6 Eerily Specific Inventions Predicted in Science Fiction
Science fiction is by far the nerdiest of the fictions, and its bread and butter consists of robot uprisings and unexpected time travel consequences. But for every Martian invasion and robocop-related mishap it has warned about, science fiction has made some stunningly accurate premonitions.
We're not talking about broad predictions, like "thinking machines" or "interplanetary travel." That stuff's easy. It's the weirdly specific prophecies that impress us.
Jules Verne Predicts the Moon Landing in Ridiculous Detail ... in 1865
The first manned spaceship was launched during the month of December, by the United States from a base in Florida. The ship was made up mostly of aluminum, weighed 19,250 pounds, and cost what would now be about $12.1 billion to build. After three of the astronauts completed their moonwalk, they returned to Earth. Their capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean and was recovered by a U.S. Navy vessel.
Why are we boring you with history? Actually, we're not -- this is the plot of an 1865 novel by Jules Verne, whose frighteningly accurate visions of space travel lead us to conclude that he had to be some kind of time-traveling space-wizard.
Survey says ... "Space Wizard."
Though it was written over 100 years before the Apollo 11 mission, Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon actually serves as a pretty damn accurate novelization of that mission, down to the scariest details. He was slightly off on the cost and weight of the rocket (but only slightly -- the real stats were 26,275 pounds and $14.4 billion), and in the biggest departure from reality, Verne's astronauts were shot out of a huge gun. But get this: Verne's space cannon was called Columbiad, and the Apollo 11 command module was named Columbia.
The real coincidence icing on this insanity cake is this:
"The three adventurous companions were surprised and stupefied, despite their scientific reasonings. They felt themselves being carried into the domain of wonders! 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."
Somehow, Verne predicted that the astronauts would become weightless in space. There was no way he could have known that at the time -- it was just some crazy bullshit he made up to make the story interesting, like that time he wrote a book about going to the center of the Earth and finding dinosaurs.
And giant mushrooms.
Mark Twain Predicts the Internet in 1898
When most people think of Mark Twain, they imagine Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn piloting a raft down the Mississippi River to find some trouble to get into. What's less well-known is that Twain also dabbled in science fiction, so there's probably a story out there in which Huck Finn finds a spaceship and enjoys a short career of interstellar high jinks and space piracy.
It was in one of his science fiction stories, From the 'London Times' of 1904, that Twain dreamed up an invention called the "telelectroscope," which used the phone system to create a world wide network of information-sharing. Basically, Mark Twain invented the Internet. Keep in mind that he wrote this in 1898, when telephones were still fairly new and rare.
But Twain didn't stop there. His story describes "the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues." Mark Twain is talking about goddamn social networking. He didn't just predict that the Internet would unite the world, but also that people would immediately clog it up with trivial bullshit.
"And lots of tits."
Now check out the description of the guy using it:
"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 seldom spoke, and I never interrupted him when he was absorbed in this amusement."
The protagonist of the story, a man falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death, is cleared of all charges in the end when he essentially gets on the Internet and finds his supposed "victim" in the crowd of an event he's watching being streamed live from China.
Unfortunately, the story itself is terrible. So, unlike visionaries such as Jules Verne, whose predictions everybody listened to, Mark Twain goes down in history as a great writer of small-town America who should just stay the hell away from sci-fi.
Robert Heinlein Predicts Screen Savers in 1961
If you think about it, the most impressive predictions are the ones that are super-specific, and completely trivial. For instance, it's easy to predict there'll be a "major war" in the future, or a radical new energy source. Those are huge issues everyone is constantly thinking about and writing about; somebody is going to hit the mark. No, it would be more impressive if a 1940s writer specifically predicted Jersey Shore.
"The future is bleak."
That brings us to Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The novel is really about a Martian's attempt to fit in with human society, but Heinlein built up a fabulous future world complete with 3D televisions/computers in every middle-class home. So, 10 years before the first personal computer, we have 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."
That's right. Their computer had a screen saver. To prevent "stereovision" from getting too boring when it was idle, it'd display an animation of fish swimming around, presumably to provide something for the cats of the future to swipe at.
