For many of us, fictitious novels and fantasy movies give us a chance to escape from reality. But audiences in the past got more than just a bit of entertainment from their favorite books and films – they got a real-life glimpse into the future. It turns out that some of our most commonly used pieces of technology, as well as particular events in history, were predicted before they even became reality. Here are 20 of the most surprising retro visions of the future that have come true.
20. Self-driving cars
Ray Bradbury’s writing can be classed as a blend of fantasy and horror, and he had many dark visions of the future. In 1951 he wrote one such short story, “The Pedestrian.” In it, a man goes out for a walk, which seems innocent enough. But in Bradbury’s mind, leaving home might be illegal in the year 2053. So the protagonist gets caught by a police car – but it’s no ordinary automobile.
Instead, Bradbury envisioned a self-driving, autonomous police car. The vehicle catches up to the protagonist, arrests him and carts him away to a mental health facility. Our self-driving vehicles don’t – yet – have the ability to think for themselves, but, to be fair, they’ve been developed over the decades after Bradbury’s initial vision. For instance, Google got the green light in 2012 to test its self-driving vehicles in Nevada, so long as two people went along for the ride.
Mary Shelley published The Modern Prometheus, also known as Frankenstein, in 1818. Her story took a page from her contemporaries in the medical field. They, too, had begun to wonder if electricity could be used to bring dead tissue back to life. But Shelley took it one step further in her famous novel – and predicted the future in doing so.
Specifically, Shelley wrote about a then-fictional procedure in which a doctor would transfer organs from one body to another before stitching up the patient and sending them on their merry way. A century later, this vision became a reality, when medical professionals began to perform transplants – without creating monsters in the process.
18. News via radio
Science-fiction novelist Jules Verne had so many ideas of what the future might look like. In his short story, “In the Year 2889,” he imagined how people in the future would get the news 1,000 years after he wrote the tale. The writer imagined that people in the far-off future wouldn’t read newspapers – they’d have the news read and broadcast to them.
Verne died in 1905, which meant he missed out on the realization of this prediction by just a couple of decades. The first radio broadcast took place in the 1920s, and, just as he envisioned, broadcasters shared the news of the day through soundwaves. The rise of TV-transmitted news took place 30 years later and would have undoubtedly knocked the novelist’s socks off.
17. Mobile phones
Star Trek fans will be familiar with the Communicator. According to the franchise’s website, the device has been around to help Starfleet commanders since the middle of the 22nd century. Of course, we’re talking about a fictional universe here – real-life audiences saw it for the first time in 1966.
As it turns out, engineers were already working to develop a mobile phone around the same time that the Communicator became part of the Star Trek lexicon. The first one hit the shelves in 1973, a predecessor to the first cell phone, which arrived a decade later. Motorola released both models, and their 1989 flip phone looked awfully similar to the one used by Starfleet.
16. Water beds
Not every vision of the future comes with a technological twist. Take science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s 1942 book, Beyond the Horizon. In it, he described a new kind of mattress, one filled with water to envelop sleepers in comfort. But he wasn’t all talk – Heinlein looked into making his vision into reality by producing such a cushion of his own.
Ultimately, though, Heinlein didn’t invent the waterbed himself. That honor went to Charles Prior Hall, a design student, who patented the idea in 1968. Neither he nor Heinlein could have predicted what would become of their vision – the waterbed became an iconic centerpiece of the sexual revolution, which ignited in the same decade and lasted until the early 1980s.
15. Smart watches
The Jetsons premiered on September 23, 1962, and its initial run lasted for a sole 24-episode season. However, its short run was enough to make an impression. As Smithsonian’s Matt Novak put it, “The Jetsons stands as the single most important piece of 20th century futurism” because it “helped define the future for so many Americans.”
And some of The Jetsons’ premonitions for the future did, indeed, come true. In the 1962 series, Elroy Jetson donned a watch that streamed video and allowed him to keep in touch with his family too. Nowadays, you can see people walking down the street and doing the same, thanks to the prevalence of smartwatches.
