From 1920s through the 1950s people had a great desire for an
optimistic future. Their visionaries gave us a rich legacy of artwork,
concepts, and ideas. They forecasted life in the world of the distant
future in 2016.
These visions were based on projections from what they knew. They got close to what we have presently (except flying cars). Retro-future (aka retro-futurism) is similar to the world today; only it's the way they envisioned it would be.
This genre is related to science fiction, social science fiction, pulp fiction, golden age science fiction, steampunk, dieselpunk, and contemporary fiction.
Retro-future is a clean, positive, optimistic genre. Unfortunately, our media is saturated with dark, violent, and sensual content; our world has little hope. People today want a more hopeful future, and wish they had a flying car.
This genre is particularly suited to visual media. The visionaries left us a huge body of artwork.
These notes provide a consistent and well-researched guide to the
classic Retro-future genre. The closer you stick to it, the more the
notes can help you. They can also help with related genres,
particularly social science fiction and dieselpunk.
"We" and "our" usually refers to the present real world.
"They" and "their" usually refers to the alternate present Retro-future.
"The visionaries" refers to the people from the 1920s to 1950s who imagined the future.
"You" and "your" usually refer to the writer or artist.
Optimism is the essence of Retro-future. There are enough jobs, food, resources, and opportunities. The visionaries knew there would always be poor people, but they envisioned a future where a hard-working man could succeed.
Optimism does not mean utopia. There can be plenty of tension, conflict, and drama in this genre.
They envisioned rocket flight as more affordable and routine than it turned out to be. Any major corporation or second-world country can have space rockets. First-world countries can have a space station. Big countries can have a moon base.
Cargo is flung into orbit by super guns. Research the engineer Gerald Bull for details. Some of these guns could be magnetic coil guns, but the Bull design is much easier to implement.
Some of your characters can have jobs in space, even mundane ones like astro-welder or moon-miner.
Lessons learned: A small change in launch cost makes a noticeable difference in a space-age society. Also, if someone puts Gerald Bull's super gun together on a mountain in Ecuador, the cost of launching small satellites will go way down (and our world will change a little).
Flying cars are expensive. Most middle-class families can't afford one. But everyone wants one.
Flying car prototypes have been around since the 1920s. The visionaries thought they would be practical and affordable by now.
It's a good idea to give a flying car to some of your heroes.
Lessons learned: Motorcars change society when the middle class can have them. Everyone will want flying cars, but they will be too expensive to transform society. Can anyone say Itec, Terrafugia or Moller Skycar?
Buildings continually increased in height from the 1880s until the 1930s as materials and construction technology improved. The visionaries assumed that the 50-year trend would continue.
A mega-skyscraper goes up a couple hundred floors. Since it covers multiple city blocks, the city street grid continues through tunnels at ground level.
A few mega-skyscrapers will be in the heart of downtown in large cities. There will be regular skyscrapers all around them.
Some of your characters may live or work in such buildings. It would make sense for some of your urban characters to work in mega-skyscrapers.
Solid-state semiconductors, transistors, and integrated circuits were a nice surprise. There is no such technology in the Retro-future genre; the visionaries never saw it coming. Where we use a transistor too small to see, they would use a relay, vacuum tube, or mechanism.
Vacuum tubes are fragile power hogs. Most of them were thumb sized.
Anything using them will either plug into the wall or have big
batteries with short life. Tubes need a few minutes to warm up.
Miniature vacuum tubes are more expensive, but can be as small as 3mm
by 10mm tall (the size of a pencil eraser). Military tubes can be
smaller yet, but much more expensive.
Relays don't use as much power, but can only turn on and off. They
can't control a voltage or current like a vacuum tube can, and aren't
Mechanical devices are big, heavy, and slow compared to electronic
Their electronic devices can do most things ours can, but are much bigger and use a lot more power. They cost more, so people have less of them.
Their controls have knobs and fewer buttons. Control panels are
simple in design. No cluttered features to bog down the user. Some
equipment takes more skill to operate.
It's a good idea for some of your characters to work with this interesting technology.
We have an art form called Retrotronics, where electronic devices are built using pre-semiconductor technology. It can be a source of inspiration.
Our silicon revolution had a major effect on business, electronics, communications, computers, software, user interfaces, and embedded systems.
Lessons learned: The silicon revolution had a widespread effect on our society. Semiconductors are everywhere. Surprisingly, the difference is not profound. Semiconductors make many things smaller, less expensive, and more capable; but there are few things we do that wouldn't be possible. The Internet is one of those things.
The visionaries predicted that the traditional culture and morality they knew would continue; only it would work better (they expected problems like civil rights, crime, and depravity to improve).
Most media from the 1920s to the 1950s avoided graphic sex and
violence. Most of the heinous deeds of villains were "off camera".
These people did not envision a future with media depicting the things
ours does, and the visionaries would be repulsed by it. Thus the
Retro-future genre has clean, family friendly content. There can be
plenty of drama, just nothing disturbing.
As a consequence, the Retro-future genre is incompatible with horror,
graphic violence, sexually explicit scenes, dark anti-heroes, and so
These notes detail classic Retro-future. A liberal interpretation of the Retro-future genre includes any future envisioned in any time period. Many of these feature flying cars, moon bases, mega-skyscrapers, and no semiconductors. Most are optimistic and have old-fashioned morality.
tells stories in a science fiction future implemented partly with
industrial revolution era technology, partly with science fiction
tech, and partly with ours. Imagine coal-burning sky-battleships
with steam engines, big guns, radar, anti-gravity lifters, and big
rivets. Retro-future is optimistic and uses parts of the visionaries'
conservative culture, while steampunk is rebellious and dark.
