The Grotesque Vehicles of Popular Science, 1930-1940

I’ll never forget the day I first saw these.  About 35 years ago, I was at one of those “whole house” garage sales (the kind where the owner has died and the heirs are selling off everything).  I was in a musty barn, and there was a pile of these magazines sitting on a shelf.  I glanced at the covers with fascination and horror–was this real?  I later saw a few of these covers in a PBS documentary about the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Now we have the Internet, and an image search brings forth many resplendent-yet-creepy examples of this 1930s “World of Tomorrow” commercial art.

“Queer Vehicles Inventors Produce.”  Oh, indeed!  You have to try to look at these through the eyes of someone living at that time.  The Victorian and Edwardian Ages were ending, and a new age was dawning.  The Old World-based archetypes of florid decoration in machines and architecture were giving way to never-before-seen, Streamlined-Modern, spare lines suggesting speed and efficiency.  Mankind is making another bold step up that great pyramid of civilization!

This point was really brought home to me when I visited the [re-created] 1876 Centennial Exposition at the Smithsonian Institution.  In the 1800s, machines were not just machines–they were expected to be works of art!  Anyone who has seen an antique cash register, sewing machine, or stove from the period knows what I’m talking about.

The unknown artists who created these covers did a spectacular job!  The ironic thing is that very few of these wild creations were ever built.  However, they did sell a lot of magazines, and perhaps inspired engineers to reach for higher levels of mechanical and aesthetic achievement.

As the title of this post suggests, I find there is a certain grotesque quality to some of these–something overpowering and out of control.  Like, this is too much to take–the future is overwhelming and scary.  There’s no concern for what these streamlined monstrosities do to the earth or society itself.  The seeds of books like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 are already being planted.

“What are those crazy humans up to now?!”


Planetarium simulation of a trip to the moon!


And when you get to the moon, you can drive around in this!


There was an odd fascination with vehicles using large wheels . . .


. . . or spheres!


Where’s Nicola Tesla?


This streamlined train with central fin may have inspired . . .


. . . 1940’s prediction of the car of the future “Coming in 2 Years!”  Perhaps if World War II hadn’t interrupted auto production, this was the direction the industry would have taken.


I see a little bit of postwar Nash in this rendering.


Modern Mechanix, in order to compete for attention on the newsstand, upped the ante with its own collection of brutalist Airdreme fantasies!


So what’s Popular Science doing today, now that we’re actually living in the World of Tomorrow?  To find out, I picked up a copy of the latest issue so I could do a point-by-point comparison:

First of all, it’s now quarterly instead of monthly.  The cover price is $7.99 not 15 cents.  And for nearly eight bucks you get 134 pages, not the 226 pages you typically got in the ’30s.  Today’s Popular Science gives you 32 articles; in the ’30s there were well over two hundred, with enough do-it-yourself projects to keep you busy at home or on the farm for a couple of years!

Take a look at the cover–no more streamlined cars or rocket ships.  Now the focus is “We can transform“, i.e. we can save the planet from all the bad things we’ve done to it with our polluting cars, factories, and industrial advances that Popular Science proudly hailed decades before!  Whereas in the past, an article would instruct us on “How Steel Rebar Does a Better Job Reinforcing Concrete,” now we see a butterfly . . . perched on the ruins of post-industrial civilization.

Many of the articles are now about people working together to solve global environmental and social problems.  The illustration above is from an article entitled, “5 Famous Environmental Disasters where Humans and Nature Healed Together.”  There’s an article about the importance of sharing, and one encouraging us to eat bugs because “they’re 65% protein by weight” and are “an eco-conscious substitute for meat-based nutrition.” Oh, and they also apologized for endorsing eugenics in 1914 by stating, “If certain people didn’t reproduce in the United States, the genetic ‘stock’ of the population could remain pure, thus leading to a perfect civilization.”

Another interesting change I noticed–the Editor-in-Chief and about half of the magazine staff are now women.

Each magazine is a product of its time.  Whatever is produced becomes part of the permanent record.  Historians and future archeologists will look at them and say, “Ah, yes.  That’s what people thought back then.  That’s what they were going through.  This is what was presented as new and good and right.  How different things were back then!”  But will there even be magazines in the future?  Right now I am typing words into WordPress, forming a post which is published on a website, the data of which is stored in enormous servers, owned by what may be ephemeral and capricious corporate entities.  It’s not a paper magazine–something physical you can hold, which, like the clay tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, will survive the ravages of time.  This is a problem that not even the 1930s dreamers of Popular Science could have imagined!