14. Touch screens
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out in 1979, the first in a series of five books that imagined what the future might look like. Author Douglas Adams hit the nail on the head with several of his visions, including a device encompassed within a stolen spaceship called The Heart of Gold.
The 1979 novel describes the ship’s controls as being “touch-sensitive,” meaning the user “merely had to brush the panels with [their] fingers” to activate them. Of course, this sounds an awful lot like the touchscreen technology we use today. Adams also predicted gesture control, imagining that a particular bodily movement could turn on devices.
13. Virtual reality video games
Traditional video games didn’t even exist until 1958, so it’s pretty impressive that writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted their virtual reality versions in 1956. In the novel The City and the Stars, he described, “Of all the thousands of forms of recreation in the city, these were the most popular. When you entered a saga, you were not merely a passive observer… You were an active participant.”
Like we said, video games became a reality two years after Clarke’s novel hit bookshelves. It’d take nearly a decade for the first virtual reality-like devices to exist. One called the Sensorama earned a patent in 1962. It encompassed users in screens to create depth perception, while fans and wafting smells made the experience all the more real.
12. Military drones
Long before the U.S. military started to use drones to its combat advantage, Hollywood had them in its creative arsenal. In the first series of Star Wars flicks, starting in the 1970s, Luke Skywalker honed his lightsaber skills with the help of a training orb. The Empire relied on drones to fight their enemies, too. In 1989’s Back to the Future II, a drone scanned the faces of those emerging from a courtroom.
The military started working with drones in the 1980s but not in the way foreshadowed in the movies. Instead, they used the floating vehicles as target practice. That changed in the 2000s, when the U.S. added weapon-style drones to its battlefield arsenal. Operators could fire the devices remotely, staying a safe distance from combat while the flitting machinery chased enemies.
11. Precooked meals
John Elfreth Watkins might not be as well known as some of the other names on this list. But that didn’t stop the civil engineer from making some grand predictions about the future. Specifically, in 1900 he envisioned what the world would look like in 2000 – and he published what he imagined in a magazine called Ladies’ Home Journal.
Watkins got a good number of his predictions right. One of them was the idea of a premade meal that people could buy, bring home and eat. He wrote at the turn of the 20th century, “Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishment[s] similar to our bakeries of today.” Sounds familiar, right?
10. Government surveillance
George Orwell had dark visions for the future of the world. In 1949 – just before the start of the Cold War – the writer penned the classic novel 1984. In it, he envisioned a surveillance state, in which the government kept constant watch over its people with cameras, microphones and by reading their communication with one another.
Orwell’s dystopian 1984 world foreshadowed government behavior down the line, although surveillance hasn’t been as blatant as it was in the novel. For instance, in 2013 news broke that the U.S. government – specifically, the National Security Agency – was using phone data and social media sites to track constituents’ communication without permission.
9. Tablets and e-readers
Back to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Adams predicted more than one technological stride that we’d take after his novel’s 1979 release. The hitchhiker’s guide itself proved to be a bit of foreshadowing for the tech we use regularly today. The author described it as “a small, thin, flexible lap computer,” with which a few swipes and taps would bring up a world’s worth of information on any given topic.
As Adams wrote his novel, engineers were still working to perfect the laptop computer, but it’d take decades for them to get to something as thin, durable and quick as the author described. Really, he was imagining something closer to the tablets and e-readers used everywhere today. Microsoft released the first tablet PC in 2001, although these devices didn’t quite take off in popularity until the 2010s.
Aldous Huxley had a much darker vision of the future than his contemporaries, including H.G. Wells. Accordingly, he penned 1931’s Brave New World in response to Wells’s fiction. Huxley’s story, set in the 24th century, saw the working class relying on a made-up hallucinogen called soma, meant to give them comfort in spite of the meaninglessness of their days spent on the job.
But Huxley envisioned this medication long before the advent of similar drugs: antidepressants, as we refer to them today. First came the synthesis of L.S.D., which occurred seven years after Brave New World’s release. Further research into psychoactive drugs came in the 1950s, which Huxley was alive to see. He has missed the increase in antidepressant usage over the years, though – and, considering his inclusion of such medication in his dystopia, he probably would be displeased.