It's a good idea to pick most of your modern and science fiction technology from Victorian science fiction (Wells, Shelly, Verne, etc), possibly implemented with 1890's technology. Your power sources are limited to clockwork and steam (possibly only reciprocating coal-fired engines). Stationary power can be hydropower. Culture is a blend of Victorian and modern. This document can help.
(sometimes called decodence)
is similar to steampunk, but uses World War II technology instead of
industrial revolution technology. War is a natural theme for it. These
notes can help dieselpunk writers quite a bit.
It's a good idea to pick most of your modern technology from this document, and science fiction technology from 1930s-50s science fiction, possibly implemented with 1950's technology. Your power sources are limited to steam, gas, and diesel engines. You choose whether or not to use jet/turbine technology. Stationary power can be hydropower or natural gas. Culture is a blend of 1940s and modern. This document is a good resource.
is similar to steampunk, but uses cold war technology instead of
industrial revolution technology. Espionage and warfare are natural
themes for it. Atompunk isn't a well-developed genre.
It's a good idea to pick most of your science fiction technology from 1950s-80s science fiction. Atompunk has transistors, and you choose whether or not to use integrated circuits. Culture is a blend of 1960s and modern. This document can help.
Rocketpunk is a dark, violent present-day science fiction genre using some Retro-future space technology. Rocketpunk is set mostly in orbit. Conflict in space is a common theme. Rocketpunk isn't a well-developed genre.
is a dark genre that takes place after devastating nuclear war or
other catastrophic event. While it is often a future envisioned in the
past, this document wouldn't be helpful for it. Post-apocalyptic works
seldom attempt to predict the future.
science fiction has old-fashoned values and no
semiconductors, but is set in the far future and often has ray guns
and space ships that can quickly travel between planets (or even
stars). This document is surprisingly useful. Both retro-future and
pulp-style science fiction draw from the same era for their culture.
Pulp science fiction used a similar technology, but added fantastic
weapons and spacecraft. The biggest difference lies in subject matter.
The visionaries wrote predictions while the pulp writers wrote
"Retro-future" and "Steampunk" are sometimes used interchangably or as generic terms for many of these genres.
The visionaries never imagined that in the 1960s a generation would
rise up and reject traditional values. Instead the visionaries
expected more of society's problems to be solved. Retro-future values
are traditional and different from ours. Imagine a 1940s culture with
the problems fixed.
Retro-future people are respectful. Wives mostly respect and obey
husbands. Children mostly respect and obey parents (disrespectful
children are not tolerated).
When people read "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1939, the most horrifying
thing was seeing how the great depression shattered and scattered
families. The visionaries didn't anticipate that this would become
normal. We move every 3-5 years and our relatives are scatted across
the country. Traditional families didn't move often or far. Family was
more important than we can imagine.
Retro-future and traditional families mostly live close to relatives.
Parents are rarely abandoned to nursing homes. Getting a baby-sitter
is never a problem with grandparents and relatives around. Their
children are raised better because the grandparents are there to teach
the parents how to parent.
Most people go to church on Sunday, pray, and read their Bible.
The visionaries foresaw the end of institutionalized racism. This
would have happened even without our generation shift in the 1960s,
but it might have taken an extra 5 years or so.
Public smoking would have been abolished at the same time for them as for us, and for the same reasons.
Divorce is rare. Single-parent kids are rare. Step-kids are rare.
Latchkey kids are rare. Therefore gangs are not prevalent. They have a
few gangs every city; we have a few in every school.
Most of our families are broken. Our kids spend the weekends with the
fathers (often different fathers), and many don't have fathers at all.
Our parents are divorced, if ever married in the first place. This
just doesn't happen in the retro-future culture. Less than 10% of
their people divorce or have children out of wedlock. They keep such
things secret because it is shameful.
Good people don't have sex outside of marriage. Of course, parents
must be ever vigilant to instill this virtue into their children
before they become teenagers (their culture helps a lot). Children out
of wedlock aren't common.
Drug use is prevalent in our society, but not in theirs. Many of the
problems that drug use helps us deal with are rare for them. Their
society has some messed-up people who curse, use drugs, and commit
crimes; but these are the outsiders.
In 1960 the fatherless rate was 3%. Most of the prisoners, suicides,
and drug addicts came from that 3% (fatherlessness causes identity
issues). Our fatherless rate is 30%; our incarceration, suicide, and
addiction rates are unsurprisingly 10 times as high. The retro-future
fatherless rate is 1-2%, with 1/20th of the problems. Our effective
divorce rate is 80% compared to their 10% (which explains our
fatherless rate). Most of our successfull people come from the 20%
with both parents married their entire life. Retro-future culture
therefor has 5 times the rate of successful people (hard working, law
abiding, prosperous, peaceful lives, good marriages, respected,
accomplishes what they set out to do, etc).
Some of their morality is enforced. For example, no motel or hotel on
the good side of town will knowingly rent a room to an unmarried
couple. Ushers in movie theaters keep an eye out for teenage couples
behaving inappropriately in the dark. Neighbors keep an eye out for
children misbehaving and call the parents.
Justice has a back-channel: the church. Half the time issues can be
taken care of with just the involved parties and their church
Things are built to last. Consumers buy for durability and
repairability. In our culture, people stopped buying things built to
last in the 1970s and started buying cheap disposable things (this
the peak of our prosperity and there was a flood of cheap imports).
The visionaries never foresaw this, so retro-future consumers care
about product longevity. We have few possessions over 10 years old,
but retro-future characters use many things that age.
Their speech is more refined and respectful than ours.
Most good people don't cuss, curse, or blaspheme. Profane words
aren't seen in print, spoken in public, or heard on the airwaves.
