Writers of science-fiction novels are, well, writers like writers of other genres. But the very best of them are more than that. They’re also futurists, literary prophets, endowed with a gift for envisioning developments—chiefly, technological—much before they come to pass.
What did Johnathon Swift see? In “Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726, he wrote of a perfectly circular, flying island called “Laputa,” inhabited mostly, by men of science and letters. Its cosmologists, he wrote, had discovered two moons, spinning around our rust planet next-door.
His speculation, it turned out, wasn’t too fanciful. Mars was found to have two cosmic kids. Phobos and Deimos were discovered, in reality, by the American astronomer, Asaph Hall, in 1877. The Swift crater on Deimos has, thus, been named in homage to the English satirist.
Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865), related the concept of a giant Columbiad, the force of which would be so enormous as to escape Earth’s gravitational pull and hurtle men to the Moon.
The construction of such a canon, capable of catapulting a bullet-shaped “projectile,” with three passengers on board, takes place in post-Civil War America, in “Tampa Town,” in Florida. The choice of location for the launch, presciently, predates the Kennedy Space Center’s placement in that state by almost a century.
In July, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral, atop a Saturn V rocket. The crayon-shaped spacecraft, comprising three units—the conical command module (which housed the crew quarters and cockpit), the cylindrical service module (which carried the propulsion system and supplies), and the lunar module, (the lander)—delivered humankind to an alien world for the first time.
In the same novel, Verne also speculated about a technology, which, we today, call a “solar sail.” In May, 2010, JAXA, Japan’s aerospace agency, sent the first interplanetary solar vessel, “IKAROS” (short for Interplanetary Kite-Craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun) off to Venus.
A better-known work by the French penman, “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea,” which hit the market in 1870, foresaw the electric submarine. The opulent, organ-equipped marine marvel, the Nautilus, roamed the deeps, powered by batteries.
Edward Bellamy’s utopian classic, “Looking Backwards: 2000-1887” (1888), unveiled the notion of making purchases without cash. He called it a “credit card,” though it worked much like our debit cards. It was a token with which a citizen could spend his or her allotted share of government funds, rather than borrow money.
The system of a payment card that set up a line of credit was begun by Diners Club, in 1950. Customers could eat at approved restaurants and pay their bills with their card. Diners Club would pay the merchant and the cardholder would, in turn, repay Diners Club.
“In the Year 2889,” a short story by Jules Verne and his son, Michel Verne, which came out in 1889, described “atmospheric advertisements.” “Everyone has noticed those enormous advertisements reflected from the clouds,” they wrote, “so large they may be seen by the populations of whole cities or even entire countries.”
This is similar to “skywriting”—the process by which small aircraft scrawl out messages in the air, in paraffin oil. As a medium of advertising, it was realized in 1922. Cyril Turner, a Royal Air Force pilot, spelled out “Hello USA Call Vanderbilt 7200” in the sky high above New York’s Times Square, during the visit of George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company.
“VANDERBILT 7200” was the phone number of the hotel at which the executive was staying. “In the next three hours, the switchboard lit up non-stop as eight operators fielded 47,000 telephone calls,” The Daily Dose writes.
It also described, what sounds remarkably like a newscast. “Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers.” Only, the verbal bulletin was made possible because of “telephonic journalism.” Thirty years later, in August, 1920, a station founded by The Detroit News, aired what’s believed the first radio news broadcast.
The novelette also predicted a videophone-like instrument called “phonotelephote,” which transmitted both a person’s voice and pictures across distance. Sounds like Skype?
“He seats himself. In the mirror of the phonotelephote is seen the same chamber at Paris, which appeared in it this morning. A table furnished forth is likewise, in readiness here, for notwithstanding the difference of hours, Mr. Smith and his wife have arranged to take their meals simultaneously. It is delightful thus, to take breakfast tête-a-tête with one who is 3,000 miles or so away. Just now, Mrs. Smith’s chamber has no occupant.”
At the 1964 World’s Fair, held in New York, AT&T unveiled a much-coveted futuristic technology: the Picturephone. The company offered a limited, three-city videophone facility, connecting booths in Washington D.C., New York, and Chicago. A three-minute call didn’t come cheap, costing $16 (Washington, D.C. and New York) and $27 (New York to Chicago). The steep fees shut down the service prematurely, in 1968.
