Friday, January 31, 2014


One of the most appealing aspects of science fiction is its potential to become fact. It is fantasy rife with possibility. Not always, to be sure, but often enough to launch the imagination. Case in point (and pardon the alliteration): The prescient practitioners of possibility in the pantheon of sci-fi writers. Seers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke.

How prophetic were they and some other science fiction writers, including the likes of E.M. Forster and Mark Twain? Consider these 19 notions that came true, roughly in chronological order of their actual invention:

1. THE SUBMARINE (predictor: Jules Verne)

Submarines—or submarine-like vessels, at least—have been around a lot longer than we all think. First military submarine capable of independent underwater operation was a hand-powered acorn-shaped device in 1775. It was called the Turtle. The first submarine not relying on human power for propulsion was launched in France in 1863. It was called the Nautilus. So why credit Verne, who published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seven years later and gave Captain Nemo’s submarine the same name? Because he imagined its potential—militarily, politically, socially, even psychologically. Plus, the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean didn’t arrive until nearly 30 years later.

Verne conceived “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale… The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various log-books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question, the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a whale, it surpassed in size all those hitherto classified in science.”

2. SCUBA DIVING (predictor: Jules Verne)

Here again, Jules Verne didn’t so much as invent scuba diving as fast-forward the possibilities. In 1860, a decade before Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a French engineer designed a self-contained breathing set with a backpack cylindrical air tank. It was meant to help miners avoid drowning in flooded mines. Four years later, he and a navy officer adapted the invention to diving. Divers could go no more than 10 meters deep and for no longer than 30 minutes at a time. In fact, the typical diver of the day wasn’t even that far along—still wearing a cumbersome suit, tethered to a ship by an air hose. But Verne’s apparatus “consisted of a reservoir of thick iron plates, in which I store the air under a pressure of fifty atmospheres. This reservoir is fixed on the back by means of braces." With this gear, the diver could explore the deep for seven or eight hours at a time.

3. TANKS (predictor: H.G. Wells)

Leonardo Da Vinci is to 19th and 20th century sci-fi writers what William Shakespeare is to… well, 19th and 20th century sci-fi writers. As early as the 15th century, Leonardo imagined up a tank-like design. But H.G. Wells re-imagined it as the focus of “The Land Ironclads,” a short story published in 1903—13 years before history’s first tank battle. Sure, his tanks were 100 feet long and could accommodate 42 soldiers. And they were followed by men on bicycles. But still…

Wells described the massive war weapon thusly: “Black… and like a fort… Something between a big blockhouse and a giant's dish-cover… In that flickering pallor it had the effect of a large and clumsy black insect, an insect the size of an iron-clad cruiser, crawling obliquely to the first line of trenches and firing shots out of portholes in its side. And on its carcass the bullets must have been battering with more than the passionate violence of hail on a roof of tin.”

4. RADAR (predictor: Hugo Gernsback)

Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine, is one of the fathers of sci-fi. His name graces the annual science fiction honors—the Hugo Awards. He imagined everything from solar power to TV remote controls. But it seems that the breadth of his imagination has trumped the length of his legacy. In 1911, he wrote a novel called Ralph 124C41+ (that is, “one to foresee for one another”) in which he conceived what became known as radar nearly a quarter-century later.

He wrote of a “pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light-ray is reflected from a bright surface or from a mirror… By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area. Sooner or later these waves would strike a space flyer. A small part of these waves would strike the metal body of the flyer, and these rays would be reflected back to the sending apparatus... From the intensity and elapsed time of the reflected impulses, the distance between the earth and the flyer can then be accurately estimated."

5. THE HELICOPTER (predictor: Jules Verne)

Verne’s less successful aerial version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was Robur the Conqueror, also known as The Clipper of the Clouds, published in 1886. In the book, a brilliant inventor (Robur) chastises the men at the Weldon Institute for believing that mankind will master the skies using lighter-than-air craft like dirigibles. He kidnaps one of them and takes them aboard his ship, the Albatross—a battery-powered, multirotor gyrodyne with many vertical airscrews to provide lift and horizontal airscrews to propel it forward.

Thirty-five years later, in 1921, this headline appeared in The New York Times: HELICOPTERS FLY BETTER: Many Inventors at Work on Baffling Form of Heavier-Than-Air Machines. The first line of the story: “Realization at last of Jules Verne’s dream of “The Clipper of the Clouds” is indicated in recent reports…” Eighteen years later, Igor Sikorsky designed and flew the first viable American helicopter. He was said to have been inspired by Verne’s book, which he read as a child.

