19th Century French Artists Predicted The World Of The Future In This Series Of Postcards

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If you've ever struggled to imagine how life will change over the next century thanks to technology, take comfort -- you're not alone. Over 100 year ago, some French artists tried to do the same thing.

French science fiction novelist Jules Verne

During that time, one of the most influential science fiction writers ever had been busy letting his imagination run wild with all the possibilities that the age of science was opening up. That writer was Jules Verne, whose collection called Voyages Extraordinaires contained 55 novels, including the well known  "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" and "Around The World In 80 Days". He even wrote a short work imagining what life would be like a millennium in the future called In The Year 2889.

Verne's stories were popular among the French, and their imagination swooned with the endless possibilities of the future.

Starting in 1899, a commercial artist named Jean-Marc Côté and other artists were hired by a toy or cigarette manufacturer to create a series of picture cards as inserts, according to Matt Noval who writes for the Smithsonian magazine. The images were to depict how life in France would look in a century's time, no doubt heavily influenced by Verne's writings. Sadly, they were never actually distributed. However, the only known set of cards to exist was discovered by Isaac Asimov, who wrote a book in 1986 called "Futuredays" in which he presented the illustrations with commentary.

What's amazing about this collection is how close their predictions were in a lot of cases, and how others are close at hand.

To begin, technological strides were made in electromagnetism and wireless communication that led to the invention of the telephone and radio during the latter decades of the 19th century. To the artists, these technologies must play an important part in the future, so a machine was imagined that would transcribe spoken language into print, something that automated audio transcription services like Dragon Dictate or voice recognition with Google Search now make possible:

Another card shows video calls imagined from the technology of the day (a projector), but functionally the same as Apple's FaceTime, Google Hangout, or any other standard video conferencing software:

Other types of advances in projection were expected as well, allowing microscope or telescope images to be much more visible. While projection technologies like these were developed, today digital instruments and monitors are the workhorses for microscopy:

In light of the Industrial revolution that occurred in France in the early part of the 19th century, automation would have been rife with possibilities. Among the collection, personal automatons -- or robots as we call them -- showed up prominently. Clearly, the artists felt they would be a big part of the future, taking care of many of the mechanical tasks used in daily life, such as robot barbers:

For women, the vision was more extensive, including an all-in-one robotic make-up artist and hairdresser:

Technological advances in robotics is seriously on the move, so while we have robots to wash hair, service bots in hospitals and cleaning bots like the Roomba to help in small ways, bots to take care of all our personal needs are probably only years away. Whether we'll have a robot that can custom tailor clothes for us at will, as shown in the following illustration, is debatable, however:

One card shows all the instruments of an orchestra being controlled by the conductor, which isn't too far off from the robotic instruments designed by Festo:

But the scope of using machines to do work wasn't seen to be limited to smaller scale activities. Why not use machines to allow a single person to construct buildings? We aren't there yet, but recent advances in 3D printing almost beg for houses and other buildings to be printed out, if the technology could be worked out.

The artists also imagined how robots would have an even bigger impact on society, as in helping farmers plow fields. Robots on farms are on the rise, as bots have been developed to milk cowspick only ripe strawberries, and even kill weeds.

The possibilities of science must have seemed endless, and technologies that would fundamentally change society would seem all but likely, as in one illustration that shows books being ground up and fed directly into the ears of schoolchildren. While it may seem a bit to Matrix-like to become a reality, one could argue that this is fundamentally what an audiobook is or what the Internet does with information. We may not be at the point where information is fed directly into our brains, but reality isn't that far off.

In what some French people might consider an abomination, one illustration depicted the modern kitchen as a place of food science. While synthetic food in commercial products is sadly more common today than we'd like to admit (sorry Easy Cheese lovers, but I'm calling you out), the rise of molecular gastronomy in fine dining has made food chemistry a modern reality. It may seem like food science has its limitations, but one only needs to consider efforts to grow meat in a laboratory to see how far technology may go.

As incredible as it is that Côté, Villemard, and others were able to envision some of our modern technologies, one would expect more misses than hits. They are, after all,  making fantastical predictions about technological progress over a century's time, and it's challenging to be accurate (unless you are Ray Kurzweil).

Making predictions in the shadow of Verne's body of work, one would take for granted that the sea and the air would be open to all.

For instance, the artists were fascinated by the possibilities of flight. This makes sense, considering that powered gliders were in development during the 1890s, the first Zeppelin was being constructed in 1900, and the Wright brothers made their historic flight in 1903. But personal flight was envisioned to be much more integrated into daily life, envisioning that wings would help people do all sorts of things like delivering mail...physics be damned!