"Also, sometimes the stereovision tank looked like the window of the Millennium Falcon."
Screen savers as you know them actually used to serve the purpose of keeping freeze-framed porn from burning itself permanently into CRT monitors. Not only do people still use them for the same purpose Heinlein described, but fish/aquarium screensavers were some of the most popular.
No word on whether it came with a "flying toasters" option.
H.G. Wells Predicts the Atomic Bomb in 1914
Decades before the atom bomb was even a glimmer behind Einstein's bifocals, H.G. Wells had already written a novel about it, 1914's The World Set Free. Note that Wells didn't know at this time that a nuclear detonation was actually possible -- he just knew a little bit about radioactive decay and thought that, if we ever figured out a way to blow it all up at once, it would probably make a really big bang.
There's more. He also figured out it would be bad news for anyone who got drenched in uranium fallout:
Making H.G. Wells the first man to ever fear atomic mutants.
"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."
It was in this speculative novel that H.G. Wells coined the term "atomic bomb." And immediately after reading this book, Leo Szilard figured an atomic bomb might be a profitable commodity to control, so he patented it in 1934, though it was still just a weird, way-out-there science fiction idea, like flying cars.
"It just, like, came to me. You know?"
Hugo Gernsback Predicts Radar in 1911
Hugo Gernsback was a writer you've probably never heard of, in which case you should be ashamed of yourself. Considered by many to be the father of science fiction, he was the founder of Amazing Stories magazine, and he's the reason the annual science fiction awards are called the Hugo Awards.
He also predicted almost every aspect of modern society, from remote-control television to solar power. But perhaps his most impressive premonition was radar technology. Not because he predicted some vague "magical device that detects things!" but because he worked out the exact mechanics of how it would function.
For some background, actual radar was invented in 1934, when Robert M. Page demonstrated a pulsing radar system while working at the U.S. Naval Research Labrotory. But it was more than two decades earlier, in 1911, when Gernsback wrote a serial novel called Ralph 124C 41+ (read it as "one to foresee for one other"), which, according to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, contained "the first accurate description of radar, complete with diagram."
Gernsback figured that radar detection was possible because "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."
This is basically true, except for the "ether wave" thing. In Gernsback's time, scientists thought that light needed a medium to travel through, just as sound needs to travel through air. That turned out to be bullshit, but that's not his fault. And the rest is pretty much spot on.
Star Trek Predicts Flip Phones, Bluetooth and More
Though taking place in the distant future, the original series of Star Trek debuted in 1966, so its vision of the future was often hilariously campy and inaccur- hang on, is that a freaking cell phone?
In the Star Trek of the 60s, the communicator is freakishly similar to the cell phones we use in our daily lives today, down to the trendy "flip" design that many of our phones use now. Though Capt. Kirk used them to communicate with orbiting starships rather than finding out what his buddies were doing on a Friday night, the similarity is astounding, considering that early cell phones, even up to the 90s, resembled concrete bricks that we had to use both hands to manipulate.
More than that, through the wireless communicator, Star Trek was forced to introduce a plot device that has become a staple of modern-day horror movies. But if Kirk and the gang could just call up their buddies on the Enterprise every time they ran into a tribe of Amazon spacewomen, then all the episodes would be only five minutes long.
"Scotty, lube up my girdle and prepare the sound dampers in my bedroom."
So, in every episode, they needed to find explanations for the communicators not working so that they would be stranded long enough to entertain the audience. So Kirk was frequently confronted with the problem of whipping out his communicator and finding "no bars" in his reception, be it through some magnetic nova storm or interdimensional interference. Yeah, we've all been there.
But you also can give the Star Trek prop department credit for a little wireless Bluetooth-style headset:
And The Next Generation gave the crew a freaking iPad:
We would kind of rather had a holodeck than either of those, but we'll wait.
For sci-fi tropes that'll never come true, check out The 8 Most Common Sci-Fi Visions of the Future (And Why They'll Never Happen). Or learn about some sci-fi weapons you can build yourself, in 5 Deadly Sci-Fi Gadgets You Can Build At Home.
And stop by Linkstorm to learn how you can make your bedroom just like Capt. Kirk's.
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