6. CREDIT CARDS (predictor: Edward Bellamy)

In 1888, Bellamy published a novel about Julian West, a young Bostonian who falls into a hypnosis-induced sleep in 1887 and wakes up 113 years later in 2000. He discovers an America that has been transformed into a socialist utopia. The book is called Looking Backward: 2000-1887, and it was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. In Bellamy’s day, the only “credit” that shoppers could enjoy came if they knew the salesperson personally. The modern credit card didn’t really arrive until the late 1930s and early 1940s. But Bellamy imagined a “credit card” (he even used the word 11 times) that could be used globally for all types of currency. Each person was given an equal amount of credit, backed by the American government. He even predicted duplicate receipts.

7. THE WALDO (predictor: Robert Heinlein)

How best to credit an author for an invention? Give the real thing the imaginary name. In 1942, Robert Heinlein’s short story “Waldo” was published in Astounding Magazine (Heinlein used a pseudonym, Anson MacDonald). Its protagonist was Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones, born with the disease myasthenia gravis, which makes him unable to even grasp a spoon and leads to self-imposed exile. Until, that is, he patents the Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph—a glove and harness that allows him to control a mechanical hand by simply moving his own hand and fingers. He becomes a rich man. When real-life remote manipulators were developed for the nuclear industry soon after, each was called—what else?—a Waldo.

8. THE ATOMIC BOMB (predictor: H.G. Wells)

When Wells wrote The World Set Free in 1914, he knew a bit about radioactive decay. But in this novel he coined the term “atomic bomb” (he pegged its arrival for 1933): “… from the moment when the invisible speck of bismuth flashed into riving and rending energy, Holsten knew that he had opened a way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to worlds of limitless power.”

More than that, Wells pre-imagined the concept of nuclear fallout. Here’s how he put it: "In the map of nearly every country of the world three or four or more red circles, a score of miles in diameter, mark the position of the dying atomic bombs and the death areas that men have been forced to abandon around them. Within these areas perished museums, cathedrals, palaces, libraries, galleries of masterpieces and a vast accumulation of human achievement, whose charred remains lie buried, a legacy of curious material that only future generations may hope to examine."

9. THE CUBICLE (predictor: E.M. Forster)

What, you thought sci-fi had to mean the mechanical and the technical? How about the practical and pervasive? E.M. Forster essentially described the cubicle in his “The Machine Stops,” his 12,000-word novella from 1909. The shape is odd, the armchair unusual, but the dispiriting setting is right on: “Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk—that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh— a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.”

10. AUTOMATIC SLIDING DOOR (predictor: H.G. Wells)

A couple of Texans, Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt, are credited with inventing an automatic sliding door in the mid-1950s. After noticing that regular swing doors blew open in the wind, they developed a sliding door that wouldn’t. Their company, Horton Automatics, was formed in 1960.

Wells? Well, 61 years earlier, in When the Sleeper Wakes, his imagined door slid vertically: “The two men addressed turned obediently, after one reluctant glance at Graham, and instead of going through the archway as he expected, walked straight to the dead wall of the apartment opposite the archway. And then came a strange thing; a long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap, hung over the two retreating men and fell again, and immediately Graham was alone with the new comer and the purple-robed man with the flaxen beard.”

11. THE MOON LANDING (predictor: Jules Verne)

Big deal, right? So somebody predicted that man would someday make a lunar visit. Inevitable, it seems. And that’s true. But here’s what Jules Verne foresaw in From the Earth to the Moon: The first manned spaceship would be launched from Florida with three astronauts aboard, then later splash down into the Pacific Ocean and be recovered by a U.S. Navy vessel. The “space cannon” that launched it (okay, he didn’t get everything perfect) would be called Columbiad (the Apollo 11 command module was named Columbia). It would weigh 19,000-plus pounds (actually weight: 26,000-plus) and cost roughly $12 billion in today’s dollars (actual cost: about $14 billion).

And somehow, with no real science to go on, he predicted weightlessness: "They felt that weight was really wanting to their bodies. If they stretched out their arms, they did not attempt to fall. Their heads shook on their shoulders. Their feet no longer clung to the floor of the projectile. They were like drunken men having no stability in themselves."

