Before the beginning of the 19th century, the future was only rarely portrayed as a very different place from the present. The social order, like the natural order, was supposed to be static, with everything in its proper place: as it had been, so it would be. When Sir Isaac Newton thought about the future, he worried about the exact date of Armageddon, not about how his science might change the world. Even Enlightenment revolutionaries usually argued that what they were doing was restoring the proper order of things, not creating a new world order.
It was only around the beginning of the 1800s, as new attitudes towards progress, shaped by the relationship between technology and society, started coming together, that people started thinking about the future as a different place, or an undiscovered country – an idea that seems so familiar to us now that we often forget how peculiar it actually is.
The new technology of electricity seemed to be made for futuristic speculation. At exhibition halls in London, such as the Adelaide Gallery or the Royal Polytechnic Institution, early Victorians could marvel at electrical engines that promised to transform travel. Inventors boasted that ‘half a barrel of blue vitriol [copper sulphate] and a hogshead or two of water, would send a ship from New York to Liverpool’. People went to these places to see the future made out of the present: when Edgar Allen Poe in 1844 set out to fool the New York Sun’s readers that a balloon flight had just made it across the Atlantic, he made sure to tell them that the equipment used had been ‘put in action at the Adelaide Gallery’.
Bringing the future home, Alfred Smee, then surgeon to the Bank of England, told readers of his Elements of Electro-Metallurgy (1841) how they would ‘enter a room by a door having finger plates of the most costly device, made by the agency of the electric fluid’. The walls would be ‘covered with engravings, printed from plates originally etched by galvanism’, and at dinner ‘the plates may have devices given by electrotype engravings, and his salt spoons gilt by the galvanic fluid’. It was becoming impossible to talk about electricity at all without talking about the future.
A few decades earlier, there was a particular vogue for satirical prints with titles such as ‘March of Intellect’. The details varied, but all such caricatures portrayed essentially the same scene. Their landscape was dotted with an assortment of futuristic machines. Steam engines shaped like horses belched black smoke as they carried passengers on their backs or dragged coaches along railroads. Street vendors roasted whole oxen on mechanical, steam-powered spits. The skies were full of balloons and dirigibles, or flying contraptions driven by furiously pedalling gentlemen (and the occasional lady). My favourite, the aforementioned 1829 work by William Heath, features an enormous pipe, labelled ‘Grand Vacuum Tube Company: Direct to Bengal’. The conceit was that the hapless passengers would go in at one end and be whisked by vacuum halfway round the world to the far reaches of England’s growing empire.
This was satire, of course, not prophecy. The cartoons illustrated how limited a grip on reality the promoters of technological progress actually had. But for satire to work, its target needs to be familiar to the audience. The popularity of these caricatures speaks to the sudden pervasiveness of this new way of thinking about the future as the product of technological innovation. That a common response to this way of thinking was ridicule suggests just how uncomfortable and jarring it was, nonetheless, to many people. These cartoons might look like prehistoric steampunk from our lofty 21st century vantage point, but it’s worth remembering that early 19th century satirists did not really have to tweak reality that much to generate these fantasies.
Even the baroque-seeming vacuum-powered propulsion system had a basis in contemporary plans for pneumatic railways that worked along such principles. This seems to be the case for futuristic speculation more generally. All our futures tend to be made up out of bits and pieces of our present.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-victorians-invented-the-future-for-us