Where’d I Leave My Jetpack?

Your own personal flying machine is coming soon! We promise!

Your own personal flying machine is coming soon! We promise!

Once I began down the slippery slope that is the last hundred years of Popular Mechanics/Science covers, I quickly saw a recurrent theme. (Besides orange.) I don’t know how to phrase this politely. So I’ll just come out and say it. I see a pervasive desire to have a personal flying machine. I see large numbers of grown men wishing they were Peter Pan. They want to think happy thoughts and fly to the Moon. And issue after issue of these magazines have pandered to that peculiar…obsession. From their earliest days (see above), these magazines have been promising that soon — any day now — we will all have personal flying machines. And guys all across America are out in the garage or down in the basement, eyes glazed over, dreaming about this month’s latest incarnation of The Dream That Wouldn’t Die.

In the early days, readers would buy pretty much any chuckleheaded idea, as long as it involved flying.

In the early days, readers would buy pretty much any chuckleheaded idea, as long as it involved flying.

Ok, the train isn’t exactly flying, but look, folks: the train is in the sky, okay? We’re going to be seeing a lot of this sort of nonsense, so get used to it. Trains that fly, cars that think they’re boats, planes that dive under the sea… That’s right, boys, just unplug your thinking! Think big! Why drive to work? Why not fly your house there!!  Ha ha ha!!

There's no caption to clue us in, but are you thinking what I'm thinking?

There's no caption to clue us in, but are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Of course, we here who actually LIVE in the future find these quaint covers amusing. A flying bus (snicker snicker)! Those rubes would buy anything back then! Now, of course, we know that a real flying machine for the Everyman is truly almost here. Really. Like in a month or two. Seriously. What, didn’t you see the latest issue of Popular Mechanics?

Again with the flying trains. What is it with these guys?

Again with the flying trains. What is it with these guys?

I realize that this was not being touted as the next thing in personal flying machinery, but I just want to point out that, once again, we have a train in the sky. This time, there is a caption, and it reads “How Far Can a Locomotive Jump?” I’m beginning to rethink my post. It’s not just an obsession with personal flight. It’s more the idea that Everything Should Be Able To Fly. Some men look at the Grand Canyon and think, Wow, that’s a big hole. Some look at the Grand Canyon and think, Gee, do you think I could jump a motorcycle across that?

Flying machine? Olympic event? You decide.

Flying machine? Olympic event? You decide.

Again, this isn’t supposed to be a personal flying machine, BUT it’s likely to become one in a minute. This bozo on the tobaggan is attached to an airplane. Got that? Airplane. They go up in the air. I can’t decide if this guy is brave or just plain stupid.

In 1925, there was a crying need for a flying fishing boat. Inventors solve the problem once again.

In 1925, there was a crying need for a flying fishing boat. Inventors solve the problem once again.

Now, isn’t this every man’s dream come true? Your own personal flying fishing boat. You haul those babies in while your admiring sweetheart looks on in awe. Those guppies never stood a chance.

Remember when everybody had one of these? You don't? Me neither.

Remember when everybody had one of these? You don't? Me neither.

Jimmy, those clouds are looking pretty ominous. Jimmy, please come down. Jimmy, those struts are made of metal. I’m getting worried, Jimmy. This isn’t such a good idea. Jimmy??

Yeah, that's a good idea. Tie yourself onto a giant balloon! Brilliant!

Yeah, that's a good idea. Tie yourself onto a giant balloon! Brilliant!

Ah, those Roaring Twenties. What a carefree time that was. On a nice sunny day, you’d head out to the park with your giant helium balloon, tie on, and away you’d go! Into the stratosphere! Not a care in the world! No way to control the thing! Say, is it just me, or is it getting awfully cold up here? And hard to breathe, too.

Say, is that Woody Allen flying that thing?

Say, is that Woody Allen flying that thing?

Now here’s an eco-friendly personal flyer everyone can get behind. That’s American can-do ingenuity for you. Just hook your bicycle to a star and soar.

Bicycles are for wimps. Now this is power!

Bicycles are for wimps. Now this is power!

By the 1950′s, gasoline power was king. And every guy was puttering around in the home workshop, building his own homemade flycycle. Whee!

Hey, let's go buzz the neighbor's house. Won't that be fun?

Hey, let's go buzz the neighbor's house. Won't that be fun?

Here at last is the flying car we’ve been waiting for. Sure it causes a major dust storm on take-off, but so what? This is the future! Get hip!

Take that boring old Beetle and turn it into your own flying machine!

Take that boring old Beetle and turn it into your own flying machine!

Ever wonder if anyone ever actually built an airplane in their garage, as shown here? Somehow I doubt it.

Somehow, personal flying machines were supposed to look a little less...boring.

