“Futures of the Past” is an issue about how past generations have reckoned their collective futures. But it’s also about how the razor’s edge of the present comes up against the haziness of futurity, and what happens when that hazy future becomes inscribed, remembered, and—eventually—forgotten. We’re interested here in the work that the future does in shaping history—as a utopian dream, a set of collective anxieties, or simply as a story that we tell about where we come from and where we hope to end up.
Chapter 1: Bad Predictions
Letter from the Editors: Futures of the Past
How have past generations imagined their collective futures—and how do we?
The Invention of Wireless Cryptography
By Grant Wythoff
Wireless technology has always involved a delicate negotiation between state security, secrecy, and citizen oversight.
Divine Reverie: Revelation, Dream Interpretation, and Teeth in Antiquity
By Sarah Bond and Matthew Neujahr
For the ancients, every slumber held out the chance of a divine revelation—or a tooth dream.
The Case for Female Astronauts: Reproducing Americans in the Final Frontier
By Lisa Ruth Rand
Children’s books envisioned what many could not: marriage and childbirth as a space colonist.
Perchance to Dream: Science and the Future
By Anna Marie Roos
Robert Boyle’s remarkable to-do list for future scientists inspires five contemporary researchers to write their own.
Honey, You’re Scaring the Kids
By Rebecca Onion
How 1980s childhoods changed the way America thought about the Bomb.
First Day of Terror
By Christopher Dietrich
A winter day in Vienna when the world’s most powerful oil barons stared down the barrel of a gun.
Monstrous News: the Futures of the Mistris Parliament Plays
By Marissa Nicosia
Literary visions of bad futures, from “monstrous births” to rebellious parliaments, were a potent polemical tool in the early centuries of print.
Chapter 2: Futures Past
We’re a Zambian Band
By Chris A. Smith
The rise, fall and rise of a Zambian psychedelic band maps onto the future and present of their country.
Party Like It’s 1999: Japanese Retrofuturism and Chrono Trigger
By Michael P. Williams
Twentieth-century Japanese visions of a future that never came to pass.
Quests for Fire: Neanderthals and Science Fiction
By Lydia Pyne
How the idea of a savage human ancestry caught fire in public imaginations.
The King of the Islands of Refreshment
By Benjamin Breen
Were the Islands of Refreshment a colonial conquest, the first island micronation—or both?
Divining the Future in Babylonia
By Jed McGowan
The comic about ancient Babylonian liver divination that the world's been waiting for.
The Wild, The Innocent, and The Quaker’s Struggles
By Brooke Palmieri
Although they were notorious for appearing naked in marketplaces, the Quakers were extraordinarily disciplined about running riot.
Back to the Neotechnic Future: An Online Chat With the Ghost of Lewis Mumford
By Aaron Sachs
What would Mumford have made of cyberspace?
Space Cadets and Rat Utopias
By Laura Jane Martin
The untold story of the real-life rats of NIMH.
Chapter 3: The Politics of the Future
Present Tense, Future Perfect: Protest and Progress at the 1964 World’s Fair
By Erin Pineda
When the Civil Rights Movement collided with the World’s Fair.
Futures on Demand
By Matthew Goldmark
How a colonial past shaped Star Trek’s utopian futures.
Dancers and Diplomats: New York City Ballet in Moscow, October 1962
By Rachel Marcy
New York City Ballet’s tour of the USSR was supposed to usher in a new future of cultural exchange. Unfortunately, it coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The Lying Pen of the Scribes”: A Nineteenth-Century Dead Sea Scroll
By Michael Press
Moses Shapira claimed to have recovered a rough draft of the Bible—but what did the experts think?
I Sing the Body Atomic: Nuclear Transformation in the Marvel Universe
By John Wenz
How the atom bomb shaped the Silver Age of comics.
The Passing of the Indians Behind Glass
By Francie Diep
Why natural history museums are taking down their indigenous cultures dioramas—and what can take their place.
The Nebulous and the Infinitesimal: A Conversation between D. Graham Burnett and David Gissen
By D. Graham Burnett and David Gissen
Two historians in a tag-team debate that ranges from medieval church architecture to dolphins on LSD.
There’s a Starman / Waiting in the Sky: Yuri Gagarin sings!
By Kevin Cannon and Christopher Heaney
An illustrated tribute to Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space—and the first to sing.