Retro Futures | Exhibit Digest

May 28, 2019 | David

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Museum glass display case with books and science fiction items inside

This post reproduces much of our Retro Futures exhibit, on display in TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library from May 18 to July 28, 2019. Take a nostalgic trip back to futures-that-might-have been as seen through the starry eyes of writers and illustrators.

Each one of the exhibit's main panels is found below, word for word.

Also included: an overview video and a few exhibit items from our Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy and Toronto Star Photograph Archive



Retro Futures

Past, present, future. We are all time travellers, moving from the past to the future at a rate of sixty seconds per minute. Change is continuous. Sometimes it seems as if the world is changing faster than ever before.

Science fiction tries to predict the effects of change on future societies. Science fiction writers use storytelling to explore concepts ranging from plausible to far-fetched. Science fiction asks the question, “What if …?” The answers are creative, inspiring and sometimes alarming.

Retro Futures invites you on a nostalgic journey into futures-that-might-have-been.

This exhibit presents innovative, optimistic, and hilarious inventions from the 19th to the mid 20th century. Revisit dreams of flying cars, automated homes, robotic helpers, jetpacks and space travel. Explore changing visions of the world from the industrial revolution to the atomic age. Finally, relive the triumphant moment in 1969 when Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon made the dream of space travel a reality.

Enjoy the flight!

Visit our companion exhibit "Fly Me to the Moon" at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy. On display at Lillian H. Smith Branch, 239 College Street (3rd floor).



Space Opera Heroes

Comic strips and radio plays provided a welcome lighthearted amusement during the difficult days of the 1920s and 1930s. Soap companies sponsored romantic radio dramas, giving rise to the term “soap operas”. The popular radio space dramas were mockingly called “space operas.” Now space opera is a term for stories of intergalactic space battles, dashing heroes and despicable villains. The Star Wars movies are a return to the space opera tradition. 

Buck Rogers is one of the most famous space opera heroes of the 20th century. The fictional inventor Anthony “Buck” Rogers first appeared in pulp magazines in 1928. Armed with his ray gun and anti-gravity belt, Buck Rogers could not be defeated. Buck’s adventures continued in comics, television and movies for decades to come.

Meanwhile, cartoonist Alex Raymond created a hero to rival Buck. In 1934, Flash Gordon first appeared in the comic pages of American newspapers. In print and film Flash Gordon and his friends travelled by rocket ship to exotic alien planets. Raymond’s beautiful Flash Gordon comic artwork influenced later comic book artists such as the creators of Superman. 

Buck Rogers comic panels in Toronto Star paper with a spaceshipjpg
Buck Rogers 2th Century A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, illustrated by Lt. Dick Calkins. Part of comic strip from The Toronto Star Weekly (1935).



Those Pesky Flying Machines

The desire to fly is universal, and humans have always dreamed about it.

Centuries ago, writer Cyrano de Bergerac and artist Leonardo da Vinci grappled with the technical problem of flight. The first successful balloon flight occurred in 1783. More than a century later powered airplane flight was invented.

What would life be like if blimps and winged contraptions were as common as bicycles and delivery trucks? Imagine the noise, traffic jams and lack of privacy.

A few 19th century writers such as Jules Verne and Albert Robida explored flying machines as an everyday occurrence.

Albert Robida’s satirical cartoons show scenes of cities whose skies are clogged with flying vehicles. The thrill and convenience of flying around town has its price.

Jules Verne imagined a greater peril. What if a mad inventor who wanted to conquer the world had an indestructible flying war machine? Who would be able to stand up to such a tyrant? The answer is in Verne’s novel Master of the World.  

Puzzle with two missing pieces and multiple vintage scenes of men with flying and diving contraptions
En l'an 2000 : jeu de patience. Puzzle attributed to Albert Robida, French author and illustrator (circa 1900).



Video Visions

Telephones have been in common use since the turn of the 20th century. In the 1970s, the Bell Telephone company claimed that their long-distance service was “the next best thing to being there”. Only recently has the dream of “being there” in pictures as well as sound been realized.

Radio engineer Hugo Gernsback launched the first science fiction magazine in 1926. Gernsback loved to showcase futuristic gadgets such as video wristwatches and thought transfer headsets.

How much communication is too much? In his 19th century satire, Le Vingtième Siècle La Vie Électrique [full digitized book], Albert Robida showed that video phone conversations could have both benefits and hazards. Loss of privacy might be the price paid for convenience.