Your readers probably don't want to know the exact swear word your
villain just used. There are techniques to cover them up or narrate
There will be lots of skyscrapers and towers in the big city. There will be a few mega-skyscrapers downtown.
moderne, and art deco architecture shows up a lot in Retro-future art;
investigate them. But most buildings will be plain looking; they are
cheaper to build that way (unless you need a flashier look). Look at
residential architecture like mid-century modern and Eichler homes.
Look at commercial architecture like modernism and futurism.
Our skyscrapers go from 6 to 50 floors, with remarkable buildings
topping 100 floors. Some of them cover an entire city block. Towers
are tall, skinny buildings that may ascend even higher. Note:
a building 6 or more stories tall needs elevators & sprinklers;
it is called a 'skyscraper'.
A mega-skyscraper goes up a couple hundred floors. Since it covers
multiple city blocks, the city street grid continues through tunnels
at ground level. Monorails near the 3rd floor level may pass through
tunnels. There may be rooftop-landing pads for flying cars and
helicopters (valets take them down car elevators). There will be a
dirigible mooring mast on top (there is an example atop the Empire
They have more advanced elevator and plumbing technology than we do.
The visionaries lived in a world full of natural resources. They came from a history where resources were harvested. And they didn't expect an optimistic future to be any different.
Food costs less.
Wood is cheaper and more common. They use real wood where we use particleboard. They use real wood veneers where we use contact paper printed with wood grain. They use grade 'A' lumber where we use boards full of knots. They build sturdy where we build flimsy. Almost any type of wood is available, but some exotics are expensive.
Leather is less expensive and used much more.
Their oceans are full of fish. Most varieties are readily available. Would you like an orange-roughy sandwich?
The visionaries lived in a world where there were immediate observable (and correctable) consequences for poisoning the land and polluting the water. The visionaries' environmental champions were natural history groups, ecologists, and hunting clubs.
The visionaries didn't anticipate the gradual buildup of toxins, cascading extinctions, climate change, desertification, aquifer collapse, rain forest destruction, ozone thinning, and genetically modified foods we have to face. Their optimistic future doesn't have these problems.
The Retro-future genre is incompatible with stories about famines or ecological catastrophes.
Odious personal traits are one of the ways your audience identifies villains. This concept goes well with the genre, but isn't necessary for it. The visionaries wrote fiction this way more than we do. Be consistent if you choose to write this way.
Since the genre is a bit more black and white than contemporary fiction, your heroes can be a bit more heroic and your villains can be a bit more villainous. However, don't fall into stereotypes. Be fresh and real without compromising the genre.
The law of causality goes with the Retro-future genre like peanut butter goes with jelly. In short, every evil or sinful act will always result in undesirable consequences for the perpetrator before the end of the story. So what goes around comes around.
The visionaries lived in a world where people went to church on
Sunday. It is at church they learned about God, made quality
relationships, met trustworthy business connections, and so forth. The
Retro-future genre in the Western hemisphere is the same. The Eastern
hemisphere is not predominantly churchgoing, however. Most Western
people in a retro-future world have considerable Bible knowlege and
quote it in their every day speech.
Most good people go to church on Sunday (some on Saturday instead).
So most businesses are closed that day. Sunday employees are Saturday
churchers, those who need the job, and those not committed to
churchgoing. Here is a list of things you can find open on Sunday:
The practical look: The visionaries wore timeless fashions up until the rebellious 1960s. Their image of the future depicted people wearing timeless fashions. Those fashions still look good today. Look for fashion inspiration in photographs from 1921 through 1959.
The flashy look: A lot of the visionaries' art showed people wearing silver jumpsuits with shoulder fins and no pockets. We have these things, but they are costumes. They would be careful not to make them sexy or revealing.
Most parents in a Retro-future world would not tolerate the fashions of our rebellious youth from the 1960s on.
No tight fitting or revealing clothes, like the ones our women wear. Our clothes are a product of our moral changes, and won't fit in.
The visionaries made some scantily clad science fiction art. It was meant to sell books, not predict fashion.
1990s America was all about credit. But the visionaries came through the Great Depression, where those in debt stood in soup lines for 10 years.
They rarely take loans. They wait, save up, and buy in cash. Unsecured loans are only for those who can't wait.
Retro-future credit cards are convenience cards for the rich and
upper middle class. Fools also flash them to give the appearance of
wealth, but they pay the price in fees and interest.
There is a family safety net. It is shameful to allow a relative to be a homeless woman or struggling single mother. Of course, there isn't much anyone can do for a rebellious woman.
They don't fight with their husbands all the time. In our society every family decision is a power struggle: Who gets the remote, who cooks dinner, who washes dishes? Fights (and divorces) aren't common in families with an established power structure. There is peace, except for men who abuse their families.
Their marriages are more stable because
divorce is shameful. And if a marriage does fail, their women never
have to pay alimony. Because living in sin & sleeping around is
sinful, their women don't face single motherhood from that, either.
The retro-future genre has few career choices for women. Most married women only work when the kids are in school. Bosses expect this and provide for it. Their society is set up for women who work in the home, with a part time job if appropriate.
While this can be a lovely source of
tension, the genre isn't good for stories about the oppression of
women. Their women like their protections and (mostly) accept their
The tradition of women taking care of the
kids instead of working outside the home was rooted in history.
Wherever the unwatched children of the industrial revolution
congregated there were gangs, drugs, and crime. And before modern
appliances, keeping a house was a full-time job.
Typical careers available to women:
You can use companies that have gone out of business since 1960. For example, Nash or Convair could make your hero's flying car. Be sure the trademarks are not in use and remember someone still owns the rights to the business name.
There can be significant differences between our countries and theirs. Here is a big list of options.
The visionaries had two incompatible visions of the future. One was
Autopia (which we built), and the other we now call retro-future. Pick
one. Autopia doesn't need much description, but the retro-future
vision is different from what we have.
