It’s 2015. But sometimes it feels like our futuristic dreams are stuck in the 1950s and 60s. And there’s actually a good reason for that.
The period between 1958 and 1963 might be described as a Golden Age of American Futurism, if not the Golden Age of American Futurism. Bookended by the founding of NASA in 1958 and the end of The Jetsons in 1963, these few years were filled with some of the wildest techno-utopian dreams that American futurists had to offer. It also happens to be the exact timespan for the greatest futuristic comic strip to ever grace the Sunday funnies: Closer Than We Think.
Jetpacks, meal pills, flying cars — they were all there, beautifully illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh, a commercial artist based in Detroit best known for his work in the auto industry. Radebaugh would help influence countless Baby Boomers and shape their expectations for the future. The influence of Closer Than We Think can still be felt today.
How many of these visions of the future are we still waiting on?
Cars have made tremendous strides in fuel efficiency over the past half century. But we’re still waiting for this sunray sedan — a solar-powered car that was promised from no less an authority than a vice president at Chrysler.
People of the 1950s and 60s seemed to be obsessed with protecting their homes from the weather. Even if it meant literally living in a bubble, like this suburban utopia, which was protected from the elements by a giant, glass dome.
How does one begin to eat a cob of corn as big as a school bus? That question wasn’t answered in this 1962 edition of the comic strip. But just think of the huge popcorn it would produce! (Yeah, I still have no idea how you’d eat it.)
If you’ve seen the inside of an Amazon warehouse recently, you know that the futuristic robot warehouse is kind of here. But sadly, they’re not quite as cool looking as these robo-helpers from Closer Than We Think.
As the Baby Boomers started to go to school in the 1950s America’s educators were faced with the crisis of overcrowding. One solution they envisioned for the computer-filled future? More automation, including push-button desks to keep betters tabs on kids.
These walking machines were meant to be a versatile solution for getting people out of cities during a potential crisis. This panel didn’t describe what had happened, but it doesn’t look good.
The future was supposed to be filled with cars and fly and hover. But the big question that this “flying carpet car” poses seems to be where the brakes would be. Seriously, how do you stop a hovering car like that?
The postal delivery worker of the future would get his very own jetpack! It’s just too bad that he didn’t see that whole electronic mail thing coming.
The idea for a highway to Russia isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In fact, people were imagining it long before this 1959 edition of Closer Than We Think went to print.
10) Space Mayflowers
Who needs to preserve life on Earth when we can just pack up and move to the next habitable planet? The August 16, 1959 edition of Closer Than We Think imagined that Space Mayflowers would take adventurous travellers to distant planets once we’d worn out Mother Earth.
11) Wristwatch TV
Everybody is wondering if smartwatches and other wearables are the Next Big Thing™. That remains to be seen in the wake of Google Glass, but we can’t say that we haven’t been waiting for generations.
12) Pogo Cop Cars
The police car of tomorrow would allow cops a height advantage so peculiar that one wonders if it’s an advantage at all. Were they supposed to be able to climb out of that thing to give people tickets?
The videophone would be incredibly ubiquitous in the future of Closer Than We Think. So much so that applying for a job would be just a videophone call away, as we can see in this illustration showing a man in Philadelphia taking an interview with a potential employer in Buenos Aires.
14) Driverless Cars
The driverless car of tomorrow would let people relax and play cards. Or I guess that was the idea. Can you imagine this scenario in the year 2015? It’s hard to believe that anyone would be making eye contact since their faces would be no doubt buried in their phones.
The media library of the future was going to be rich and varied. But there’s something a bit off about this prediction from 1959. Maybe it’s the film canisters lining the shelves. Or maybe it’s the 3D-TV sans glasses that Pop is watching. Or maybe it’s the fact that Mother is reading a book on the ceiling in what looks like the most uncomfortable way to read a book of all time.
16) Weather Control
People of midcentury seemed to have a particular obsession with controlling the weather in the future. Some of it had to do with war strategy. But it seems the bulk of it had to do with controlling the seemingly last thing that humankind had any control over.
A facsimile Christmas card bounced off the moon to be delivered from Boston to Honolulu? How futuristic! Except for that whole paper thing, I guess.
