Let no man seek / Henceforth to be foretold what shall befall / Him or his children. -- Milton, Paradise Lost XI, 770-72
In recent history the general response of the popular vision of society to new innovations in technology is to put whatever the newcomer is to work and to find a commonality to mediate newness and necessity. There's really nothing quite like having a vision of the future when there's something new in the techno-world to make the image seem as though it could be possible, the limitations of the innovation not yet being established and all that. And so when something like the Second Industrial Revolution takes of in the 1830's there is a new belief that problems wide and narrow could in the future be solved with steam power--and often these same hopes and visions were cauterized in print, the belief in inventions like steam-powered laundresses and carriage horses and ditch-diggers all painted with sloppy buckets of incredulity and overreaction by immensely talented and public artists like George Cruikshank, a gifted English cartoonist/satirist/caricaturist and social commentator. In many cases like these though artist/visionary was wrong in the short run by right in the long--Cruikshank couldn't have seen too deeply into the future in the 1830's/1850's because that Steampunk world of the 1930's would arrive with electricity or the internal combustion engine or some other innovation that would come after Cruikshank's time, and those impossible images that he created of steam-powered flying machines and such would actually come true and quickly, but would just skip his own generation's technological innovations and become the commonplace object in the future two-generations or so hence.
For example, here we seem some hyperspeculative Cruikshankian dreams on the possibilities of near-in-time powered flight, which combines the newness of steam and flight, and published in his The Comic Almanac (1843). The possibility of Utopia prophesy is so strong that steam-fired flying machines fill the air and passengers fill building-tops, standing above enormous banners advertising daily trips to Peking, Mont Blanc and Canton, as well as half-hour departures to Paris.
There are legions of images like this, but what attracted my attention this morning was the application of the relatively new-found technologies wrapped around the possibilities of robotics and radio. Early radio broadcasting and the newly-coined "robot" (the term was coined just a few years earlier in 1921 in Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots) came together very nicely in this spec article for Science and Innovation in May 1924:
The inset detail is pretty interesting, the robots unleashed on a crowd, under control of a radio patrol car.
Another view of police-in-the-future, earlier-on in the century, from a series of French postcards (printed ca. 1900), depicting what the possible world of the future might look like in the year 2000:
And an earlier 'version" of both came to life int he hands of Curikshank (again), who produced what might be the earliest image of an artificial exoskeleton:Albert Robida (1848-1926) saw pretty deeply into the future, his mind wrapped around the plausibilities of possibilities, and getting a lot of them quite right. (He was enormously prolific, with some 60,000 designs to his credit as well as 200 illustrated books and many dozens of illustrated journals, many of them quite lovely and prescient, if somewhat upsetting to the common-reading mind of mid-late 19th Europe). Here's Robida on the possibilities of ElectroPunk:
["Un quartier embrouillé ", La Vie électrique, Paris, Librairie Illustrée, . I wrote a little about Robida here.]
Of course, Robida as well overplayed and underplayed his vision of the electrical future--I think he woul d have been shocked to see that dead trees are still supporting most of the wired world's digital infrastructure, but he would have been overwhelmed to learn what that electricity was transmitting.
It would be an interesting measure to see how long it took between some futures going from hyper-speculated to not-so to be positively under-speculated and perhaps naive.