Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

The jetpack would emerge in popular American science fiction of the 1920s, and later become cemented into the popular imagination after World War II. But the idea of single-flyer personal transportation tech didn't start with the jetpack. In the late 19th century, people were obsessed with flight. And they imagined a future where strapping a pair of wings to your back would be quite the trend in the skies of tomorrow.

The idea of a flying man was actually, in some ways, a response to frustration with what was happening on the terra firma. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Judge magazine poked fun at the issues of the day. And in the late 1800s, one of those issues was concern over what the newfangled automobile was doing to city streets. These "devil-wagons" were quickly becoming the playthings of the rich, scaring horses and running pedestrians off the road.

In the illustration below, from 1896, the magazine imagined what the streets (and skies) of tomorrow might look like—complete with automobiles, motorcycles, and yes, personal air transport. Needless to say, all that quick movement has really taken its toll on poor lil' Johnny there, stuck doing cartwheels as modernity zips by.

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

This winged transportation of tomorrow wasn't all fun and games. Both firefighters and police officers would utilize these technologies to help save the day—and write you a ticket.

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

These "en l'an 2000" (in the year 2000) illustrations were part of a series of postcards published at the turn of the 20th century. You can find these—along with the entire collection—in the 1986 book Futuredays by Isaac Asimov.

It's unclear how these police officers and firefighters would be able to hover like that, but remember that fixed-wing powered flight hadn't even occurred yet when these postcards were produced around the year 1899. Oh, and also they were just goofy postcards.

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

The French, perhaps unsurprisingly, had a knack for the putting a little sex into futuristic transport storylines, as you can see from the two illustrations below which were made around 1900. Again, the physics involved in something like attaching propellors to your shoes doesn't quite make sense. But the illogical aspects of these fanciful ideas can be forgiven. If only because they look so darn cool. Electric lights and all!

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

The illustration below ran in the December 29, 1900 edition of the Minneapolis Journal and showed how the children of the 20th century would get around. The caption reads: "A look to the future: The boy of the present has a glimpse of the twentieth century boy."

The 20th century boy's wings are steam-powered, while that sorry chump on the ground is still using an old-fashioned bicycle.

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

It's notable that individual sky travel was an egalitarian pursuit; kids, parents, workers, cops all got to fly. The image below ran in a turn of the century issue of Life magazine. The caption read, "You are nearly an hour late, dear." "Yes, the air ship broke down, and I had to fly home."

The illustration seems to say that sure, we may have personal winged transportation in the future, but the communal airship will almost certainly be predominant means of getting around. Which it is, for long-distance commuting. But that doesn't mean our neighborhood jaunts still couldn't be improved by strapping on some wings and floating homeward.

Before Jetpacks, We Were Promised Butterfly WingsS

Images:

Judge magazine illustration scanned from the book Predictions by John Durant

Future firefighters and policemen postcards scanned from Futuredays by Isaac Asimov

Flying machines allow your lover a quick escape from the Paleofuture blog

20th century boy illustration, scanned from microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society

Broken down airship scanned from Out of Time: Designs for the Twentieth Century Future by Norman Brosterman