The visionaries imagined a fantastical future with multi-lane
interstate freeways of shimmering asphalt stretching from coast to
coast where a man can drive his car 70mph as far as he wants. And we
built it! This vision yields our transportation system, minus the
traffic jams and potholes. If you write in Autopia, you can't have
much of the retro-future vision below.
The visions of the future focused a lot on transportation. Travel is
cheaper for them. Also, they aren't usually in as much of a hurry as
we are. If you write in the retro-future vision, you can have
everything below, but you can't have limited access expressways
We travel almost exclusively in cars and airliners. Our cargo travels on container ships, railroads, trucks, and airfreight.
They use a much wider range of transportation.
We use limited access expressways like interstates & autobahns. Our highways can be 4 to 8 lanes wide and cut through the landscape at 60mph / 100kph or more. The only way on or off is through interchanges.
They have functioning mass transit and more ways to get around, so they don't need limited access expressways. They use highways: 2 and 4 lane paved roads with curves, side streets, and occasionally intersections. These highways go at 45mph / 70kph, except when they slow down for curves or to go through town.
Their highways have a feature our interstates don't: commerce. The roadsides usually have a shack selling some product of local agriculture or handicraft. They have gas stations, fast food, and motels at intersections and where the highway goes through town. Traveling cross-country on their highways is a slower but richer experience than driving our interstates or autobahns.
Their highways are not full of trucks like ours. There is less
traffic because people take mass transit.
Most of their families that aren't poor have a car, but only one.
City people rarely need a
car, but often have one for convenience. A rural family needs one,
usually some form of truck.
Without embedded computers, cars must be warmed up for a few minutes in cold weather. The engine will die if it is put it in gear too soon. This applies to most other types of vehicles as well.
Flying cars go as fast as an airplane and the good ones take off and
land vertically. They fit into a garage because they don't have wings
(or the wings retract). They are great for trips of up to 3 hours at
150mph / 250kph. A special license is required.
The advantage to a flying car is freedom and convenience. The owners
don't have to drive to the airport, park the car, get on a flight,
land, and rent a car. They just go.
are 3 major types: VTOL, STOL, and RTOL.
VTOL (Vertical TakeOff & Landing, like Moller Skycar) can take off straight up, but most can't drive on roads.
STOL (Short TakeOff & Landing, like Itec) can do short-field takeoffs on dirt strips and drive on roads.
RTOL (Runway TakeOff & Landing, like Terrafugia) needs paved runways for takeoff and paved roads for driving.
Flying cars are ten times the price of ground cars, which makes them more expensive than light planes or commute-copters. Most rich families have a flying car, and most middle class families want one. Some families that aren't quite rich have a flying car anyway (they are willing to sacrifice to make the payments).
A rural family that isn't rich may have a light plane, if they have
the money. Biplanes, autogyros, and ultralights are good for short
field takeoffs on dirt roads. A middle-income family can afford an
A dozen middle-income people can jointly own a flying car, commuter
copter, autogyro, or light plane. It can be called a flying club or
These vehicles are affordable to rent if only needed occasionally.
Maintaining an operator's license and certification costs both time and money.
A motorcycle is basically two wheels, an engine, and a seat. A
sky-cycle (flying motorcycle) is an engine, thrusters, and a seat. It
can take off straight up and go 150mph / 250kph. It is less stable
than a flying car when hovering and doesn't have a redundant engine,
so it is less than 100% safe. It is ten times as expensive than a
motorcycle, so not many people have one. The people who own sky-cycles
tend to be interesting characters. A special license is required. See
the flying car technologies.
Hovercraft are best over water, sand, mud flats, seashores, and riverbanks. They make great desert cruisers, swamp boats, ferries, river patrols, coast guard vessels, small navy vessels, and so forth. They are fast and can go right up onto shore. Sand traps, shallow water, reefs, rocks, and mud flats are no problem. The best size for a hovercraft is 30-100ft (10-30m), but they can be much larger or smaller.
Some of the visionaries painted scenes with hovercraft on the highway. That just won't work because hovercraft handle like a car on ice.
They use the same planes we do.
They don't use large airliners as much as we do because they have
more alternatives. Any frequent flier knows that it's just a bus with
SSTs (Super Sonic Transports) like the Concorde can get there
quickly. They prefer QUESST technology: Quiet Super-Sonic Transport.
Careful fuselage shaping results in a minimal sonic boom that doesn't
bother people. It's an expensive trip because supersonic flight is not
fuel-efficient and the skinny fuselage doesn't hold many passengers.
If you gotta get there quick and can pay for it, this is how you do
it. The cost is three times a 1st class airline ticket, and
all seats are 1st class. SSTs are only used on long,
The visionaries expected us to use seaplanes a lot more than we do.
Any body of water becomes an airfield (unless the water is too rough).
Large aircraft have a pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer. Without
small computers, navigation is manual and fuel must be pumped from
tank to tank via the engineering console. The flight engineer also
monitors the engines. The co-pilot handles navigation. The pilots of
our large aircraft spend most of the flight not touching anything. The
flight crew of their large aircraft have plenty of things to check and
adjust for the entire flight.
An ultralight is a small one-man airplane with an open cockpit and a
small engine. It only goes 40mph / 65kph. Most of them fold up. They
can only be used in good weather. They aren't expensive, but owners
need a place to put it and take off. A rural family could use a really
long driveway as a runway.
An autogyro is a less expensive flying car alternative. It is an airplane with an unpowered (free-spinning) helicopter rotor instead of wings (or possibly in addition to short wings). They need one-third the space to take off and land than an airplane does, but only go one third of the speed. They tend to be small, rarely seating more than four. One-seaters are the most common and most affordable.
