From the story of Upton Sinclair's failed utopian community in New Jersey to that post about DARPA actually trying to build Skynet in the 1980s — these were the longform stories that you swore you'd finish one day but never got around to. Well, here's your second chance.
"Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!" says private detective Eddie Valiant in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Set in 1947, Eddie is a car-less Angeleno and the movie tells the tale of a an evil corporation buying up the city's streetcars in its greedy quest to force people out of public transit and into private automobiles. Eddie Valiant's line was a wink at audiences in 1988 who knew quite well that public transportation was now little more than a punchline.
In 1906, novelist Upton Sinclair founded a cooperative community in Englewood, New Jersey, not far outside New York. It would exist for just six months before being completely consumed by fire, but Sinclair would spend the rest of his life dreaming about his time there. They called it the Helicon Home Colony. And despite sex scandals in the press and a policy that specifically excluded non-whites, Sinclair believed his little utopian experiment was nothing less than the future of American living.
From 1983 to 1993 DARPA spent over $1 billion on a program called the Strategic Computing Initiative. The agency's goal was to push the boundaries of computers, artificial intelligence, and robotics to build something that, in hindsight, looks strikingly similar to the dystopian future of the Terminator movies. They wanted to build Skynet.
Today we largely take international air travel for granted. Every major city in the world is little more than a hop, skip, and jump away. But what was it actually like to fly halfway around the world in the 1930s, when the very concept was still novel? Pretty incredible, as it turns out—provided you could afford it.
Americans were promised one thing during World War II: life was going to be amazing in the "world of tomorrow." But when the war ended many companies, along with the U.S. government, turned back on that promise as quickly as they could.
Today companies like Microsoft and Sony aren't just trying to sell you the video game console of the future, they're trying to sell you the living room of the future, a central hub that connects you to your family and your family to the world. But our expectations for what tech should be included in the living room of tomorrow have evolved dramatically over the past century.
From newspapers delivered by radio in the 1930s to the internet-connected TVs of the 1990s, today we have a brief history of the living room of the future.
Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Americans flocked to their local movie theaters to be scared out of their wits. Sure, they loved the classic movies of the time like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. But it was the terrifying and humorous stage shows—known generically as the Midnight Ghost Show—that really packed the theaters to capacity.
The 1893 World's Fair (officially known as the World's Columbian Exposition to honor the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in North America) was the fair to end all fairs. It was the fifteenth such exposition in the world, and only the second in the United States. Built on Lake Michigan, nothing about the White City was small; the 40-acre, 230-foot tall Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building was at the time the largest enclosed space ever built. But the scope of its buildings pales in comparison to the legacy of technological progress it left behind.
The dusty landscape of the American West is dotted with enormous concrete arrows. They look like cryptic messages from a primitive civilization — a civilization that was obsessed with westward expansion. And that assessment wouldn't be altogether wrong. But these enormous arrows pointing west tell only part of the story. Because at the dawn of aviation, they were part of America's highway of light — a high-tech system of lighthouses showing pilots how to get from New York City all the way to San Francisco.