How Jetpacks and Flying Cars Turned Into Cliches About the Future

The romance with flight is a proxy for the larger human relationship with technology.

When a man in a jetpack jumped from the roof of the Four Seasons in Denver this week, the big question Good Morning America had was: Could jetpacks represent the future of commuting?

Based on this particular display, probably not. The man, identified by local news stations as Nick Macomber, blasts off fairly smoothly, flies with a bit of herky-jerkiness counterclockwise and up, then almost immediately glides down for a perfect landing on the roof.

So the idea that this stunt might point to a future for jetpacking commuters is funny in the way that so many rhetorical cable news questions are funny—because it's so obviously absurd—but also because it highlights a longstanding cultural obsession with personal vehicles that fly. The flying car is a sort of shorthand for "the future," no matter what year you're talking about—which is to say, the idea of a flying car or a personal jetpack helps cement our arbitrary sense of when "the future" starts. (The future starts next year if you count by Back to the Future's clock.)

Do we have flying cars yet? No. Then it's not really the future. 

Flying cars and jetpacks are indelible in our collective imaginings of what's to come, and they have been for centuries. In 1810, the artist Thomas Walker wrote A Treatise Upon The Art of Flying By Mechanical Means—which included his designs for a flying car that was based on observations of birds in flight. Walker's designs are the two bird-shaped contraptions on the right:

(The top left image is a sketch of a 1678 design for a flying machine using arm and leg power. Below that, two sketches of Jakob Degen's man-powered flying machine.) In the 1880s, the French artist and novelist Albert Robida drew flying cars in Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000, one of his classic drawings of the year 2000.

Albert Robida's Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 (1882), Library of Congress

For Americans, the fixation on flying cars almost certainly has something to do with the nation's car culture—the way a person's car can be seen as an extension of identity. In the 20th century, cars were the ultimate symbol of individual freedom and adulthood. And as a representation of the future, the flying car is often a stand-in for time travel itself. (It isn't enough that a DeLorean can fly in the future; it's also the vehicle that gets you there in the first place.)

Jetpacks rocketed their way into popular culture some time later, a technological dream borne of the space age. And before we called them jetpacks, they were "portable rockets" or "rocket belts." The New York Times wrote about an Army prototype that carried a man 15 feet into the air in 1961.

1961 New York Times screenshot

Similar devices made headlines throughout the 1960s. By 1966, when the Pentagon invested millions in the development of a new jetpack device, military officials expected to have a "workable system" built around jetpacks by the following year. The corset-like device apparently weighed 150 pounds and burned about a gallon of kerosene per mile—it could go for 10 miles before it needed refueling. The Times quoted an official who compared jetpacks to helicopters.

Jetpacks and flying cars weren't the future of commuting then, and they're probably not the future of commuting now. But their persistence reveals a deep human optimism about technology.

Envisioning our future selves in jetpacks and flying cars is a way of saying our trajectory is upward, that we can expect tech to evolve in ways that improve autonomy and convenience—technology that makes our lives better, and looks pretty cool, too. The romance with human flight has always been about overcoming the limitations of our Earthly design, building tools and crafts to make our interactions with the world more wondrous.