Our autogyros have been a little-used novelty since the advent of
helicopters, but the visionaries foresaw their continued and expanded
use, particularly in urban areas and for agriculture.
Autogyros can have folding blades, so they fit into a garage.
They use the same helicopters we do.
A commute copter is a small one or two person helicopter. The blades fold so it can fit into in a garage. It is slightly less expensive than a flying car.
A rotorcycle weighs as much as a motorcycle and is about the same size. It has no canopy and about an hour of fuel (enough to go 50mi / 75km). The pilot needs a helmet because of the noise and rotor-wash.
Helicopters cost more to maintain than aircraft or autogyros. Owners have to take them apart, check everything, and put them back together regularly because they can't glide safely to earth. Flying cars and sky-cycles share this problem.
A blimp is a sausage-shaped balloon with a powered gondola
underneath. A dirigible has a rigid aluminum frame. "Airship" is a
generic term for either.
A Dirigible goes faster than a blimp because it is more aerodynamic, the motors are on the frame (closer to centerline), and the gondola is inside. A blimp lifts more weight because it is lighter. Dirigibles need to be big (at least 360ft/120m) to be cost effective. Rule of thumb: Dirigibles are for passengers and blimps are for cargo & observation.
Airships replace some of their large aircraft. Airships don't go as fast, but travel more comfortably and smoothly. The experience is more like a train than a bus. There are sleeping berths and a dining area.
The taller buildings in the city are topped with an airship mooring mast.
Airships prefer to use mooring masts to embark and disembark. These
mooring masts can be on a building, on a ship, or in an open field.
Airships are usually kept in hangars.
Our cruise ships have great food. Their dirigibles have something
similar because there is no turbulence in a dirigible. They would take
a jet to get there in a hurry or a dirigible to enjoy the trip.
A "semi-rigid" is a blimp with a minimal aluminum frame allowing the
engines to be mounted on the envelope. It doesn't go quite as fast as
a dirigible, but doesn't need to be as big.
"Zeppelin" is sometimes used as a synonym for "dirigible", even though not all rigid airships are made by the Zeppelin corporation. The term "dirigible" is sometimes used as a generic term for any airship.
This is a network of diesel & electric busses, electric light rail, diesel & electric commuter trains, and electric monorails. The visionaries expected every large city and some medium sized ones to have excellent mass transit systems. Even a small city or rural county would have enough busses for the poor to use.
Streetcars are usually electric. Some
subway lines use light rail technology and others use monorail. Some
light rail lines are elevated.
Full-sized trains are the main way cargo
is transported overland. Commuter trains on heavy rail are sometimes
electric. The ride on their passenger trains is smoother than on ours
(click-clack instead of CLANK-CLANK). Steam engine are more expensive
to operate, but are sometimes used anyway because their reliability
can't be beat.
They can speed up lightweight passenger/mail trains on regular tracks by bolting on propellers or jet engines.
These trains are twice as wide, twice as tall, and carry much more weight than regular trains. Giant rail doesn't go everywhere, though. It forms an overland backbone along heavily trafficked routes.
These electric trains only carry passengers and mail, but do so at a couple hundred miles per hour (300kph). A network of high-speed rail lines connects major cities.
tunnel and tube lines have the air pumped out so the maglevs can go
3000mph (4800kph). Vactrains
are expensive and not common. Vactrains will be affordable on the moon
when more people live there.
These electric trains are similar to light
rail. Instead of two small metal rails at ground level they use an
elevated concrete track. Overhead monorails are suspended from a metal
rail. Monorails tend to be longer, go faster, and make fewer stops
than light rail. Some subways are underground monorails.
Overhead suspended cable cars can go over
busy streets, canyons, uneven terrain, rivers, and other difficult
terrain. They are a cheap way to add more mass transit to a congested
city when putting light rail on the streets is a problem. They can
connect skyscrapers far above the ground.
We only use ocean liners as pleasure cruise ships and floating
casinos. They use them to get around. They aren't as concerned about
getting there quickly, and care more about enjoying the voyage. Their
ocean liners and riverboats aren't devoted to hedonistic pleasures
like ours today. But their passenger liners have great food to lure
passengers who might fly instead.
Some of their ocean liners and river liners have hydrofoils, allowing
them to go two or three times as fast. Hydrofoils can't be used when
the waves get really big.
They rely heavily on container ships to get cargo across the ocean the same as us. But they also use a lot of riverboats to move containers, while we load them onto less efficient trucks.
The visionaries didn't foresee that horses would fall into complete
disuse. Their horses are still used in rural areas with good pasture.
Horses don't take a lot of cash, don't need roads, can pull a wagon,
and are versatile. It takes time to take care of a horse, though. Some
people really enjoy it.
Short distance cargo tubes can be pneumatic or electromagnetic. The
shuttle mail and small packages around a city for faster delivery. Not
all cities have this system.
planes fly up to the edge of space, and then launch a small
rocket or space shuttle at high speeds. They make five-ton launches
much less expensive. 2-3 people can get into orbit using a space
A skybucket looks like a trash can on top of an engine. It is stable and steers by leaning. They are expensive and can hover around for about half an hour, but don't go very fast. A flying platform (flyplat) is similar; but it looks like the pilot is standing on a giant fan.
The retro future genre has travel agents. We book our own tickets,
lodging, and car rentals over the Internet. They call their travel
agent, who does all this for them. They can also procure most
travel-related services, including entertainment, reservations,
guides, and so forth. A good travel agent can get lower prices, better
services, and leverage when things go wrong. They are also very
convenient. Travel agent services are usually extensive and free to
the customer. The travel agent gets paid small kickbacks and prices
are slightly higher for everyone to compensate. Most travel agents are
women, and many of those do most of their work while the kids are in
The visionaries imagined cities would go up more than ours, covering
less area and having more skyscrapers. The later visionaries predicted
gleaming suburbs, but didn't imagine them stretching to the horizon
The visionaries also didn't imagine sedentary Americans getting in
their cars to reach things less than a block away, or our empty
sidewalks. They live a world where city people walk, bicycle, or take
mass transit. Everything is close by and people don't mind exercise.
