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The Earliest Flying Cars, Jetpacks, and Other Insane Retrofuture Inventions

The history of the future is fascinating to watch.

A flying platform created in 1955 by the US Navy. Image: British Pathé

The history of the future is fascinating, especially when with pressing play on a YouTube video can transport you back in time nearly a century to watch it happen.

This week, the esteemed British Pathé put its entire archive of historical film clips and newsreels online, a treasure trove of 85,000 clips amounting to 3,500 hours of footage from 1896 to 1976. Mixed in with some classic gems—interviews with survivors of the Titanic, newsreels from Hiroshima, Marilyn Monroe's death, and so on—is a delightful collection of videos that show early inventors creating the technological wonders that shape modern society, and the ones today's futurists are still trying to crack.

In the humans-have-been-trying-to-do-this-forever realm, there are clips of early attempts at flying cars, flying bicycles, hovercraft, and jetpacks (sensing a theme here?), from the late 40s to early 60s—post-World War II boom time.

This 1949 flying car, filmed in Italy, is fueled by a propeller and still manages to get airborne at 200 miles per hour. 

Fast-forward six years and jump across the pond and the US Navy has revealed its "Flying Platform," aka a very old-school hoverboard, which is described as "the closest thing yet to a magic carpet." Two small engines drive two propellers rotating in opposite directions underneath the platform, which the pilot controls by shifting his body weight to tilt the platform.

"Sadly, development ceased because the US Army judged them to be impractical as combat vehicles as they were small, limited in speed and only barely flew out of the ground cushion effect," explains the video description.

The Navy's contraption managed to hover a few feet above the ground, which is considerably more than what this 1960 hover scooter managed. Powered by a motor, it looks like a riding lawnmower and only manages to get a couple inches off the ground.

The 1960s version of a flying bike is wonderfully ridiculous as well. Called a "manpowered plane," the pilot/cyclist had to pedal enough to lift a metal aircraft with an 80-foot wingspan off the ground. It must have been exhausting, but it worked.

In 1966 in the UK, an early jetpack is caught on film, ambitiously described as the latest idea for lunar travel. The video shows it racing a race car around a track, because this is the shit people did in the 60s.

One of my favorites is the "Flying Drainpipe," where the driver sits on top of a drainpipe and is launched into the air. It was the first vertical takeoff machine in France, built in 1957. The rocket-like machine is described in the video as "little more than a jet engine in a tube." The newsreel announcer said it's "pointing the way to the aircraft of the future": high-speed jets that only need a few square yards of concrete to take off and land.

There's also the 1920s Walkman for ladies (the antenna is an umbrella and you change the tuning on a gadget in a garter), the first mobile phone in Britain, and a montage of the world's first helicopters.

Of course some inventions never took off, like the completely insane "Dynasphere" from the 1930s, which is basically a huge tire with a steering wheel in it. The circular car was intended to navigate ice and mud because it couldn't crash, because it's a circle. The British Pathé called it at the time, a "remarkable innovation in spherical locomotion, which, it is claimed, will one day revolutionize modern transport." It didn't.

The entire archive is worth bookmarking and spending a distracted Friday afternoon browsing through. Word of advice: Avoid the "10 Tragedies Caught on Film" montage video. It's the worst thing ever.