Somehow, personal flying machines were supposed to look a little less...boring.

Well, here we are in 1979, and the best we can come up with is a motorized hang glider? And what’s with the WWI markings? You know, guys, personal flying machines were supposed to be CARS that FLY! This is just an embarrassment. I want the future. Now.

You mean like this?

You mean like this?

Yeah! Now you’re talking. A real flying car, fer cryin’ out loud. I want to drive when I want, and fly when I want. Total freedom! When’s it gonna be here? You guys have been predicting a personal flying car for over one hundred years, and we’re getting sick of waiting. Make with the flying car already.

How about this? It's an amazing Paraplane!

How about this? It's an amazing Paraplane!

No no no! I don’t want a stinking paraplane! I want a flying car!! Don’t you get it?

Um, would you settle for a cool Sportplane?

Um, would you settle for a cool Sportplane?

No. N-O. No Sportplane. Car. Flying Car.

Okay, okay, but look at this! A Personal Skyplane!

Okay, okay, but look at this! A Personal Skymobile!

Skymobile? Don’t you mean “airplane”? As in, “not a flying car”?  Get out of my face.

Alright already! Here it is! A Skycar!

Alright already! Here it is! A Skycar!

Well, it’s about time. “Take off from my driveway,” huh? Sounds perfect. Now, where do I buy one of these puppies? Hm? Oh, they’re not for sale, yet, eh? Your credibility is getting mighty thin, PM.

C'mon, guys, don't lose hope. Look! Here's a flying car! Just like you wanted!

C'mon, guys, don't lose hope. Look! Here's a flying car! Just like you wanted!

Again with the dopey WWI iron cross crap. You guys just don’t get it.

Looks like we’ve gone through a whole century’s worth of Popular Mechanics and not come up with a real, bona fide personal flying thing. That’s okay. Next time, we’ll take a look at the Popular Science solution to the problem: personal jetpacks!! Man as flying machine. The future is so damned cool.

One last note. Do a quick search on Google for “lawnchair balloon”. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Okay, what did you find? A bunch of hits, right? Apparently, some guys just can’t wait for the future to get here. Like Lawnchair Larry here. All I can say is Folks, the future is coming. Please be patient. Put down the balloons. Thank you.

Lawnchair Larry. An urban legend lives among us.

Lawnchair Larry. An urban legend lives among us.

I Have Seen the Future, and it is Orange

steam car

A steam engine in every wheel! Now that

This first image,  from the April 1932 issue of Popular Science magazine, shows a forward-thinking designer’s idea for the world’s first SUV.  There’s a few things that spring to mind when I look at this image. First, why would anyone think that going back to steam power was a good idea in 1932? And why would having EIGHT of them be a good idea? Sounds like eight times the chances you’re going to have engine trouble. How do you start up a car with 8 steam engines, I wonder? Note the steam puffs coming from each wheel, but the noxious orange smoke pouring from the back. What’s going on back there?

Popular Science, February 1935

Popular Science, February 1935

Continuing on with that nice melon orange color scheme, we come to this proposal for swift mass transit. Like most of the vehicles we’ll be looking at here, this one is powered by a propeller. Air power was much more sexy than plain old wheels on the road, I suppose, so we’ll see lots of attempts to make land vehicles look like airplanes. This one better wish it had wings, because it sure as hell isn’t going to stay on the tracks long, not if Isaac Newton has anything to say about it. I count two wheels here. That rudder contraption in back is not going to keep this vehicle on the track, no way. I guess, in the future, trains have fewer wheels and only one track.  Not only does this make for extremely hazardous travel, it also means everyone is squished inside. Progress means speed and lean lines, even if it reduces the carrying capacity in half.

Popular Science, April 1938.

Popular Science, April 1938.

Take your time with this one, folks. What’s going on here? Seems like just another moon commuter flight, until you notice the gendarme with the control stick, and what’s that? An exit sign? Where is this, a planetarium? Okay, I get it. This is kind of a “World of Tomorrow” ride.  With actual flaming rockets (and quite a few of them, too) setting fire to the building as the hapless passengers gaze up in wonder at the schlocky astonomical paintings on the walls. Good thing the exit is right there. Check out the guy lost in thought, second from the top window seat. The future is so very profound.

Popular Science, August 1933

Popular Science, August 1933

So I guess we can all see the art director had a thing for pale orange. Four covers in a row. Here we see a boat impersonating an airplane. No windshield or seat belt, but that’s okay. Future people are tough. And their vehicles never crash, so don’t worry about it. Notice the nice cushy seat back, though.

Popular Science, August 1937.

Popular Science, August 1937.