Cities are full of bustle, mothers going about their business in the
morning, children dominating the afternoon, and families in the
The visionaries expected to have fusion reactors by now. Fusion reactors produce huge amounts of clean cheap power. But the reactors are really big, expensive, and hard to build.
Moon bases mine helium-3, which fusion reactors need for starting after a shutdown. Research helium-3 for more details.
They don't have semiconductors; Everything is done with vacuum tubes and relays. Their electronics are much larger, more expensive, and need much more power than ours. So they have less of them.
Instead of a display and a bunch of buttons, their electronics just have a knob or two.
Music is stored on vinyl records, cassette tapes, and 8-track tapes. Record companies and music stores are big business.
Jukeboxes are found in bars and in places where teenagers congregate.
Movies are stored on 8mm,
16mm, or 32mm film. Small handheld movie cameras use 8mm and cinemas
Home movies are played on VCR
tapes. Their VCRs are much larger than ours. Their cable TV and
satellite boxes are much larger than ours also. All of these things
are expensive and about the size of one of our printers, or about the
size of our first-generation technology.
Digital data is stored on magnetic reel-to-reel tape and (big) hard drives. Tapes store a lot of data (1 to 10GB per tape), but are really slow. Hard drives are really fast but don't store much (10MB to 1GB). The drives are about the size of one of our printers.
CDs and DVDs are large and
expensive. They are used for computer storage, music studio masters,
and some professional filmmaking. storage capacity is 500MB per CD and
4GB per DVD.
There is no LED, LCD, flat screen, or touch screen technology. TVs
and computer monitors use cathode ray tubes. A Vacuum Florescent
Display (VCD) looks a lot like an LED display, but takes a lot more
power and the circuitry to operate it is bigger. There are also nixie
There are no digital watches. The best watches have jewel bearings and come from Switzerland.
There are no flash memory or EEPROM devices.
Loran receivers are the size
of a shoebox, need external power, and only display coordinates. They
do the job of GPS with ground-based towers. Our GPS systems need
microcontrollers to work.
Some expensive cars and boats have a satellite navigation system. A little light shows the location on a small map. Changing maps requires recalibration.
Electronic computers are expensive, fill a room, and are slow by our standards. They have a keyboard, mouse, and CRT monitor. They are 1000x larger than ours, 100x more expensive, and are much less capable. They generate lots of heat, so there is a big air conditioner somewhere. Note that 1000x larger means 10x taller, 10x wider, and 10x thicker.
Their software is over 25
years behind ours because there are fewer computers and less demand.
If you want to understand what their computers can do, imagine a 1990
A multi-user computer has a dozen or more terminals.
They do this because VDTs (terminals) are much cheaper than computers.
Too many users slows the computer down. Their computers usually run
slow because of all the users. Most VDT's don't have a mouse because
of the time lag if too many users slows the computer down.
Their printer, storage, and other peripheral
technology is 25 years behind ours because there is less
demand. Some of their electric typewriters have printer ports so a
computer can use it as a printer.
Any company large enough to have an entire building will have a computer room in it. It has
programs for billing, finance, inventory, engineering, and so forth. A
company with multiple buildings or multiple floors will have more
The phone company has a lot
of computers to run automated switchboards.
Mechanical computers are
devices that do one thing. Examples include adding machines, cash
registers, load balance computers for aircraft, etc. They can be as
simple as a slide-rule or a cardboard circular rule that converts
patient weight to dosage.
There are no pocket calculators. That's what slide-rules do.
Our "embedded systems" are devices that have a solid-state microcontroller hidden inside. Our embedded systems are everywhere and allow us complex controls and displays. They don't have any embedded systems at all.
There are no computer viruses or malware.
Their landline telephone system is similar to ours, but the electronics are larger and more expensive. Phone calls are more expensive without solid-state technology. So people send more letters.
Their telephones are
touch-tone just like ours and look much like our landline phones. But
they don't have anything like our fancy feature-laden high-end
telephones. Their telephones are heavy.
Their videophones are the size of a shoebox. The screen is about 3x4" (75x100mm). Conference videophones are the size of a TV, with a screen to match, but they need a special phone line (it's an expensive call). Because videophones are more expensive and the screen is small, not everyone has these. If someone has one, many of their friends probably do, too. Videophones have been around a long time, and the visionaries expected them to catch on more than they did.
Teletypes are electric
typewriters that can send and receive over phone lines or radio (but
They have cassette-tape based answering
machines that are much larger than our digital answering
machines, about the size of a hardbound book. Their answering machines
are capable, but don't have the features of our modern computer-based
ones. Their features are tape-recorder based: record, play,
fast-forward, and rewind. That's all an answering machine really
needs. The big expensive ones can be operated remotely over the
telephone: Press a login telephone button combination while it is
playing it's message. Then it's 1 to play messages, hold down 2 to
rewind, hold down 3 to fast forward, and so forth.
Their voicemail and voice
messaging systems are much simpler and less flexible than ours. More
expensive and less common as well. The system is the size of a
are called mobile phones, and
they are the size of a quart of milk. Only turn them on to call out,
because the batteries only last half an hour. They aren't common, and
calls are expensive. If built into a car it is called a car
phone and can receive calls whenever the engine is running.
They are also uncommon. A briefcase
phone has a small Teletype; It's expensive and very cool.