Two book covers of pulp magazines one with a helmet that has a video screen projecting out and another one with a woman video conferencing with a man
Left: Frank R. Paul illustrates Ray Avery Myser's story involving "television picturization of our sub-concious memories" (1929). Right: Ed Emshwiller illustrates "Scene from Milady's Boudoir" (1955).



At Home in a Dome

What would the cities of the future be like? Would we inhabit orbiting space stations, colonize other worlds, or build perfect neighbourhoods on our own planet?

Voyagers to the moon would face many challenges. The most urgent challenge would be the lack of breathable atmosphere.  One practical solution familiar to science fiction readers is the air-filled dome. Inside the dome, moon colonists would be free to pursue daily activities without the discomfort of spacesuits.

Domed cities would be equally handy back on Earth. We would never be at the mercy of the weather if we could live under a clear, protective bubble.

For those who are not fond of space travel, staying on our planet need not be boring. Why not enjoy the comforts of home while seeing the world from a flying space age house?

Two book covers  one with a rolling ball that contains a small city and another with a clear dome that is exploding
Left: Back cover art by James B. Settles depicting a movable hotel (1946). Right: Frank R. Paul's illustration of "One Way Tunnel" by David H. Keller, an army neuropsychiatrist known for his pessimism (1935). 



Carefree Highways

In the fantastic future imagined by early science fiction writers, there would be no need to walk. It would be so much more fun to strap on a jetpack and soar into the sky, or to step into some anti-gravity boots and hover over dangerous terrain.

If these solitary methods of travel don’t appeal, why not trade in the family car for a floating bubble? Or ride on a rocket-powered, levitating train?

Many of the futuristic vehicles we dreamed of in the past have become reality. Moving sidewalks, maglev trains, even rocket ships now exist. Sadly, we have not yet found a way to create those anti-gravity boots.

Illustrations of speeding car labeled as a Jet Propelled Mono Train
Back cover art of Amazing Stories by James B. Settles depicting a jet-propelled train (1945).



If I Only Had a Heart

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a mechanical helper who never gets tired or bored? Robots could do all the chores, giving people more time for leisure. Strong metallic bodies and brilliant computerized “brains” make robots ideal protectors and friends. But what are the risks?

The word “robot” comes from a Slavonic word meaning “worker” or “servant”. The first story about robots was a play written in 1920 by the Czech writer Karel Capek. Rossum’s Universal Robots featured robotic factory workers. In time, they rebelled against their masters.

Fear that robots might get out of control is still a major concern in science fiction. In 1942 Isaac Asimov proposed Three Laws of Robotics to prevent sentient robots from harming humans.

Today’s advances in engineering and artificial intelligence have made robotics a reality. We are still a long way from having robot pals like those seen in television shows of the past.

Questions remain. If a machine looks and acts like a human, should it have the same rights and responsibilities as a human? What does it mean to be human?

Two covers of Astounding Science fiction publications with one robot with a heart pinned to its chest and another robot holding a dead man
Left: Cover of Astounding Science Fiction by Alejandro Elizabeth (1949). Right: Cover of Astounding Science Fiction by Frank Kelly Freas, known as the "Dean of Science Fiction Artists" due to his prolific output (1953).



Fly Me to the Moon

The moon has always captured the human imagination but was out of reach. Stories about flying to the moon became less like fiction as our understanding of the physical universe increased.

In 1865, author Jules Verne used his knowledge of physics to calculate how to send a rocket to the moon. Verne’s knowledge of geography led him to choose Florida as the launch location.

World War II brought advancements in rocketry. In 1942 the German V2 missile flew high enough to leave Earth's atmosphere. Less than a decade later, NASA’s Bumper 2 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Jules Verne’s 19th century calculations were not far off.

Science writers Arthur C. Clarke and Willy Ley were strong supporters of the Space Race. They and many others felt sure that man would walk on the moon within the next decade.

Starry-eyed dreams of space exploration were becoming reality.

Open vintage book with one page that has an illustration of From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, from Classics illustrated comic (1953).



One Giant Leap for Mankind

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey gave the world an astonishingly accurate vision of the majesty of space.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to observe Earth from the surface of the moon.

Science fiction had become reality.

Publication with footprint in moon and photo of astronaut in spacesuit on the moon
Left: Touchdown on the Moon, an educational kit that "puts you inside Apollo to share every hour of flight and lunar exploration" (1969). Right: Photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, Toronto Star Photograph Archive (1969).


Edited June 5, 2019: Corrected that Michael Collins did not see the Earth from the Moon's surface.


Inspired? Visit TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library and check out our librarian-curated Retro Futures reading list.