by Andrew Scott
Over the past few weeks my friends and I, at Nerd Insider, have been quite prone to noticing the similarities between emerging technologies and the technology possessed by some of our favourite sci-fi heroes. Just to mix things up a little I thought I’d turn it upside down. I’ve been looking at some technology and gadgets from sci-fi land and seeing if I can find their real world compatriots. Here’s some of the more interesting finds.
When Steve Jobs first announced the iPad, all the way back in 2010, some commentators were calling it a pointless contraption that will never catch on. However, it seems Aurthur C. Clarke saw a future for such a device back in 1968, calling it a not too unfamiliar Newspad!
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke:
“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…”
Augmented reality user interface
A little more current, I came across this new invention from Microsoft, though certainly not practically useful yet, it certainly looks pretty sci-fi:
Compared to this user interface imagined in Minority report:
The modern video game
Getting back to our favourite sci-fi mystic, Arthur C. Clarke, given that the earliest version of pong wasn’t created until 1958, imagining games of modern day complexity back in 1956 is a pretty good going. He may even be predicting virtual reality.
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke:
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.
An obvious one, but one I remember longing for as a child; video calling. Skype have really made this technology a part of our everyday lives, but these days many other companies are getting in on that video chat act. Surprisingly a chap called Hugo Gernsback envisioned this technology back in 1911:
Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback:
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.”
“Hello, Edward. I wanted to ask you if you could come over to the laboratory tomorrow morning. I have something unusually interesting to show you. Look!”
He stepped to one side of his instrument so that his friend could see the apparatus on the table about ten feet from the Telephot faceplate.
The Atomic Bomb
I thought I’d leave the most sinister till last. Though the term “atomic bomb” had been used previously and the idea of atomic energy was already being talked about by scientists, it was the great science fiction writer H.G. Wells that first popularised the potential power that could be unleashed from within the tiny little atom. The passage that follows was in fact quoted by Leo Szilard, who participated in the Manhattan Project, in a letter to Hugo Hirst:
“It is remarkable that Wells should have written those pages in 1914. Of course, all this is moonshine, but I have reason to believe that in so far as the industrial applications of the present discoveries in physics are concerned, the forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists.”
The world set free by HG Wells
The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933. From the first detection of radio-activity to its first subjugation to human purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century. For twenty years after that, indeed, minor difficulties prevented any striking practical application of his success, but the essential thing was done, this new boundary in the march of human progress was crossed, in that year. He set up atomic disintegration in a minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrated in its turn in the course of seven days, and it was only after another year’s work that he was able to show practically that the last result of this rapid release of energy was gold. But the thing was done—at the cost of a blistered chest and an injured finger, and 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.
What science fiction predictions can you think of that have come true? Let us know in the comment below.