Mobile phones have a channel knob like our old TVs; They click through
channels searching for a dial tone. Channel 1 is for emergencies.
Their mobile phone systems are less capable than our cell phones, but
that is OK because there is much less traffic. The service is
They have wallet-sized pagers
that beep or vibrate when they should call their message service. They
need frequent charging. Men clip them to their belts and women put
them in their purses. The service is expensive.
Two people calling each other on mobile phones works like this: Dick
calls Jane's message service, punches in her message number on his
phone keypad, and leaves a message. A few minutes later, Jane's pager
beeps. She turns her phone on and calls her message service, punches
in her retrieval number, and listens to the message. If Dick asked
Jane to call him back, he will leave his mobile phone on for 5 minutes
Premium mobile telephone service plans have automatic forwarding that
works like this: Dick calls Jane's mobile phone number. If Jane's
mobile phone is on and connected, the computer puts Dick's call
through. If not, Dick's call is forwarded to Jane's message number.
This will either be a pager number or a landline (which probably has
an answering machine).
FAX machines are more
expensive and much larger than ours. They are common, though.
There is no Internet. Newspapers & magazines are big business.
Newspapers and magazines are really thick. Their libraries are larger
and busier than ours, and have more useful books. They have more
mail-order catalogs than you can imagine. Encyclopedias are a great
source of information; Even a family of modest means has a small or
outdated set on their bookshelf.
Computers have email, but there aren't a lot of computers and people don't send email for trivial purposes. There is no spam or email crime.
Speech recognition and synthesis are novelties requiring a full-sized computer. Small tape players and disc players can do much of what we use speech synthesis for.
There isn't much digital communication.
Bonus lesson: You know how a transistor AM radio sounds tinny and
staticy? Angela's father-in-law has a big tube radio built in 1939,
and it doesn't sound like that at
all. It sounds like the radio announcer is in the room with
you. Also, musicians will tell you that tube amps sound much better.
Keep in mind that retro-future audio equipment sounds much better than
Their military is similar to ours. Ours is more capable because of
our semiconductor technology, but theirs has some unique equipment.
Flying jeeps replace some
helicopters and light vehicles.
They have giant tanks called "dreadnought
tanks". These tanks are difficult to transport, but are
impervious to small antitank weapons. Dreadnought tanks are too heavy
for bridges and cross rivers by driving across the bottom with a
There is no war allowed in space (or the moon) as per the Canaveral Convention. There is nowhere to hide in space; a rocket can fly up, launch missiles, and get anything. One war in space would fill all the useful orbits with debris, ruining it for everyone forever.
Walkie-talkies look like
cordless phone handsets, and the batteries don't last long. They have
a one-mile range.
Two-way radios are in a small
backpack. Some have a telephone handset. The battery doesn't last
long, but can be recharged by vigorously turning the hand-crank.
Batteries can be swapped quickly.
There are no phased array (flat) radars.
Their dish radars are the same as ours.
They have a strategic weapon we don't have: the super
gun. This is a smaller version of the gun that launches stuff
into orbit. It is a big pipe laid against the side of a mountain,
aimed in the general direction of the target. It flings 10 ton bombs
1000 miles (1600 km). It hits wherever the recon plane shines the
targeting laser. If a plane can't get through, the super gun shoots a
lot to blow up everything in the target area. Magnetic guns are much
more expensive, need a lot of electricity, have a huge bank of
capacitors, but can reload in 5 minutes. Powder guns are much cheaper
and more portable, but need 2 hours to reload (they need to change the
barrel liner). Most super guns are powder guns.
Our robots and UAVs are semi-autonomous because of all the computer
chips in them. Theirs are 100% remote control; they have far fewer.
Their miniature video cameras weigh 5 pounds; they have no small
inexpensive robots or UAVs.
They use encrypted Teletype
technology we don't need. It is a Teletype with encoding rotors and a
cassette tape recorder. Encoding can be turned on and off. It can send
& receive over phone, radio, or via cassette tape. It looks like a
typewriter with a cassette tape recorder built in.
Their military uses airships.
Their large military airships have a small helicopter landing pad for
the same reason our navy ships do. They have carrier airships: Rigid
dirigibles with a landing deck on top for helicopters and flying
jeeps. This allows helicopters to operate independently from bases.
Their Tazers are a little
bigger than ours, but they have Tazers, too. Note that the
word Tazer is a trademark and should be capitalized.
Electric typewriters are
larger and more expensive than manual ones, but type faster and
easier. They can also make more carbons. Carbon copies aren't used
much because of photocopiers.
Mechanical adding machines and electric calculators are the size of shoeboxes. Electric ones are faster, but more expensive.
Photocopiers do not need solid-state technology. They have as many as we do. Their photocopiers look like ours, but don't have many features. There are two or three paper sizes, a darkness knob, etc. Their collator attachments are just as expensive as ours.
FAX machines and Teletypes
are big, expensive, and everywhere.
Contact information is kept in a rolodex.
Secretaries type reports, letters, and other business correspondence. They take dictation in shorthand or use cassette-tape dictaphones. Many secretaries are only available when the kids are in school.
They manufacture on manual production
lines. Our robotic manufacturing equipment wouldn't be
cost-effective without solid-state computer chips. So they have a lot
more factory jobs than we do.
Electric cash registers are
faster than mechanical ones, but cost more and need power to work.
Credit cards work by making
imprints on carbon paper slips, which the merchant takes to the bank.
Most people don't use credit cards. Credit cards have raised numbers.
The imprint machine is just a handheld sheet of metal with an imprint
roller on a track. Put the card in the imprint machine, put the
3-layer paper slip on top, and slide the handle over to make an
imprint. The customer has to sign the slip, and gets one of the carbon
copies. The card's owner pays a monthly fee, and a high interest rate
on any balance not paid by the end of the month.
