We’ve always wondered what the world will look like in the future. But how accurate were our past prognostications? Even when the content of our imagination feels like science fiction, we cannot escape the pull of our own time and its biases.
When most of us think about the future, we think about how it will affect us personally. It was no different for Prince Iskandar, who lived in the 1400s, though it’s not clear whether the beautiful and intricate horoscope he had drawn up predicted that he would be deposed and blinded by his uncle and then executed.
Sometimes, and especially when concerning royalty, personal futures are also political. This embroidery, claimed to be from 1621, supposedly predicts that Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria will have a baby, but others have interpreted it as a criticism that the king was unduly influenced by his Catholic wife, or even a prediction of his beheading.
In this dramatic Victorian prediction, politics is centre-stage: Ireland has been brought to her knees before Britannia. This seems less a prediction than a reference to the potato famine from the 1840s that had devastated Ireland. Other doom-and-gloom forecasted included shipwrecks and war.
Disasters are often predicted as counterpoints to overenthusiastic proclamations about marvellous new technologies. This 1830s cartoonist challenges the idea that steam power will really prove to be wondrous. Though the winged machines and chimneys are comical, perhaps the dramatic vehicle crashes, air pollution, and hard-to-fix contraptions proved closer to the mark of future life with machines.
Similarly, a ‘modern prophecy’ from the late 1820s predicted roads crammed with traffic, messages passed on quickly while on-the-go, and cheap carb-based snacks being peddled to travellers. The technology here was cutting-edge at the time: the vehicles appear half bicycle (whose predecessor had been unveiled in 1817) and half steam engine (Stephenson’s Locomotion was built in 1825).
Change can seem to happen so quickly that brand-new technologies become almost immediately obsolete. This Punch cartoon forecasts the decline of the locomotive (rather than its domination, like the previous two cartoons). The ‘Museum of Modern Antiquities’ also has sewing machines, wooden pavements and coal shovels, which were once ubiquitous.
Another Punch cartoon published after a decade of violent opposition to vaccination joked about the seemingly ridiculous idea that inoculation might ever become popular. It scoffs at the possibility that inoculations might be purchased by wealthy people for their young relatives about to go off travelling.
A common pattern among these fantasies of the future is that even when we try to imagine a world so far from our present realities as to feel like science fiction, we cannot escape the pull of our own time and its biases. In the case of this image from 1912, even in an electrified city of the future, it’s “one [white] man” who will “drive the town.”
Our current predictions for the future often revolve around bioengineering. Just as with Iskandar’s horoscope and all the predictions since, it’s quite likely that while we may guess some things, our forecasts really reveal more about our contemporary concerns about society, science and technology.
About the author
Alice is a digital editor and Wikimedian for Wellcome Collection. Before joining Wellcome, she researched frogs, moustaches, psychiatry in World War II, and British science-fiction fans.