12. THE TASER (predictor: the mysterious Victor Appleton)

Tom Swift was a famous literary character of the early 20th century, an adventurer and inventor created by Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of a book packaging firm. Under the pen name Victor Appleton, various ghostwriters produced more than 100 volumes about Swift over several decades. The tenth volume was called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, and it was published in 1911. In that book, Swift invents—yes—the electric rifle, a gun that fires bolts of electricity and can be calibrated for range, intensity and lethality. The actual author who imagined it? That fact seems to have been lost to history.

Some six decades later, NASA physicist Jack Cover (which, by the way, would be a GREAT character name) turned Swift’s invention into a reality. At first, he called his electroshock weapon the TSER—for Tom Swift Electric Rifle. But then he invented something else—a gratuitous middle initial “A.” The story goes that he had grown tired of answering his phone, “TSER.” So it became Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle—TASER.

13. THE INTERNET (predictor: Mark Twain)

Yes, Tom Sawyer’s creator also created the Internet. Sort of. It is a little known fact that Twain dabbled, rather unsuccessfully, in science fiction, including one story called From the ‘London Times’ of 1904. He wrote it in 1898 when the telephone was still in its infancy. In the story, he wrote of the “telectroscope,” a worldwide information-sharing network via the telephone—“the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussed too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.”

Twain’s story is about a man who seems to be an adept Web surfer—“Day by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people.” He is falsely accused of murder but eventually set free after he climbs aboard the Internet and finds that his supposed “victim” is actually alive—in the crowd of an event being streamed live from the Far East.

14. SCREEN SAVERS (predictor: Robert Heinlein)

Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s 1961 novel, is about a Martian’s attempt to assimilate into human society. A decade before the personal computer, he envisioned a computer in every middle-class household. But he also envisioned the screensaver. Not only that, actually, he conceived one that would eventually prove to be among the most popular—the faux aquarium.

He wrote this: "They went to the living room; Jill sat at his feet and they applied themselves to martinis. Opposite his chair was a stereovision tank disguised as an aquarium; he switched it on, guppies and tetras gave way to the face of the well-known Winchell Augustus Greaves."

15. VIRTUAL REALITY GAMES (predictor: Arthur C. Clarke)

In 1956, just two years before the basic video game – “Tennis for Two”—was created, Clarke wrote this in The City and the Stars: “Of all the thousands of forms of recreation in the city, these were the most popular. When you entered a saga, you were not merely a passive observer...You were an active participant and possessed—or seemed to possess—free will. The events and scenes which were the raw material of your adventures might have been prepared beforehand by forgotten artists, but there was enough flexibility to allow for wide variation. You could go into these phantom worlds with your friends, seeking the excitement that did not exist in Diaspar—and as long as the dream lasted there was no way in which it could be distinguished from reality.”

16. EARBUDS (predictor: Ray Bradbury)

The book? Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. Bradbury’s description of futuristic headphones? They looked like this: “And in her ears the little seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.”

17. VIDEO CHAT (predictor: Hugo Gernsback)

Skype was founded in 2003. The first webcam was connected to the Internet by Cambridge University researchers in 1993. The first picturephone was demonstrated at the New York World’s Fair 29 years before that. But in 1911, in Ralph 124C41+, Gernsback  imagined this: “Stepping to the Telephot on the side of the wall, he pressed a group of buttons and in a few minutes the faceplate of the Telephot became luminous, revealing the face of a clean-shaven man about thirty, a pleasant but serious face. As soon as he recognized the face of Ralph in his own Telephot, he smiled and said, ‘Hello, Ralph.’"

18. GOOGLE EARTH (predictor: Larry Niven)

Google Earth, the virtual globe and map program, was originally called EarthViewer 3D, created by a CIA-funded company that was acquired by Google in 2004. The product was re-released as Google Earth in 2005. One of the Google Earth co-founders claimed he was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, which feature—remarkably—an “Earth” software developed by the Central Intelligence Corporation. But 22 years earlier, in 1970, Larry Niven published Ringworld, set in the Known Space universe, which describes a display that allows the user to zoom in on any part of the world. At first, it was believed to be a live feed, but then they realized it was archived imagery. Sound familiar?

19. THE iPAD (predictor: Arthur C. Clarke)

The next time you decide to read or watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on your iPad, consider this passage from the 1968 book: "When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug in his foolscap-size newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers...Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination..."

No comments:

Post a Comment