Dreams aren't supposed to make any sense. They're just what happens when you put your head down for the night and your brain decides to bullshit you for eight hours about getting chased by Bigfoot while your teeth fall out. With that said, a surprising number of society's innovations have come from dreams, proving that sometimes there is method to your brain's madness. For example ...
If a sewing machine seems like a simple and obvious invention, just tell that to the poor fuckers who tediously made clothes by hand for several thousand years before anybody figured out the design. Until the 1800s, when one ripped the bodice off a comely maiden, she would have to sit for hours with a needle and thread to repair it. So one of the big innovations responsible for the clothes you're wearing now was Elias Howe's lock-stitch sewing machine. And it all came to him in a violent murder dream.
In 1845, Howe was desperately trying to work through technical problems with his invention, but he kept running into an infuriating brick wall when it came to the design of the needle. Well, according to members of his family, it finally all came to him in the course of a ludicrously violent and somewhat racist nightmare. In the dream, he had been captured by cannibals. As is typical of bloodthirsty natives, Howe's captors presented him with an ultimatum -- come up with a design for a working sewing machine, or face death. Just like in real life, he failed to live up to the task, and so the cannibals sentenced him to be stabbed to death with spears. Hey, this was the 1800s -- at the time, like every third person actually died this way.
Because this was a dream, rather than screaming and dying as people thrust spears into him, he noticed that each spears had a hole in the tip. Watching them puncture his flesh, going in and out, was allegedly the "Eureka!" moment that led to Howe figuring out that he needed to put a hole in the tip of the needle in his sewing machine. The device worked, and Howe died a rich man.
Now, it's entirely possible that this whole dream thing was a story made up by his descendants years later, but honestly, if they were going to invent an origin story, why would they come up with "Oh, it was all based on a racist stab dream. You know how he was"?
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In 1981, director James Cameron was pretty much unknown in Hollywood, his greatest accomplishment at that time having been Piranha II: The Spawning, a cautionary tale about genetically engineered flying carnivorous fish. It was not the kind of film that people would watch and think that, 30 years later, the director would be responsible for the first and second most successful films in history.
Cameron of course had greater ambitions beyond flying piranhas. Yes, greater even than flying piranhas in space. He desired to make an action movie reminiscent of the old Outer Limits episodes he watched as a kid. He just didn't know what to write about. But while he was in Rome working on the post-production of Piranha II, Cameron grew sick and had to leave early to go to bed. That night, he had a fever dream -- there was an explosion, and coming out of it was a robot, cut in half, armed with kitchen knives, crawling toward a fleeing girl. Despite a 102 degree fever, Cameron sketched the robot down after he awoke, and once back in the United States, he hammered out a draft of what would become The Terminator.
Of course, the final film changed a little from Cameron's original vision. At first the killer robot was to be played by O.J. Simpson, but producers vetoed the idea because there was no way the public would believe O.J. would kill anyone (this was a little while ago).
But the finished product was a hit, and it was Cameron's first step toward becoming one of the biggest names in Hollywood, instead of getting pigeonholed as the go-to director for flying fish movies.
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Albert Einstein is perhaps the only person whose name became a synonym for "smart." Solving the mysteries of the universe was more a hobby for him than a job. And if his brain power wasn't obnoxious enough already, many of his biographies recount that the theory of relativity came to him in a goddamn dream. When he was a teenager.
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It's said that Einstein dreamed that he was walking through a farm when he came upon a bunch of cows huddled up against an electric fence. The farmer suddenly switched the fence on, because apparently he was that much of an asshole, and Einstein watched all of the cows jump back at the same time as they got shocked. Assuming that he'd witnessed some kind of synchronized cow acrobatics, Einstein recounted what he'd seen to the farmer, who had been standing at the opposite end of the field. But what the farmer had seen was different -- he'd seen the cows jump away one by one, like they were doing the wave at a football game. This would have been hilarious, and one assumes this is why he did it.