Air transport was also imagined, and though they didn't quite capture modern air travel, they weren't too far off:

The artists also seemed to believe that people would be interacting with ocean life as a part of their daily lives, perhaps because of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Everything from fish races complete with jockeys to travelling underwater by whale were seen as inevitable. It's sad that the ocean is still such a mystery, but perhaps Google's efforts to allow underwater exploration in Google Maps will begin to help:

Finally, there are some illustrations that we look at today and know they are bad ideas, such as rapid biological development of eggs into chicks:

Or using radium in the fireplace to warm a house:

Imagining the future is vital to progress, as it means technological advances are the result of deliberate efforts to make ideas reality, rather than simply humans reacting to their surroundings like animals. These illustrations are a testament to a handful of very creative artists who tried to bring a vision of the future to the masses.

How unfortunate that the people of the time never got to seem them.

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 25 Responses

  • Blake Hall October 15, 2012 on 9:01 am

    I wonder just how receiving the general public was to such ideas.

    As technophobic as people are today, I can only image they were much more so back in the day. Or perhaps they were filled with starry-eyed optimism at what technology could offer, and technophobia is a more recent development.

    • David J. Hill Blake Hall October 15, 2012 on 11:05 am

      I’m guessing starry-eyed optimism plus a sense of awe at technological progress, something that has receded in modern times with the steady flow of new tech arriving thanks to exponential acceleration. Fortunately, we have people like Felix Baumgartner and his team who help restore awe in what people can accomplish with technology.

    • Joe Thorpe Blake Hall October 15, 2012 on 2:57 pm

      “As technophobic as people are today” – I think you are wrong in this.

      Everyone has a smart phone. A lot of people already have him robots. Wh robotic cars hit main stream they will be very popular.

      I think what you hear is more technophobic people express their views in public. But those people have always been around, look at the Amish.

      • David J. Hill Joe Thorpe October 15, 2012 on 7:00 pm

        True…part of what is perceived as technophobia may also be critical scrutiny of the value, logistics, and safety of a technology that is getting close to becoming reality.

        Back in the day, the chemical food illustration, for instance, could be awed at from a “Won’t the future be fantastic!” mindset whereas now we’d likely think, “Whoa…you want me to eat THAT?” Just look at the response people had to the recent announcement about lab grown meat.

        • Umesh Unnikrishnan David J. Hill October 16, 2012 on 12:01 am

          David –
          I think that the revulsion towards chemicals in foods (or GM foods) etc are a result of our experience with such technologies. It’s not that we blindly rejected some technologies, but we tried them out and concluded that the cost/risk wasn’t worth the benefit.

          • Ver Greeneyes Umesh Unnikrishnan October 16, 2012 on 9:13 am

            While in the case of experts that may be true, I think for most people it doesn’t go beyond “GM FOOD BAD! NATURE GOOD!”, which may due to a variety of factors end up being true but certainly isn’t a given.

      • Neurosys Joe Thorpe October 28, 2012 on 1:40 pm

        I’d have to agree, but the point could also be made that technophobic people are well.. stupid and hypocritical. They cry about tech but not as loud as they cry when it stops working. Some people just like to be bitchy. Technology is making it hard for them to maintain their crappy disposition.

        The bumper sticker must have been right: Mean People Suck.

  • melis256 October 15, 2012 on 9:34 am

    Awesome! ^_^

  • ArtOwl85 October 15, 2012 on 2:27 pm

    Very interesting!

  • jsheehy October 16, 2012 on 5:45 am

    One thing to consider with the artists illustrations is he had to choose a scene that would convey information to the people of his time about these future technologies. So the illustrations are never going to be exact from our perspective.

    The “chicken machine” is really the idea of the automate factory farm, which is here today in large part.

    The idea of using radium to warm a home happens today. However, the radioactive material isn’t radium and it isn’t at the home. Today uranium fuel is used at a nuclear power plant to produce electricity which heats and cools people homes.

    I can’t think of a current analogue for the seahorse picture other than navy divers using dolphins to do mine sweeping and plant charges on enemy ships.

    Zepplins like the one in the picture used to make regular runs between Europe and the Americas. However, we have progressed past that technology today.

