Days of Future Past

Bill Gates once said that  “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” I’d agree. But what about the next hundred? Thanks to French artist Jean-Marc Côté (and others), we have the beginnings of an answer.

It’s a rare opportunity to go back in time and look into the future (without a DeLorean, anyway). But these images give us just such a glimpse. Commissioned in 1899 by a cigarette manufacturer for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, the cigarette cards (and, later, postcards) never made it into general circulation. But they’ve been popping up ever since, most notably in Isaac Asimov’s Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000, and they’re worth a look.

Not surprisingly, many of Côté’s predictions were not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong. We’re not zipping around in personal flying machines (although we should be). And his obsession with underwater sport and commerce is baffling. Perhaps Côté might want to slowly back away from that dog-eared copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

But many of his other predictions came true, or as close to true as possible from an 18th century vantage point. From the relative optimism and prosperity of the Belle Époque, Côté and his fellow artists imagined a world of ease, relaxation, and efficiency (all while wearing 100-year-old fashion). What does it say about our current society that our visions or the future are largely dystopian? I’ll leave it to future historians to figure that one out.

You can see the entire collection on Wikimedia Commons, but I’ve posted a few of the most prescient images below. Settle in for a look at today from the vantage point of 1900.


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