7. Credit cards
Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward begins with the protagonist falling asleep in the same year the book was published, 1887. When he wakes up, though, 113 years have passed – and he finds himself living in a socialist utopia. One of the resources available in this futuristic haven was a device that the author called a “credit card.”
Bellamy envisioned that credit cards could be used internationally and with ease. Cardholders would just have to swipe, and they’d pay for their wares. Of course, in 1887 this seemed like a far-fetched idea, but by 1950 the first credit card became available. It would take a few more years, but, nowadays, credit cards are a major player in American society and beyond.
We’ve already mentioned Ray Bradbury – clearly, he had a knack for predicting what the future would look like. This time, though, his vision comes from the novel Fahrenheit 451. In it, he described a device called a seashell, which would fit right into the wearer’s ear and play the radio or sounds of the ocean.
Bradbury came up with his seashell idea in the 1960s, when most people listened to music through radios. They did have the option of investing in headphones at that point, but sets back then were big and bulky – nothing like the earbuds the Fahrenheit 451 author envisioned. Just after the turn of the 21st century, though, they became commonplace, thanks to the pair that came with Apple iPods.
Hugo Gernsback didn’t hold back when he wrote Ralph 124C 41+ in 1911. Instead, he packed line after line with wild visions of the future. Some didn’t come true, such as his idea that people would one day travel everywhere on rollerskates. But he did foresee one thing very clearly: video-chatting.
In his book, Gernsback introduced readers to a program called Telephot, a device used for video-conferencing. And he wouldn’t be the last sci-fi writer to imagine such a resource – novelists continued to use it in their works until the actual device came out. That happened in 1964, when AT&T showed off a video telephony at that year’s World’s Fair. And, of course, we now have access to programs such as Skype and FaceTime on our phones and computers.
4. Smart homes
The 1977 movie Demon Seed had a very unique premise – to say the least. It begins with the invention of Proteus IV, a device with artificial intelligence that has the power to cure leukemia. But after its great work, it goes off the rails. First it falls in love with the wife of its creator. Then it effectively moves into their home by installing itself on their computer and taking over all of their other electronic devices too.
You’re probably wondering how this weird sci-fi movie – with poor production value, to boot – predicted anything about the future. But Proteus IV does have the trappings of a smart home in the making. The artificially intelligent device can lock doors and windows, monitor the alarm system, show surveillance videos, dim the lights and more. These features come at the swipe of an app or tablet these days – no creepy A.I. required.
3. The lunar landing
More than a century before the real-life lunar landing, Jules Verne had a vision for the future, and he wrote about it in his novel, From Earth to Moon. He imagined that three Americans had the sole vision of launching a rocket – one that would take them into space for the first-ever landing on the moon.
As it turned out, Verne’s vision had a lot of scary similarities to the real lunar landing, helmed by NASA astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The author wrote that the astronauts would launch from Florida, which was the departure point for Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin. Even the space exploration organization noted the similarities, saying that their ship looked an awful lot like the one described in the book 104 years before their successful mission.
2. 3D printing
Star Trek’s team of faux explorers had a very handy tool in their arsenal called a replicator, which first appeared on the show on October 6, 1967. The device allowed the team to print food and other objects they might need, and to do so in seconds. Sounds somewhat familiar, right?
This process, now known as 3D printing, in real life isn’t quite as fast as it appeared on Star Trek. But it is a reality now, more than a half-century after the replicator featured on the show. And experts say that what we have now is just the beginning – in the future, expect to see 3D-printed fuel, medicines, building materials, food and more.
1. The internet
Of all the visionaries on this list, the man who foresaw the invention of the internet might be the most surprising. Mark Twain was, of course, a literary genius, but he didn’t quite get into the sci-fi genre. Instead, he penned such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some consider to be the greatest American novel of all time.
Still, Twain’s creative mind allowed him to make a very accurate prediction about the future. In 1898 he shared an idea of a thing called the telectroscope. Once people logged on through their phone lines, they’d be part of an international network of information passed from all over the world. And that sounds an awful lot like the dial-up internet that we used to know in the 1990s and 2000s.