Lost Futures: A 19th-Century Vision of the Year 2000

What did the year 2000 look like in 1900? Originally commissioned by Armand Gervais, a French toy manufacturer in Lyon, for the 1900 World exhibition in Paris, the first fifty of these paper cards were produced by Jean-Marc Côté, designed to be enclosed in cigarette boxes and, later, sent as postcards. All in all, at least seventy-eight cards were made by Côté and other artists, although the exact number is not known, and some may still remain undiscovered. Each tries to imagine what it would be like to live in the then-distant year of 2000.

Some technologies are wonderfully prescient. Chicken eggs are incubated with machines. Tailoring is partially automated. Crowds assemble at the symphony for electronic music. The most accurate depictions are in the theaters of warfare and industrial agriculture — testament to the driving economic forces of technological development across the twentieth century: gatling guns affixed to automobiles, blimp-like battleships, fields cut with combine harvesters. As is so often the case, other predictions fall some way off the mark, failing to go far enough in thinking outside the confines of their current technological milieu (hence the ubiquity of propellers, a radium fireplace, not to mention the distinctly nineteenth-century dress). Still other predictions remain bizarre, mainly those that anticipated rapid nautical conquest: submarine divers trawling the sea’s surface for seagulls, underwater croquet, a whale bus (exactly as it sounds).

These somewhat prescient scenes did not see the light of day until their future was nearly at hand. A few sets of cards were printed by Gervais in 1899 but he died during production. For the next quarter century, the cards sat idle in his defunct toy plant — future visions shelved in a basement like forgotten relics from the past. An antiquarian bought the archive, transferring it to his own crypt for fifty more years, until the Canadian writer Christopher Hyde stumbled across them at his Parisian shop. Hyde in turn lent the cards to science-fiction author Isaac Asimov, who republished them in 1986, with accompanying commentary, in the book Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000.

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