Later, in 1970, it rolled out again, in Pittsburgh—for businesses, this time. 38 Picturephones were installed at eight companies. At $160 per month, for 30 minutes of calling time, with 25 cents for each extra minute, the prices were still exorbitant. Its expense curtailed its expansion. By July, 1974, there were only five subscribed Picturephones on that network.
The automatic door that sighs open, sensing our presence, each time we stand at a supermarket entrance, is a convenience we take for granted, realizing little that it was once a science-fictional novelty.
A version of it is described in H.G. Wells’ “When the Sleeper Wakes,” released in 1899. He wrote of a panel of wall, which would, instead of retracting sideways, roll up into the ceiling to let people through. Lew Hewitt and Dee Horton co-invented a similar technology, in 1954.
It also had a vision of a “roadway,” complete with seats and refreshment kiosks that could negotiate curves like conveyor belts. We don’t have locomotive interstates, so far, but walkways, often found in modern airports, come close.
“The Land Ironclads,” a short story by H.G. Wells, which appeared in the December 1903 issue of The Strand featured “land ironclads,” long, narrow, wheel-mounted, steel machines, fitted with powerful guns. The term, “ironclad,” was coined for steam-powered, armor-plated warships of the 19th century. When they entered the battlefield in 1916, during World War I, they were named tanks.
In “The World Set Free” (1914), H.G. Wells observed: “Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”
That was a description of a nuclear weapon, whose deadly force derives from a series of nuclear reactions. Towards the end of World War II, on August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first-ever “atomic bomb” over Hiroshima.
“The Achievements of Luther Trant” (1903) by Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg, depicted an instrument that could help detect if people were lying. In 1921, John Larson, a police officer of the Berkeley Police Department, with a Ph.D. in psychology, invented the polygraph.
Hugo Gernsback’s “Ralph 124C 41+”, a numeric play on the phrase, “One To Foresee For One Another,” available in 1925, contained among others, an accurate description of the radar, complete with diagram, noted Arthur Clarke in his sole non-SF novel, “Glide Path.” The radar was invented in the mid-1930s.
Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1954) described miniature headphones he called “thimble radios.” Apple’s earbuds made them come true in the early 21st century.
In “Beyond This Horizon” (1942), “Double Star” (1956), and “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), Robert A. Heinlein described the “hydraulic bed,” a bed that uses a mattress, filled with water, instead of foam and box springs. It became a reality in 1971 and became a popular household good during the 1980s.
Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous prophecy is his proposal of geostationary communication satellites, which appeared in the Wireless World magazine, in 1945. It became a reality within 20 years with the launching of Intelsat I, in April, 1965. The Scottish tenor drum-shaped orbiter provided a direct and nearly instantaneous contact between Europe and North America, handling television, telephone, and facsimile transmissions.
John Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar,” published in 1969, made political forecasts of much of today’s world bang-on. But he also wrote about electric cars and demand-on TV, both of which have come true.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1979) by Douglas Adams depicted a small fish-like artifact called “Babel Fish,” which, when plugged into the ear, would enable you to understand any tongue, spoken, anywhere.
We have, today, “Word Lens,” which quickly scans foreign text on a billboard or menu and displays it in the language of your choice. There’s Skype Translator, which translates the speech of others into yours and vise-versa.
William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in “Burning Chrome,” published in 1982, but it was “Neuromancer” that ignited its widespread popularity, enough to become the de facto term for the World Wide Web during the 1990s.
All said, if one—only one—invention were to leap out of the pages and reels into an amusement park, then, some of us could, at least, travel into the future and see for ourselves, what it holds. But then, the science wouldn’t, in all likelihood, permit us to return to the present and bang out a science-fiction.
This review was kindly provided to Stranger Views by writer and journalist Alakananda Mookerjee. As well as book reviews Alakananda also writes extensively on science and space. We’ve visited her website (Cold Clips) and find it one of the more interesting places on the web, with articles such as ‘Tomorrow’s Spacecraft Will Fly On “Coffee Can” Engines’. You can also find Alakananda on Twitter.
This is the third article Alakananda has provided for Stranger Views, her excellent look at Rendezvous with Rama and the very interesting look at Airships and other bizarre machinery in Michael Moorcock’s “A Nomad of the Time Streams” Trilogy. These can all be found in Stranger Views Classic Science Fiction Section.