    • David J. Hill jsheehy October 16, 2012 on 6:51 am

      completely agree…depicted in these illustrations are concepts about what technology would someday make reality. Naturally, the artists drew on their understanding of what was possible at the time based on the science and technology that was available, widespread, and/or held the most promise. (In light of that, it’s no mistake that a radium fireplace would be envisioned when the Curies had just made their discovery in 1898…in Paris no less.)

      Even today, anyone making predictions about what device we’ll use for personal communication in even 20 years, for instance, would be wise to stick to the conceptual realm rather than what the device would actually look like or how it might function precisely.

      The nuts and bolts of how imagined technologies actually come into existence is a whole other matter.

  • Maj Variola October 16, 2012 on 8:12 am

    But we do have radium fireplaces… 20% of our electricity is from nuclear. And like 80% in France.

  • ziggy October 16, 2012 on 1:35 pm

    Some of the babies of that day lived to see the inventions. My great grandmother was born in 1889 and lived to be 101. She saw the invention of powered flying craft, space travel, microwave ovens, electronic computers, lasers, integrated circuits, and electric vacuum cleaners, home refrigerators and toasters.

  • qwertie October 16, 2012 on 2:44 pm

    There are clearly more misses than hits in these cards, especially when you look at the details. I find it interesting that everything they didn’t specifically “futurize” remained at the 1900 technology level: wooden floors, small panes of glass rather than large ones, large rivets, large conical sound receivers, and ordinary projection video (which is easily blocked by shadows) rather than flat screens.

    They must have expected something like a computer to exist, but they did not understand that a computer would not be intuitive like a human, that it would just crunch numbers. So they underestimated the difficulty of a robotic barber or building construction machine or even “simple” voice recognition… a mistake repeated again and again. Even now, recent films misunderstand computers in the same way!

    • Neurosys qwertie October 28, 2012 on 1:43 pm

      Hey, all people do is crunch numbers too.
      We just have an amazingly advanced biomachine in our domes to do it with.
      Once we can mimic the restructuring of dendrites when learning… its on.

  • Utomo Prawiro October 16, 2012 on 8:39 pm

    Books printed at 1986 and now 2012.
    is there any newer version ?

  • MarcusAurelius October 17, 2012 on 8:54 am

    To be fair the second last picture can be said to represent the current meat supply industry common with fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC today. It seems the painter was trying to portray a step up to meat production in this case the poultry industry. If he was to see how fast chicks are matured and in such poor and small living conditions, he could be forgiven that his claims were prophetic to a degree.

  • Thomas Wing October 19, 2012 on 12:59 pm

    I really see these as consciously functioning in two countervailing ways:
    1) On the one hand, technology is exciting and may change our lives in the future, but
    2) There is a pointed quaintness to this in the context in which this technology is inserted, which tries to make the newness of the technology seem all the more strange, and in so doing, take away some of our ability to actually imagine it. In a way, we are protected in these images against the fear of technology actually progressing to this degree. Following on the mode of Jules Verne, whose formula was to insert one piece of strange machinery into an otherwise normal contemporary world, and then break it before the end of the novel (à la James Bond cars), these postcards allow technology to do interesting poetic things, but refuse to take their implications seriously. It’s a playful denial in response to all the hullabaloo about progress.

    • Blake Hall Thomas Wing October 19, 2012 on 9:22 pm

      That’s an intriguing analysis.

      I occurs to me that quite a bit of popular fiction follows this ‘playful denial’ approach. Technology–or any non-human positive trait, such as immortality–is presented, used to entertain, and then finally erased and dismissed as something humanity should not and will not see realized. Serving pretty much as a trojan horse for the mind.

      • Thomas Wing Blake Hall October 20, 2012 on 8:37 am

        Yeah, I mean I really think there is always a competition between fiction’s ability to suggest new ideas, and its tendency to promote itself AS fiction, as a variety of thought that stands in opposition to nonfiction; the whole conceit is that it is not actually true. Even prediction has this double quality; when you look at one of these postcards, you aren’t expected to believe that this ACTUAL scene will ever happen, in exactly the way it’s presented. It’s just a symbol of possibility (as jsheehy already said in this thread) … but from that fictional representation, the claim to reality begins to break down. The enjoyment of the fiction gains ground.

        What exactly do you mean by “a trojan horse for the mind,” though?

  • walterfarah November 27, 2012 on 8:32 pm

    beautiful images…

    • Utomo Prawiro Mansoor Nazeer September 29, 2013 on 9:47 pm

      I think the copyright already expired. but please check again for sure things

  • Yu Ru Chen May 31, 2015 on 2:03 pm

    Human brain very powerful. No limits how much you can dream.