How Futurists Envisioned the Future in the 1920s: Moving Walkways, Personal Helicopters, Glass-Domed Cities, Dream Recorders & More

Many of us now in adult­hood first came to know the nine­teen-twen­ties as the decade our grand­par­ents were born. It may thus give us pause to con­sid­er that it began over a cen­tu­ry ago — and even more pause to con­sid­er the ques­tion of why its visions of the future seem more excit­ing than our own. You can behold a vari­ety of such visions in the videos above and below, which come from The 1920s Chan­nel on Youtube. Using a col­lec­tion of print-media clip­pings, it offers an expe­ri­ence of the “futur­ism” of the nine­teen-twen­ties, which has now inspired a dis­tinct type of “retro-futur­ism,” between the “steam­punk” of the Vic­to­ri­an era and the “atom­punk” of Amer­i­ca after the Sec­ond World War.

“Being in the mod­ern age, futur­ism of the nine­teen-twen­ties leans more towards atom­punk,” says the video’s nar­ra­tor. But it also has a some­what dieselpunk fla­vor,” the lat­ter being a kind of futur­ism from the nine­teen-for­ties. “In Amer­i­ca, the nine­teen-twen­ties were sim­i­lar to the nine­teen-fifties, in that they took place in the imme­di­ate after­math of a mas­sive, destruc­tive war, and both car­ried an opti­mism for the future. The only dif­fer­ence was that sci­ence fic­tion was not as main­stream in the twen­ties as it was in the fifties, so it did­n’t quite ful­ly devel­op a unique look that per­me­at­ed soci­ety.” This gave twen­ties futur­ism a look and feel all its own — as well as a pre­pon­der­ance of diri­gi­bles.

Apart from those heli­um-filled air­ships, which “only rose to promi­nence after the Vic­to­ri­an era, and their pop­u­lar­i­ty end­ed in the nine­teen-thir­ties,” its oth­er ele­ments of sci­ence fic­tion and (even­tu­al) fact include mov­ing walk­ways, per­son­al heli­copters, cities enclosed by glass domes and webbed by sky bridges, high­ways stacked ten lev­els deep, zero-grav­i­ty cham­bers, dream recorders, theremins, “light-beam pianos,” a tun­nel under the Eng­lish Chan­nel, “aer­i­al mail tor­pe­does,” and a curi­ous tech­nol­o­gy called tele­vi­sion. Long­time Open Cul­ture read­ers may also spot the Iso­la­tor, a dis­trac­tion-elim­i­nat­ing hel­met invent­ed by sci-fi pub­lish­er Hugo Gerns­back — whose own mag­a­zine Sci­ence and Inven­tion, the nar­ra­tor notes, orig­i­nal­ly ran many of these images. Per­haps what our own decade lacks isn’t excit­ing visions of the future, but a Gerns­back to com­mis­sion them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Iso­la­tor: A 1925 Hel­met Designed to Elim­i­nate Dis­trac­tions & Increase Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty (Cre­at­ed by Sci­Fi Pio­neer Hugo Gerns­back)

The Word “Robot” Orig­i­nat­ed in a Czech Play in 1921: Dis­cov­er Karel Čapek’s Sci-Fi Play R.U.R. (a.k.a. Rossum’s Uni­ver­sal Robots)

Futur­ist Makes Weird­ly Accu­rate Pre­dic­tions in 1922 About What the World Will Look Like in 2022: Wire­less Tele­phones, 8‑Hour Flights to Europe & More

In 1922, a Nov­el­ist Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like in 2022: Wire­less Tele­phones, 8‑Hour Flights to Europe & More

Sci-Fi Pio­neer Hugo Gerns­back Pre­dicts Telemed­i­cine in 1925

In 1926, Niko­la Tes­la Pre­dicts the World of 2026

“When We All Have Pock­et Tele­phones”: A 1920s Com­ic Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts Our Cell­phone-Dom­i­nat­ed Lives

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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