Writers of science-fiction novels are writers, like writers of other genres. But the very best of them are more than that. They’re also futurists and prophets, endowed with a gift for envisioning developments—chiefly, technological—much before they come to pass.
In “Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726, Johnathon Swift 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 Mars.
Phobos and Deimos were discovered by the American astronomer Asaph Hall, in 1877. The Swift crater on Deimos has been named after 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,” 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 the Saturn V rocket. The crayon-shaped spacecraft, comprising three sections—the conical command module (which housed the crew quarters and cockpit); the cylindrical service module (which carried the propulsion system and supplies); and the Eagle lander (lunar module)—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, I.K.A.R.O.S. (short for Interplanetary Kite-Craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun), off to Venus.
A more well-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 nautical marvel 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. Although he called it a “credit card,” it worked like our debit cards. It was a token with which a citizen could spend his or her allotted share of government funds, instead of borrowing 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, likely written by Jules Verne’s son, Michel—which came out in 1889, described “atmospheric advertisements,” “reflected from the clouds,” so “enormous” that they could 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. During the visit of George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, Cyril Turner, a Royal Air Force pilot, spelled out “Hello U.S.A. Call Vanderbilt 7200” in the sky, high above New York’s Times Square.
“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.” 30 years later, in August, 1920, a station founded by The Detroit News, aired what’s believed to be the first radio news broadcast.
It also predicted a videophone-like instrument called “phonotelephote,” which transmitted both a person’s voice and picture 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 (between Washington, D.C. and New York) and $27 (between New York and 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, which 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 moving interstates yet, but walkways, 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. When they entered the battlefield in 1916, during World War I, they were named tanks. The word “ironclad” was originally coined for steam-powered, armor-plated warships of the 19th century.
In “The World Set Free” (1914), H.G. Wells observed: “Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive.”
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 atom 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 an accurate description of the radar, complete with diagram, noted Arthur Clarke in his only work of non-fiction, “Glide Path.” The radar was invented in the mid-1930s.
Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1954) described miniature headphones he called “thimble radios.” Apple invented earbuds 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 has a mattress filled with water, not foam and box springs. It became a reality in 1971 and a popular household good during the Eighties.
Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous prophecy is his proposal of geostationary telecom satellites, which appeared in 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 nearly instantaneous contact between Europe and North America, handling television broadcasts, telephone signals, and fax 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 on-demand TV, both of which have come true.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1979), by Douglas Adams, depicted a small, fish-like instrument called “Babel Fish,” which, when plugged into the ear, would enable you to understand any tongue, spoken, anywhere.
Today, we have Word Lens, which quickly scans foreign text on a billboard or a menu, and displays it in the language of your choice. There’s also Skype Translator, which translates the speech of others into yours; yours, into another’s.
William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” in “Burning Chrome,” published in 1982, but it was “Neuromancer,” released in 1984, which ignited its widespread popularity, enough to become the de facto term for the World Wide Web during the 1990s.
All said, if one invention—the time machine—were to leap out of the pages into an amusement park, then some of us could travel to the future, and see for ourselves, what it holds. But the science wouldn’t permit us to return to the present, and bang out a science-fiction novel, based on what we saw there.