Future Postcards From The Past

By Robert Hickson 17/10/2012

The Singularity Hub shows some 19th Century French Postcards (relax/sorry, nothing risqué) that depicted life in the year 2000. I’ve seen a couple of these previously (the blog site Paleofuture posted a few of them several years ago), but Singularity Hub shows a more extensive set, along with comments about how accurate some of them seem to have been. Robotic machines feature frequently.

The postcards were created after, and presumably inspired by, some of Jules Verne’s stories. The cards (originally 50 in total) weren’t apparently distributed – they were intended to be included as inserts in either some toys or cigarette packets, according to Isaac Asimov who rediscovered them.

One of the striking things about the postcards (and other attempts at sketching the future) is not the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the predictions, but how the environment and clothing in the pictures usually remains unchanged. So not a fancy Roomba-like vacuum cleaner, just a semi- autonomous good old fashioned scrubbing brush (wireless not yet invented). And 19th Century clothing and parquet flooring.

Jean-Marc Côté’s vision of the year 2000

That illustrates some of the traps in foresighting – extrapolating from the current situation, and focussing on the technology rather than also considering how the environment in which it will sit will also change.

The postcard of the school of the future is also a delight – not quite what Google has in mind, I hope, for digitising books. Or how National Standards will play out.


Most of the postcards appear optimistic about the future. Not unsurprising, given Jules Verne’s techno-enthusiasm. These days popular culture (or at least things that end up in the cinema) tends to have a more pessimistic future outlook. Paleofuture also shows how some US children in 1976 imagined what 2076 would be like.

If my drawing was any good, I’d think about doing some postcards showing “solutions” for the National Science Challenges. Maybe some schools, and others, may like to give that a go to help inspire creativity in framing what the biggest issues facing NZ are and potential ways of overcoming them.