These people seem to be just crazy about having their faces inches away from a hot, fuming gasoline engine, don’t they? And so what if they can barely see where they’re going? These are tough future people. They can take it.

Popular Science, December 1924.

Popular Science, December 1924.

This is the amazing motor-hoop of the speedway. Says so right there. Which makes you think that such devices actually exist somewhere, elsewhere, someplace you are not. Some place where future people are doing future things with cool future devices you can only read about. And what is this device? Well, it looks like progress is definitely being made. Remember the two-wheel passenger train, above? Now we’re down to one wheel, folks. What do you suppose happens when the driver turns the wheel? Hm, guess the art director didn’t think it through, did he? And why, pray tell, are they racing on a wet race track? Perhaps they’re actually racing on water. Which is totally absurd, but that’s the future for you.

Popular Science, December 1930

Popular Science, December 1930

Looks like the Depression, well under way now in 1930, has done nothing to daunt the future people. Orange still rules the future. This speedy vehicle can barely stay on the ground. Must be that aerodynamic tailfin in the back. Wonder what the “actual photograph” is a photograph of?

Popular Science, December 1931

Popular Science, December 1931

This is an airplane that thinks it’s a rocket ship. Even Robert Goddard had a thing for orange, it seems. Did you know that outer space is yellow?

Popular Science, December 1932

Popular Science, December 1932

It’s 1932. People are lined up for blocks at soup kitchens. Brother, have you got a dime? No, but I’ve got a car that thinks it’s an airplane. And it’s orange! Boy, is it orange. What’s with the screen covering half the propeller? Why not cover the whole propeller, front and back? Wouldn’t that be safer? What happens when some poor robin flies into your aero-car propeller? No doubt it gets sent at 120 mph into your windshield like a scene out of a horror movie. Probably sucks in insects from miles around, quickly coating the windshield inches thick with insect goo. Safety? We don’t need that. We’re from the future.

Popular Science, February 1937

Popular Science, February 1937

I’ll be honest. I have no idea what’s going on here. Looks like some guy driving a vehicle that has a propane tank for front end. No wait! I’ve got it. He’s a firefighter, and he’s spraying water with his wonderful orange future-vehicle. I like the water spray coming down of his headgear. That’ll keep him from catching on fire, I’m sure. (But aren’t those tires made of rubber?)

Popular Science, February 1938

Popular Science, February 1938

This is one cool racing car. And it’s orange, of course. Dig those air scoops in the front.  And check out the stream of exhaust pouring out of the back. That’s power! Wonder if it flies?

Popular Science, January 1923

Popular Science, January 1923

Don’t know that I’ve ever seen an orange airship before, but there’s one right now. A monster airship, to boot, to fly from one end of the country to the other. This was four years before Lindbergh’s first transatlantic flight, so we’re talking future stuff here. It’s also fourteen years before the Hindenberg disaster ended the reign of the giant gasbags. Do you suppose they had a smoking section?

Popular Science, January 1937

Popular Science, January 1937

This unfortunate vehicle can’t decide what it wants to be. It’s got a propeller like an airplane, but it’s shaped like a boat, and it’s trying to get up on dry land. All right, snow. The seal looks like it’s rather offended by the whole idea. But he does like the nifty orange paint job.

Popular Science, July 1932

Popular Science, July 1932

Amazing? I’d say so. Unbelievable is more like it. If such a vehicle could work, the magnets would have to be so strong they would rip the iron right out the passengers’ blood, like Magneto in the X-Men. Notice they call it an “air line.” Can you call this thing an airliner? Isn’t it really just a big hunk of metal getting thrown through the air by magnets? Oh wait, it’s orange. Never mind.

Making Progress

Stamp commemorating the arrival of a German airship, the Graf Zeppelin (no relation to Led) at the 1933 World's Fair.

Stamp commemorating the arrival of a German airship, the Graf Zeppelin (no relation to Led) at the 1933 World's Fair.

Welcome to my new blog, A Century of Progress. The name comes from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, which, like other world fairs, celebrated the triumphal march of technology and scientific progress. I see this blog as part social commentary, part satire, and partly just a way for me to have fun with these retro images from the past that I love so much. I hope you enjoy your time here, and leave a comment if the spirit moves you.

Let’s be upfront about this right from the start: the images I’m using in this blog come from one source, http://www.coverbrowser.com. I feel kind of guilty about that. I’m not hunting all over the internet for cool stuff, like a good blogger is supposed to do. Instead, I’m going to just cut and paste from http://www.coverbrowser.com, and add my personal insights, in the hope that someone out there finds the reading worthwhile. If not, so be it. Once I’m done having fun at the expense of the magazine covers I find there, I’ll move on to other sources. But for now, coverbrowser.com is my source, and for that I say thanks!