Making predictions about the future is not limited to great minds or reputable publications. Anybody can take a guess on what the future may look like, especially on a topic that is so pertinent to everybody’s daily lives: mobility. For centuries, people have wondered whether we may find better, faster or more exciting ways to travel. We have asked ourselves if we can overcome distances and boundaries. And we have envisaged living on other planets. Are predictions only lucky guesses? Hindsight is 20/20, but it can be entertaining to look back on what once was predicted for the future of mobility.
1. 1823: rail travel and high speed won’t ever mix well
Before we had cars, planes and space shuttles, there were trains. Rather slow trains we may add, as the maximum speed in 1830 was 48 km/h (30 mph). It comes as no surprise that Dr Dionysius Lardner, a professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, did not deem feasible a high-speed train to carry its passengers safely: "Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."
If only he could see that nowadays the maximum operating speed of a Japanese bullet train is 320 km/h (200 mph) – and passengers seem to be just fine.
Built by Richard Trevithick in 1802, the Coalbrookdale Locomotive was the world’s first full-scale working railway steam locomotive. Source: Science Museum (The British Railway Locomotive, H.M.S.O.), via Wikimedia Commons
2. 1900: a German company’s take on the future of mobility
At the beginning of the 20th century, the German confectionery company “Hildebrand Kakao- und Schokoladenfabrik GmbH” took a stab at predicting the future during an advertising campaign. The advertising cards showed what they envisaged the world to look like in a hundred years’ time. Walking on water with wooden boots, trains that are amphibious (“railway boats”) or individualised flying machines for each and every one were just some of the mobility visions of the company.
In 1900, a German company designed pictures of the world in 2000. Visionary artwork or just an attention-grabbing ad campaign? Source: Unknown, via Wikimedia Commons
3. 1900: French artists’ futuristic predictions for 2000
Around the same time as the German ad campaign was running, several French artists created a series of futuristic pictures that were initially enclosed in cigarette boxes and were later sold as postcards. Flying taxis – so-called aero cabs – with their corresponding docking stations were one of the predictions. And when you live in a world with aero cabs, there is definitely a need for the aviation police to ensure traffic safety in the air. An even more bizarre prediction was the whale bus, a submarine pulled by a whale. Well, it seems like these artists were pretty optimistic about our future (whale) taming skills.
Initially created for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, a series of postcards depicted the world in 2000. By JVillemard, via Wikimedia Commons
4. 1903: horses vs automobiles
“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” The President of the Michigan Savings Bank did not know back then that in the future it would be exactly the other way around: seeing a horse-drawn carriage these days is somewhat of a novelty. Fortunately, Henry Ford’s lawyer didn’t listen to this advice and invested $5,000 in the newly formed motor company. The initial investment quickly turned into $12.5 million.
"Clinton Folger's "Horsemobile" delivering mail, on South Beach Street, at Hayden's Bath House entrance. Source: Nantucket Historical Association from Nantucket, USA [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons (1918)
5. 1920: imagining space travel was out of question
A New York Times article completely dismissing the possibility of space travel wrote in 1920: “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere: After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left.” When the Apollo 11 headed to the moon in 1969, the paper issued a retraction of its original article. Rightly so.
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. poses beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface. Source: Nasa
6. 1939: cars without drivers
We are almost there, but not quite: the prediction of the self-driving car has been on the table for almost 80 years. And while cars are undoubtedly getting smarter and better, the day that we will buy a self-driving car is a lot further away than we probably think. An exhibitor’s prediction at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York is not wildly wrong, but our expressways are yet to be filled with cars controlled by radio from a central tower, as they had envisaged it. At least not for now.
Impression from Julius Baer’s ad campaign #Window2TheFuture, which was deployed for the Zurich E-Prix 2018.
7. 1964: colonies on the moon and underwater, and other visionary scenarios for 2024
Will we be living in colonies on the moon or underwater by 2024? Highly unlikely. Sponsored by General Motors and presented at the New York World's Fair of 1964, the Futurama 2 exhibition and ride showcased a possible vision of the world 60 years into the future. Aquacopters and lunar rovers were just two of the futuristic vehicles that were featured in the undersea and moon sets. Equally interesting was the idea that by 2024 we would be spending our holidays at Hotel Atlantis, at the bottom of the sea.
At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York the visitors went on a ride to learn about General Motors' vision of the future. Source: Flickr
8. 1966: Reader’s Digest Book predicts life in 1999
Moving sidewalks, climate-controlled cities and rocket belts for people to fly above everything: a Reader's Digest issue from 1966 wooed the readers with its spectacular vision of the future. Titled “When You Grow Up”, the article explained in great detail what life may be like in the year 1999. They also prophesied high-speed transport – at least one of the predictions came true.
The Reader’s Digest’s view on what life may look like in 1999, “when we grow up”. Source: Mike Lynch Cartoons. Painting by Fred Freeman (1906-1988).
9. 1968: space travel to become the norm by 2001
The film industry has never shied away from predicting what the future may hold for us. However, some films are doing a better job than others – but the ones that were wrong at least captivated their audience with entertaining - albeit ludicrous - visions of the future. So maintained Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that by the 21st century, space travel and moon colonies would be part of our everyday life.
Impression from Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibit, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Source: Matthew J. Cotter from Wigan, United Kingdom, via Wikimedia Commons
10. 1989: Flying cars should be the norm by now
Let’s stay with the Hollywood theme: when Marty McFly and Doc Brown time-travelled from 1989’s Back to the Future Part II to save the future Marty in 2015, flying cars and air skateboards – the famous Hover Board – were some of the main transport means. What for many people seemed to be a distant future prediction is now several years in the past. And there are no flying cars or air skateboards in sight. At all.
The DeLorean flying car and time machine from the Movie “Back to the Future”. Source: JMortonPhoto.com & OtoGodfrey.com, from Wikimedia Commons
So whether predictions are self-fulfilling prophesies, lucky punches or well-thought-out theories, people will always wonder what the future may look like next year, in a decade or a century. And people will always make predictions. Especially people like tech mogul Elon Musk. He actually predicts that his space company will take a million people to Mars by the end of the century. Where will they work and live? In a self-sustaining city, of course.
What do you think: will this bold prediction turn out to be wildly wrong or spot on?