilities or potentials based on the needs, dreams and wants of humanity.  I think the flippancy of your comment did not factor in that the artists came up with these ideas in the last 100-200 years (approx.), not in this great source of infinite time your monkeys would have had. We are working in a quantum soup of all possibilities and we follow, in linearity, the most potent potential.  These artists may have even planted that seed for future generations and inventors.  Thoughts and actions are what create our future, not 'dumb luck'.

  • Indianartkart

    Qui Tres Bien...Francais...Vraiment..Tres Intelligent  :)..rakesh channaiah...