5650: The Last Day of Manhattan

Winsor McCay - The Spectrophone - The Last Day of Manhattan (New York Herald, Feb 26, 1905)

In 1905, the great comic strip artist Windsor McCay illustrated a series of satiric science fiction vignettes by the prolific author, humorist, and editor John Kendrick Bangs. The series ran in The New York Herald and other newspapers and featured the Spectrophone, a device which allows the user to see into the future.

Bangs extrapolated from the popularity of the phonograph, for example, and has his narrator see that by 1907 Vassar students have replaced their autograph books with collections of voice recordings—and that by 1914 nearly all the volumes in the Boston Public Library have been replaced with audiobooks:

This superb creation of the public spirit of the Hub architecturally still rested upon its present site, but within I found strange changes. Not only were my own books not to be found upon its shelves, but none others of modern authors. Upstairs, where there had once been reading rooms of rare beauty and of studious quiet, were lecture or reading halls in which people were read to Instead of reading for themselves. There was a service of current fiction, but it came no longer from printed pages as of yore, but from large phonographs placed high upon platforms having sounding boards upon them so that no word issuing from the cavernous megaphonic jaws should be lost….Withdrawing my eye from these large literary gatherings, I peered through the corridors of the building and was entertained to observe that for readers desiring books not of the current hour, there had been provided individual phonographs located in alcoves, into which cylinders containing the especial work desired were placed, and which were listened to In rapt attention through the usual insulated wires with rubber nozzle ends connecting the ear drum of the consumer with the cylinder within, exactly as the martial notes of Sousa marches are now conveyed to the public ear by slot machines in railway stations and ferry houses.

Elsewhere, Bang’s audiobooks are distributed by a version of the internet:

Winsor McCay - The Spectrophone - Reading in 1914 (Los Angeles Herald, Feb 26, 1906)

In New York I found the magnificent library finished but, alas! it was less like a library than a huge literary distributing agency, a sort of department store of letters. Like the Boston library, it held no books in sight, and all its matter was phonographically circulated, only with a difference which struck me as characteristic of a distinguished novelist who had recently died and left all his royalties to the library, a house service had been installed which enabled the public to get at home all the stores of letters the library held in trust.

The greater part of the building had been turned into a power house by which thousands of volumes were transmitted hourly to the residences, apartments and tenement houses of the city, just as electricity Is sent over a third rail in our own time for the propulsion of our motor cars….It was thus easy for a New York householder under this superb plan to secure his reading matter as It is for him today to turn on the gas for the illumination of his drawing room, or in the privacy of his bath to extract hot or cold water by the turning on of a faucet.

In another story, Bang’s narrator recounts that in 1947 after-dinner speeches and sermons have been lamentably replaced by store-bought cylinder recordings:

Winsor McCay - The Spectrophone - The After-Dinner Trust (Los Angeles Herald, March 5, 1905)

There were seventeen parts in the series. Through the Spectrophone, Bang’s narrator sees that in 1920, huge telephone-book-sized magazines appear to be void of annoying advertisements—but closer inspection reveals that the stories are full of product placements. In 1926, New York City develops of system of publicly-employed cooks who provide meals for the whole city. In 1937, musical performances at the Opera have been relegated to a minor role to allow for hours and hours of high society gossiping and grandstanding—and 2021 sees the corporatization of Christmas and Santa Claus through a Wall Street investment scheme.

Looking further into the future, the user of the Spectrophone sees that in 4307 a vast conglomerated city occupies much of the USA’s east cost:

Winsor McCay - The Spectrophone - Philyorgo (Los Angeles Herald, March 4, 1906)

“At this point,” cried the megaphone bred pilot, “we see the southern exposure of the city of Philyorgo, the commercial capital of the universe. It is 238 miles in length, extending from what was once the city of New York on the north to the ancient city of Washington on the south, and from base to sky line runs sixteen thousand feet above the level of the sea.

“As you are aware, It is the greatest commercial aggregation in the universe, having a greater population than Mars, Saturn, the Great Dipper and Europe combined, and is the result of the annexation by the city of Chicago of New York, Philadelphia. Washington and other smaller cities lying between.  It consists of thirty different strata, including basement and roof. Its resemblance to the skyscraper of other times being due to the superimposition of city upon city, until the final plateau-like sky line was reached, upon which dwell the workers who during working hours go below into the various underlying sections to which their business calls them.”

“The various floors are connected from basement to roof by fast flying elevators, which daily carry the public to and from business at lightning speed. In the basement are the furnaces and dynamos by which the whole city is heated and by which the motive power for the rapid transit facilities of Philyorgo is supplied. The first floor above the basement contains all the longitudinal rapid transit walks, moving without cessation around the city day and night at rates of speed varying from four to five hundred miles an hour. These lines of movable walks are arranged in concentric parabolic circles, so that a traveler wishing to proceed at the greatest rate of speed by stepping briskly from the fixed and Immovable walk on the outside across the Intervening circle toward the rapidly moving innermost platform may with perfect safety board the section that is traveling with the greatest velocity. By this means a wayfarer in Phllyorgo may go from one end of the city to the other in a trifle over two hours, finding at intervals of the ordinary city block the express elevators that will take him upward to the stratum he desires to reach.”

By the 57th century, Manhattan succumbs to hubris and its colossal buildings collapse on one another and the whole mess sinks into New York Harbor. (I haven’t been able to find Bang’s text—just McCay’s illustration.)

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