Of course Einstein, being Einstein, wasn't content with simply waving this away as a silly dream. Shit, if he'd dreamed about wearing a hat made of pudding, he would have assumed there was a physics problem to solve there. So after ruminating on the problem for a while, he started to put together the idea that events look different depending on where you're standing because of the time it takes the light to reach your eyes. In other words, the theory of relativity.
In short, we got one of the most radical developments in science because a young boy had a dream about electrocuting farmyard animals and spent his adult life refusing to let go of an argument that he had with an imaginary farmer. Take that, Ph.D. education!
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You probably don't take too much time out of your day to stop and think about how important the chemical benzene is to your life, but it did revolutionize the production of things like cars, rubber, fuel, leather clothing, and other items that Fonzie couldn't do without. Benzene also served as a primary component of explosives during World War I. It's used for everything, is what we're saying, so figuring out how to make it was kind of a big deal.
That brings us to Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, who in the mid-1800s was the closest thing that science had to a rock star. Some would attribute this to his ridiculously pretentious-sounding name, while others would probably point to his discovery of the founding principles of chemical structure, a discovery that was very much the "Stairway to Heaven" of its day.
Kekule was looking for his next big challenge: For several years, scientists had been trying to crack the molecular structure of benzene because, again, they were pretty sure it could change the world. However, every configuration of molecules that they tried didn't work for a variety of science reasons, a problem that Kekule soon ran into during his own experiments. That is, until he had help from a dream about motherfucking snakes.
Exhausted from having every avenue of inquiry ironically hampered by the laws of chemical structure that he had invented years earlier, Kekule decided to have himself a fireside nap. Once asleep, he had a dream in which he was surrounded by snakes that formed themselves into hexagons, which he realized upon waking was the shape of the benzene molecule he was trying desperately to crack.
Legend has it that after Kekule woke, he worked through the night to successfully recreate what he'd witnessed, presumably spending the whole time trying to tie a bunch of garden snakes together. Or maybe he just didn't want to fall asleep and have more snake nightmares. Either way, it worked.
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You hopefully know the name Rene Descartes, but maybe don't remember exactly what he's responsible for. The Cartesian coordinate system you learned in school (and likely never used again) is named after him, and he's the guy who said "I think, therefore, I am." But he's also credited with the formulation of the scientific method. At a time when scientific inquiry was best described as "burn anyone who tries to prove you wrong," Descartes found a better way, one that relied on reason instead of guesswork and threats. This would be one of the big reasons modern civilization exists.
What's more, Descartes recounted that he thought the whole thing up after a series of wack-ass dreams (he didn't use the phrase "wack-ass," but he might have used the 17th century equivalent). In the dreams, he found himself caught inside a vicious whirlwind. And, if that wasn't bad enough, he was also being pursued by a group of ghosts. And he was having a wicked craving for exotic types of melon (we assume he went to bed while hungry for melon).
Descartes had to wait in a ghost-filled melon-craving purgatory until the winds died down and he was taken into a room that kept trying to set him on fire with red-hot sparks and deafen him with near-constant thunderclaps. Somehow, he escaped this torture den and found himself inside a peaceful, still room with only a book for company (this is still in the dream, mind you). Descartes opened the book and read a single line: "Quod vitae sectabor iter" ("What path shall I take in life?"). Then a man appeared next to him and spoke "Est et non" ("Yes and no"). The man and the book then disappeared, leaving Descartes to think about how utterly unhelpful that answer was.
But Descartes believed that this dream had been communicated to him by God himself, and what was more, he knew what it meant: that he was to try to reinvent the way humans think about the universe. To that end, he went on a pilgrimage and dedicated the rest of his life to figuring out the principles of science. We never found out if he ever got that melon.
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Related Reading: The power of dreams doesn't stop here. This article will show you all the crazy ways dreams influence reality -- did you know that Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats? And if you're more interested in hacking your dreams, Chris Bucholz can help you gain control over your subconscious. Still itching for more ways to master your dreams? Consider this article your shopping list.