The 21st Century, as Imagined in the 19th Century


Here’s a lark.

Ever wonder what technological marvels will be making people’s lives easier in 100 years time? Of course you have, you’re a living human being with a brain. With so much science fiction being slapped in our faces these past several decades it’s pretty much impossible not to ask that question.

But at the turn of the 20th Century, science fiction was a novel new concept (in fact the term hadn’t even been coined yet). This was the time of the two great forefathers of the sci-fi genre, Jules Verne and H.G Wells. Verne in particular had introduced many futuristic technological marvels in his works, and the French public were hooked. This was also the height of the industrial revolution, and so as the new century dawned people got to wondering, considering how far machines had advanced in the previous century, what might industrialized society look like 100 years hence.

Cashing in on the trend for speculative fiction, a French cigarette manufacturer commissioned a series of picture cards to be inserted into their packs, beginning in 1899. The cards were to depict life in the French Republic circa 2000 AD. Artists Villemard and Jean-Marc Côté were among those hired for the series, which was later reprinted as a collection of postcards.

The results were hilarious, as you can see. Although before we laugh too hard at these images, it might be worth reminding ourselves that our own predictions of the future might seem equally ridiculous 100 years from now.


When you think of futuristic domestic appliances, the long-anticipated robot housemaid may well be the first thing that comes to mind. Clearly 20th Century French housewives were equally bored of their domestic chores as we are. Although they would have gone one step further by hiring a poor person to supervise the machine and prevent it running amok.

But look a little closer and you’ll see that this machine is actually being operated via a control device in the maid’s hand. As with many of these images, there’s very little automation, and so this is essentially a remotely controlled floor buffer. Of course, what couldn’t have been predicted was the revolution in computer technology that would begin to make true automation a possibility.


And speaking of computers, here’s an early voice recognition device. This gentleman is asking Google how many gallons there are in a bushel. When he’s done, the request will be mailed to California via hot air balloon, where one of several thousand Chinese immigrants will be tasked with formulating a response. Within two months he can expect to receive a message stating “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”


Another type of communication technology that was predicted was the video call. Telephones and projectors were both hot pieces of tech back then, so it’s hardly surprising that somebody thought of mashing the two together. It’s actually shameful how long it took us to get this right!


Machines were to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, and the French love a bit of pampering, as this automated barber shop illustrates. I’m not sure if I’d trust this robot-barber though; ask for a little bit off the top and it might take your request too literally.


Music is one thing that machines can be trusted with, however, as everybody knows that musicians perform better when they don’t have a soul. This robotic orchestra can be programmed with as many as ten songs at once, and it’s so small it fits into a 1000 seat theatre!


The industrial applications of electronic machines are obviously limitless, and this robotic building site is oddly suggestive of the 3D printed buildings we’re just now starting to see. Of course, the details are a little off. It would probably take longer to set up this construction system than it would to actually construct the building. Even so, points for ingenuity.


A rise in the mechanisation of agriculture was also predicted. Although, again, the details are a little off. Take, for example, the use of wires instead of radio control (the world’s first radio controlled boat having been demonstrated by Nikola Tesla in 1898), and the lack of a combined reaping, threshing, and winnowing machine (several such ‘combine harvesters’ were being developed at the time, though they were mostly horse drawn).


I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in this futuristic kitchen. Some kind of chemistry I guess. But then cooking has always been a form of chemistry if you stop and think about it.

What concerns me about this image is that child labour is obviously still a thing in this iteration of the 21st Century, and that the small cooker on the left looks like an angry pokemon and has been placed in a very dangerous position. Open flames and wooden shelves don’t mix.


Of course, we can’t talk about speculative futurism without showing at least one picture of an airship. Literally, air-ship.


Is it just me, or does this look like a scene from Kiki’s Delivery Service?

Airships are funky-cool, and so’s this personal plane. But I’m not sure this is an effective way to deliver the mail. If the pilot had been slightly off on his approach he would have had to come around for another pass. And if the guy wasn’t home there would be no way to deliver it at all. Sometimes it’s just better to send a telegram.


Another problem with flight is that giant birds are apparently a real problem in the 21st Century.

flying taxis

Flying taxis! Now you’re talking.


Oh, and look, an early helicopter. That’s quite an impressive prediction, although I’m not sure why it seems to have a gyroscopic needle instead of landing gear.


Are these people fishing for birds? Are they birding from underwater? My mind is blown!


OK, that one’s just outright stupid. This next illustration of the impact that electronics would have on education is interesting though. Clearly the artist had no idea how this technology would work, but the idea is quite novel.


Notice that the kid turning the crank isn’t getting any education. His parents can’t afford to send him to school, so he has to work for his supper. Clearly, child labour is more cost effective than an electric motor.

And I’ll leave you with possibly the worst idea ever conceived (although at the time it probably seemed ingenious). It’s a radium fireplace.


Who needs fossil fuels when you can bask in the warm glow of harmless radiation?

  • John H Reiher Jr

    In many ways, what they predicted sort of came true. We now have video conferencing, where people from across the world can talk to each other. The fellow dictating to the machine is something you can do today, with the same level of accuracy I imagine.

    Imagining what the future holds is hard enough 10 years in the future, let alone 100. But it’s fun to try.

  • Kirov

    Absolutely loved the article. The writing style gave me a good laugh. But a lot of the predictions seemed pretty close. As an AFV enthusiast, I have to say that the battle cars are actually pretty close to what armored cars of a few years later looked like, albeit with crews fully encased in armor.

    • Thanks! Yeh, a lot of it is actually pretty close. What makes me laugh is the lack of common sense applied to a lot of the designs (no armour on the battle cars for example), but it’s easy to judge over a century on.

  • Leonardo Faria

    In the only readable novel of AE Van Vogt, the Voyage of the Space Beagle, I remember that the crew of the starship, while handled pretty well the adversities of the interstellar travel and investigated scary alien species, used to send messages to one member to one another using the pneumatic tube! I mean, they weren’t even smart enough to devise some sort of rudimentary electronics based intranet. Truth is that imagining the future is indeed impossible. The imagined future is always a fanciful version of the present.

    • Leonardo Faria

      Oh, on the last issue… the danger of radioactivity has been long controversial. In The End of Eternity (1955) Isaac Asimov clearly depicts the effects of radioactivity as basically harmless (to recant later in the foreword to a new edition of the 70s).

  • James Pailly

    I shudder to think how silly our concept of the future will seem to people in the 22nd and 23rd Centuries.

    • Considering we’ve already lived through Caesar’s ape uprising in 1999 and Star Trek’s Eugenics wars…

      • Kirov

        The 90’s seems to have been a popular era for sci-fi strife. I just finished reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and that’s when Earth was ravaged by a nuclear war.

        • You’re right! I think that’s probably so that it can be refreshed and renewed at the dawn of the 21st Century.
          In reality all we got was a new age of ignorance.

      • James Pailly

        Don’t forget that nuclear accident at Moon Base Alpha, also in 1999. The world just hasn’t been the same since the Moon was knocked out of orbit.

        • Of course! And somehow the moon travelled at super-luminal speeds if I recall :/

          • Leonardo Faria

            Who could imagine nuclear waste was so troublesome

          • James Pailly

            It must have to reach all those other star systems. I seem to remember an episode where it also passed through a black hole.

  • Dave21

    But still no flying cars that I was promised in the 60’s.