Skies full of personal flying vehicles, robotic servants, and mail carriers with jetpacks. Decades ago, artists’ imaginings formed high expectations about the world to come. Were these just fantasies–or was it the work of pioneers whose visions of the future actually helped to shape it?

“A Visual History of the Future” will explore how imagery in advertising, magazines, and other media has been used to inspire, sell, and build our ideas of the future. We’ll look at everything from the home to infrastructure to the cities we live in–at ideas that ranged from the insightful to the absurd. And we’ll be looking at the times in which these images were created: what was happening in the world that formed “the future” of that time?

When we celebrate progress, we often talk about scientists, engineers, and designers who developed theories or built tangible things. Artists are often overlooked, and their contributions–the production, visualization and distribution of ideas–are less tangible. This series will shine a light on these creators and how they reached the audiences of the day.

Two people flying using primitive wing harnesses.

Episode 1: The Beginning of the Future

In the 19th century, rapid technological change was the catalyst for artists to start visualizing the future

A very 1960s sleek modernist glass home.

Episode 2: How Ad Men Invented the Future

Post-war artists sold us a vision of a luxurious, automated suburban lifestyle

A mailman delivers post while wearing a rocket jetpack.

Episode 3: Fact, Fiction, and the Future

In the 20th century, publishers blended education and entertainment to satisfy a science-curious public.

A Jetsons-style personal spaceship car flies through a glass tube suspended in the air.

Episode 4: Animating the Future

Walt Disney had a vision for tomorrow–and the means to sell it

A figure stands in a spacesuit on a flat platform, with large Fritz Lang's Metropolis-style buildings in the background.

Episode 5: Architects of the Future

Could fantastical plans for the cities of tomorrow solve the real problems of urban life?

A group of people stand looking out over a futuristic landscape of flying vehicles and large skyscrapers.

Conclusion: The Future We Were Promised

Many 20th-century artists who visualized the future are largely unknown today–but their ideas have lasting impact.

A human body, shrunk down to the size of a finger.

Bonus: Future Fragments

Our favorite images that didn’t make it into the main series.

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019.