Critiquing the flying car in 1944

During World War II, a time when most manufacturing was concentrated on the war effort and Americans were living with ration books and scrap metal drives, advertising became a very strange thing. Companies wanted to make people aware they still existed, even though they weren't currently offering much for sale and unnecessary consumption was being discouraged. More importantly, the companies wanted Americans to associate their brand name with the promise of life after the War. So, what you got, were a lot of advertisements touting what this or that company was going to do just as soon as the Germans and Japanese were defeated.

The image above comes from a 1944 advertisement by the Association of American Railroads. That room is actually the lounge car on a train — or, rather, the hypothetical lounge car on an imaginary train that might be built after the War is over (provided the development of air travel and the construction of the interstate highway system don't doom the train industry to a slow decline). Basically, you had a lot of time when companies had little more than dreams to offer, so the dreams just kept getting bigger and bigger.

At the Paleofuture blog, Matt Novak writes about this ad as part of a larger trend, and offers up some examples of how the tendency to make big promises about the future of technology was being heavily critiqued even as it happened. Novak's posts help make sense of some of the more-ridiculous branches of midcentury futurism. For instance, by 1944 techno-dreamers were already beginning to imagine a future with a flying machine in every carport. At the time, it was helicopters, but it's not much of a leap to catch up to the more-iconic flying car.

The trouble — as pointed out in a 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics — is that owning a flying machine comes with safety and social concerns that make it a hard sell in the real world:

A helicopter in your back yard? The picture is bright. You go out behind the apple tree, give the rotors a whirl, and whizz!—you’re on the office roof. At the end of the day, whizz!—and you’re back in Suburbia, tending your delphiniums. Beautiful picture, isn’t it? But you’ll probably have to keep your machine in perfect condition, to be passed on by some safety agency, and it won’t be the perfunctory windshield wiper and horn test, either. The neighbors may not care if you crack your own skull, but they won’t want you doing it on their sun porches. So for some years after the war is over, the first helicopters, and other airplanes for that matter, will be flown by people who can scrape together enough money to insure: (1) a machine in perfect condition; (2) maintenance that will keep it that way; (3) expert training in the operation of the machine. The designers say helicopters are harder to fly than airplanes.

Read Matt Novak on World War II train advertising.

Read Matt Novak on early critiques of mid-century futurism.


  1. Isn’t it grand to be white, middle class and carefree!  Makes me wonder if Dick and Jane are off frolicking with Spot someplace.

  2. as a pilot, I always cringe when people talk about flying cars… if we had the same number and relative skill of people in the air as we do on our highways, there would be a LOT of fatalities.  Plus, the design tradeoffs that you make for a flying vehicle are at odds with the design tradeoffs you make for a road vehicle.  The flying car designs that people are trying to market are the worst of both worlds, and they have been ever since people started pushing them in the 40s.

    1. In the books and stories that belong to the Ringworld ‘verse (Larry Niven, Known Space ‘verse), the sanction  for operating a flying car w/o autopilot over a municipality is the death penalty.

  3. Hmmm . . .

    I once saw a 1940-ish cartoon (via the PBS show “Matinee at the Bijou”) titled “Postwar Inventions.” I wonder if it was a parody of these sorts of ads.

    The one part I remember was a terribly racist depiction of a black man who’d just gotten new dentures.

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