18) Wall-to-Wall TV
I’m still waiting on wall-to-wall TV sets. But more frustratingly, I’m still waiting on truly global TV. The internet has indeed opened up the world of media so that more people can enjoy TV shows from countries they don’t live in. But the complex web of international licensing agreements makes legally watching some shows from overseas an overly complex chore.
19) The Jetscalator
The concepts for moving people from one place to another are decadently plush in Closer Than We Think. Even getting between airport terminals would be a pleasure. But we’re still waiting on this particular version of tomorrow’s airports to arrive.
20) Robot Butlers
This robot butler may not have the personality of Rosey, but it seems to get the job done. (If that job included watching you and your family while you sleep with its “All-Seeing TV Eyes.”)
During the Cold War both the U.S. and Soviet Union were working on different drug-induced methods of subduing enemy populations. And frankly these “happy victims” and “psycho-gassed diplomats” don’t look so upset. BRING ON THE HAPPY GAS, RUSKIES!
Do you ever wonder why Americans call it a restroom? Because we like to sit in there and rest. This combination bathroom-lounge was really going to take our resting to a new level.
23) Electric Car
The fully electric car is beginning to hit the mainstream. But it was a long time coming. This futuristic electric car runner was supposed to be perfect for quick jaunts to the farmer’s market.
This desk was going to fix the Baby Boomers’ school overcrowding problem for good — by keeping those rugrats at home, where they belong!
Whenever disaster hits in Radebaugh’s world of Closer Than We Think, we never learn what destroyed the world. But given the masses of people fleeing a burned out shell of a city, this one can’t be good.
The checkout robots now so common at major supermarket chains are a huge pain. But just imagine if you could swear at them and they’d understand you!
I used to live in Minnesota, so I know how obnoxious snow can be. But I also know that taking a flame-thrower to the road probably isn’t a great idea. I guess the animals or people stuck under that snow would at least die a relatively painless (if fiery) death.
The authorities really seem to have an eye on things in this police dispatch center of the future. Serve, protect, and watch everything that moves.
The surgery of tomorrow would be painless and knife-less. At least that’s what Closer Than We Think promised. Some versions of “bloodless surgery” have indeed come to pass. But chemotherapy isn’t a walk in the park, as any cancer survivor can tell you.
30) Factory Farms
Remember when “factory farm” wasn’t a dirty phrase? Me neither. But in the world of Closer Than We Think, giant tomatoes being injected with mystery substance by a man in a white lab coat isn’t something to fear.
There’s a forest fire raging out of control! Quick, bomb it into submission!
This house of the future was supposed to turn and “follow the sun” to provide energy. But one has to imagine that the energy it would take to swivel an entire might make this design impractical? But I don’t know, I’m no house scientist.
The concept is rather ironically named, but Motopia was supposed to be a pedestrian’s paradise. Moving sidewalks, and cars segregated from the pedestrian-level traffic? It actually sounds like a pretty cool set-up.
34) Circular Runways
This vision for a circular runway never quite took off. I said, this vision for a circular runway never quite took off. Took off.
Finding alternative sources of protein was a pressing concern for the people of the 1950s and 60s. With the rise of the middle class and people gobbling down more and more meat, harvesting bizarre protein-packed plants and creating faux-meat dishes seemed like the only logical solution.
36) 24-Hour Daylight
Why would someone want 24 daylight? I have no idea. Frankly it sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror or something. But Closer Than We Think promised that one day you’d enjoy it. Because why not!
37) Space Hospitals
Apparently in the 1950s and 60s people earnestly believed that space travel would become so common that people suffering from various illnesses would simply zip up to hospitals in the sky for the best treatment.
As skyscrapers became popular at the turn of the 20th century, one of the biggest hurdles facing builders was figuring out how to put out any fires that might start. In the world of Closer Than We Think, flying fire engines saved the day.
The desk of the future certainly looked more space age than was warranted. But that really was the entire point of techno-utopian futurism, I suppose.
Not only were the cars going to be driverless, the trains of tomorrow would be as well. The porters? Well, those guys were still flesh and blood.
Urban renewal was a hot button topic of the 1950s and 60s. Many cities experimented with building pedestrian malls. Some worked out better than others.
What’s the height of futuristic postwar decadence? Maybe changing your car colour every day via “electromagnetic gun” just because you can. With the fashionable colour changing so frequently here in the world of the future, you’re practically losing money if you don’t.