There are no ATMs or debit cards.
have drive-up windows & walk-up windows. Big banks in big cities
have 24-hour drive-ups & walk-ups, where the after-hours teller
does simple transactions through a security window. No customers are
allowed in the building after hours.
The best places to advertise
are newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV. Companies who advertise to the
young do so via social media FAX servers.
Being in the telephone book means existence. Every city has one phone company and one phone book. If you aren't in the book you won't get called. The telephone book is color coded. Red is for emergency numbers and help lines (its a few pages in the front). Blue is for government (it comes after red). Yellow pages are for businesses (it takes up more than half the phone book). Gray pages are a small, limited reverse directory. White pages are for private residences (its the last section).
Companies are listed in the Thomas Register. It is a big multi-volume nation-wide listing of distributors, manufacturers, and service companies. It is sorted by categories so you can find the supplier you need. You find it in libraries and some companies, where it takes up a whole shelf.
There are a lot of trade magazines.
They are mostly ads with a few columns & articles. Their purpose
is to let you find businesses in that trade. They are usually free to
people in the industry.
They have no complex automated self-serve machines, like our
self-serve gas pumps or self-checkout grocers. An attendant pumps the
gas and collects money. A grocer rings up groceries by hand. They have
devices like coin-operated parking meters, vending machines, and
laundries, but these are limited to small denominations. Dispensing
high-value product from coin-op machines would invite criminals to
Televisions use cathode ray tubes. There are no flat screens. They don't have digital television or wall-sized picture tubes. Cable and satellite boxes are more expensive and much larger. They only have cable in upscale neighborhoods, and it has far fewer channels than ours.
We have wide-screen HD digital TV, they have traditional format
analog TV with less resolution.
Televisions use vacuum tubes, which need to warm up for a few minutes
to work right. Some radios and TVs have "instant on", which means they
never turn completely off unless unplugged. They affect the power bill
and go through tubes much faster.
The better TVs have remotes, which work by radio or ultrasound. Most
people prefer ultrasound. The four buttons are volume up & down,
and channel up & down. There is also an on/off button if the TV
has "instant on" (most TVs with remotes do).
Microwave ovens don't need
solid-state technology. They have as many as we do, but without the
fancy features. A power knob and a timer knob are all anyone really
Washers, driers, dishwashers, toaster ovens, and other appliances
are controlled mostly by a mechanical timer knob that goes
Portable radios are the size of a wallet and the batteries don't last
long. Portable cassette players are only a little bigger. Young people
always seem to have headphones on, and the parents make them take the
headphones off in public because it's rude.
They have better sattelite coverage than we do, but most of our
forecasting advances come from computer modeling. So their weather
forecasting is only half as accurate as ours. A one-day forecast is
more likely right than wrong. A three-day forecast isn't very
accurate, but gives you some idea about what might go on. A ten-day
forecast just tells you about the weather that might be coming your
way in a week or two.
An undersea city doesn't have to deal with waves or weather, as long as it has power. Power comes from reactors, wave buoys, generators, and electric cables.
These are small cities that do oil drilling, undersea mining, geothermal power, and other types of resource extraction. Building one at 150 ft (50m) or less is affordable. Operating an undersea city below 350 ft (100m) is expensive. It is cheaper for us to build a platform on stilts and it is cheaper for them to build on the bottom (retro-future construction technology is a little more advanced than ours).
Shallow undersea cities have an elevator mast to the surface, which
may be retractable. Near shore cities use a tunnel. Some undersea
cities rely on ferry subs to ship or shore. How shallow can it be?
However big the waves get, that's the minimum distance between the
building tops and the surface.
Oxygen is extracted from seawater via membranes and a little
electricity. This apparatus is too large for use on submarines.
They have better anti-foul coatings than we do. The visionaries' art
shows gleaming metal surfaces that aren't encrusted by sea life, and
lots of windows that don't have to be washed by divers every day.
Our first underwater habitat was constructed with great optimism in
1962. Research and development of undersea habitats was expected to
increase continually, and costs were expected to drop.
The moon is ripe for mining. There are valuable metals to be prospected and mined, helium-3 is in moon dust, and ice is in craters at the poles.
Lava tubes make great places to build habitats. Farms in inflatable domes help support everything.
Water and rocket fuel are expensive to take to the moon, so ice is
mined from the lunar poles, where it is abundant. Lunar factories make
air, water, and rocket fuel out of ice and solar power. Electric
catapults (coilguns) fling fuel canisters and ice blocks from the moon
to earth orbit for refueling outbound rockets.
Sulfur is abundant on the moon, and can be used to make a cheap
low-power rocket fuel without water or oxygen. Sulfur fuel rockets are
good enough for orbital and lunar operations. You can never keep the
smell completely out of the interior, though.
Metals, glasses, and other materials are mined on the moon and flung
into orbit via electric catapults.
Our Apollo-era plans would have established the first moonbase in the
There are all kinds of wonderful materials, crystals, and alloys
possible in zero gravity that can't be made on earth.
The cheapest way to get materials for a large station into orbit is
to fling them into orbit from the moon.
Once there are enough people in orbit, the cheapest way to feed them
is with agricultural stations in orbit and on the moon.
Our first manned space station was orbited in 1971. Apollo-era plans
would have established permanent space stations in the mid-1970s.
They have the same lasers we do, except they have no solid-state lasers. This means no laser pointers, small cheap DVD players, and so forth. Their lasers are big and power-hungry.
They don't have semiconductor-based solar power, but their solar power is still efficient, and looks a lot like ours. It's just a little heavier.
The visionaries' science fiction can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from their visions of the future. Here is a short list of technology that they didn't really expect to have by now. It is classic science fiction and not Retro-future.