How Sci-Fi Shaped the Past, and Shapes the Future

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“Anything one man can imagine, another man can make real…”

Science fiction has quite a lot to do with the way we live now, having directly driven much scientific and technological progress around the world for at least the last 150 years. One might ask how or why, and the answer is very simple: sci-fi removes the limitations and barriers of the natural world and human intellect in favor of imagination. This is the story of inventions explored because science-fiction explored them first–inventions like space shuttles, submarines, cellphones, and TIE fighters.

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Film still from the 1902 film, “A Trip to the Moon,” an early sci-fi film.

The works of Jules Verne comprise the first, and perhaps the greatest, influence on invention in the modern era. Best known for his Extraordinary Voyages series, Verne’s vast imagination cranked out stories of varied settings, including the great depths of the world’s oceans and the moon. American inventor Simon Lake created the first successful open-water submarine in the late 1890s, fueled by inspiration found in Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Nowadays, many consider Verne the father of electrically-powered submarines.

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Simon Lake’s “Argonaut.”
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An illustration of the Nautilus navigating icy seas.

NASA currently pursues another idea of Verne’s, which it terms a “solar sail,”–a light-powered spacecraft, as it was described by the sci-fi writer. Rockets also have their basis in his work From Earth to the Moon and other stories. To believe that a man in the 1800s could imagine space travel as he did seems difficult to grasp, but all ideas originate somewhere.

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NASA Solar Sail. Credit: NASA.

Igor Sikorsky, famed inventor of the modern helicopter, gained his inspiration from Verne’s electric battery-powered, rotary flying machine, described in Robur the Conqueror. Sikorsky quoted Verne many times, especially the famous line, “Anything one man can imagine, another man can make real.” Other Verne imaginings that came true? Newscasts, videoconferencing, and skywriting. Countless scientists, engineers, and explorers, including Wernher von Braun and Yuri Gagarin, have credited Verne as a principal source of inspiration for the travails of their lives.

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The first viable helicopter, Sikorsky’s VS-300.
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The first mass-produced helicopter, the R-4. Sikorsky pictured in the helo, on the right.

Shortly following Verne’s hey-day, novelist H.G. Wells also left a considerable impact on modern inventing. It was not Verne alone, of course, who inspired space travel and rocket design. Wells’ War of the Worlds struck a particular chord with Robert H. Goddard, inventor of the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. And indeed, Goddard’s efforts helped bring about the interplanetary travel that Wells related and so gripped Goddard’s imagination.

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Goddard with the frame for his rocket.

Wells’ influence does not stop there; his novel, The World Set Free, set forth the idea of atomic energy. This work inspired Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard to solve the “nuclear chain reaction problem”–meaning to find a way to effectually demonstrate and, more importantly, sustain energy resulting from nuclear chain reactions. He reached the final stages of doing so during World War II, as a naturalized citizen of the United States. He sold his research to the United States Army, at his own chosen cost of just the amount needed to cover expenses, not enough to profit. This research continued its life as the vital foundation for the Manhattan Project. Like happens in Wells’ book, Szilard hoped the threat of atomic warfare would bring about peace, and that the United States would not actually use atomic energy as a weapon. This idea of peace-through-atomic-strength developed later on among governments as “mutually-assured destruction” during the Cold War and beyond. Robert A. Heinlein predicted a similar future in his science fiction works.

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The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the air.

Wells imagined numerous other scientific and technological devices, many of which share elements with current product designs and some, like the Time Machine, which still remain completely elusive to the contemporary inventor.

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Besides these two sci-fi giants, many other contributors to the genre inspired and continue to inspire invention in the modern era. Martin Cooper, while head of Motorola’s communication systems division in the early 70s, conceived of the first truly mobile phone, directly inspired by the wrist radio of famous comic book character Dick Tracy. A Canadian company decided to try its hand at a flying saucer, resulting in the ultimately unsuccessful Avrocar, after centuries of the craft’s supposed sightings and its 20th-century popularity in Hugo Gernsback’s fiction serial, Science Wonder Stories.

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Martin Cooper with Motorola cell phones of the DynaTAC line–the first ever line of mobile phones. Source unknown.
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The Avrocar. Credit: U.S. Air Force.

NASA, besides consistently calling for sci-fi story submissions, has a cupola on the ISS that resembles the cockpit of a Star Wars TIE fighter, not to mention that the government agency also has functioning spacecrafts that use ion propulsion (the “I” in TIE fighter). Another example of “science fiction to science fact”–NASA scientist Jack Cover developed the Taser, naming it after his inspiration–a young adult sci-fi novel called Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

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DAWN, an ion-propulsion satellite craft, launch on a Delta II rocket at Cape Canaveral.

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Hard science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein, inspired the invention of mechanical and robotic arms used in many industries and nicknamed “Waldo,” after a character in one of his short stories who used a robotic arm. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, began to formulate his world-changing idea when he read a sci-fi essay called, “Dial F for Frankenstein,” when he was nine years old. The story talked of computers that communicated information over phone lines–sounds familiar.

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An example of a “waldo.”

Science and technology will certainly gain continued inspiration from science fiction. These days, research organizations fully embrace what a little literary creativity can offer and pursue projects that may seem crazy to the individual, like lightsabers and hyperdrive, but many of which have a basis in reality. After all, ideas must start somewhere. Once one simply explores the impossible, it seems the impossible can, in fact, become possible.

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