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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Technological Prophecies

One of the more interesting aspects of having read science fiction for over 50 years is the number of things I have seen that were totally imaginative when I first read them and eventually became reality.  Here is a very nice guest post from a U.K. site that runs with this idea. 

The Internet will no doubt be heralded as one of mankind's greatest achievements.  We now download music, stream videos and surf Wikipedia without so much as a second thought.  Thanks to iPads, eBooks and smart phones we've quickly grown accustomed to having knowledge, news and entertainment accessible wherever we are and whenever we want it - so much so that we often wonder what we'd do without it.  But consider that we live in a time where the Internet is in its infancy, and it took us 160,000 years to invent it.  You have to wonder how some saw it coming long before the world got connected?

Here we explore some visionaries who were way ahead of their time in predicting such technological marvels...
"Prophecy is the most gratuitous form of error."
George Eliot (1819-1880)

Stansilaw Lem predicted eBooks, and perhaps even Amazon, in Return from the Stars (1961)

"I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it. None had been printed for nearly half a century... The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory... all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles."
Sci-Fi master Isaac Asimov predicted eBooks in The Fun They Had (1951)

"'Gee,' said Tommy. 'What a waste. When you're through with the book, you just throw it away... Our television screen must have had a million books on it and it's good for plenty more. I wouldn't throw it away.'"
Jules Verne prophesied eBooks in Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863). Read below for more information about Verne's uncanny knack for predicting future technology.

"Michel searched for literature... but nothing but technology was available in bookstores."

(Interestingly, Verne locked the original manuscript in a safe after his editor scorned it and the novel wasn't discovered until 1994. The editor claimed the book was too fantastical, writing "No-one today will believe your prophecy". The novel also predicted gasoline-powered vehicles, pocket calculators and a 'worldwide telegraphic communications network'.)
I-Pads and Laptops
Arthur C Clarke predicted iPads in the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

"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"
James P. Hogan accurately described a laptop years before their invention in Inherit the Stars (1977)

"Rob Gray ... sat with an open briefcase resting on his knees. He studied the information being displayed on the screen built into its lid... Gray addressed the [microphone] grille, located next to the tiny lens just above the screen."
Stanislaw Lem prophesied iPad-like devices in The Futurological Congress (1983)

"Dinner with Aileen again, at the 'Bronx'. A sweet girl, always has something to say, not like those women in the scuttle who let they handbag computers carry all the conversation."
David Hadju wrote this predictive article on iPhones in an issue of Video Review magazine (1982)

"Video walkie-talkies... with micro-processors and the first flat screen display picture tubes. There's something preventing the development of personal, two-way TV transmitters / receivers - except perhaps the FCC."
HG Wells predicted iPhone technology in When the Sleeper Wakes (1910)

"He became aware of voices and music, and noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face. He suddenly realised what this might be, and stepped back to regard it. On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in clear small voices. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube."
The Star Trek Communicator bore remarkable similarities to iPhones (it first appeared in the episode Catspaw, 1967)
Nikola Tesla prophesied a device eerily similar to the BlackBerry in an issue of Popular Mechanics magazine (1909)

"An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song... it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere."
Robert Heinlein foretold of the omnipresence of BlackBerry-like devices in Assignment in Eternity (1953)

"'How come,' he asked as he came abreast, 'they had to search for you?'
'Left my pocketphone in my other suit,' Coburn returned briefly. 'Did it on purpose - I wanted a little peace and quiet. No luck.'"

Computers and the Internet
Murray Leinster accurately predicted the future of computers and the Internet in A Logic Named Joe (1946)

"You know the Logic's set-up. You got a Logic in your house. It looks like a vision-receiver used to, only it's got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get... you punch "Sally Hancock's Phone" an' the screen blinks an' sputters an' you're hooked up with the Logic in her house an' if someone answers you got a vision-phone connection."

"The Tank is a big buildin' full of all the facts in creation and all the recorded telecasts that ever was made - an' it's hooked in with all the other Tanks all over the country - an' everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an' you get it."
Vannevar Bush wrote of an entity similar to the Internet (in particular, Wikipedia) in As We May Think (1945)

"Wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified." 

Some Predictions That Did Not Pan Out

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
"Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax."
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899
"Space travel is bunk."
Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp in 1977
The cinema is little more than a fad. It's canned drama."
Charlie Chaplin, 1916
"Television won't last. It's a flash in the pan."
Mary Somerville, radio broadcaster, 1948
"Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years."
Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp, 1955
"There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States."
T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

Other Curiosities

  • The earliest known use of the @ symbol can be traced back to 1448, noting a wheat shipment from the Kingdom of Aragon
  • Google's Ngram viewer can track word usage in books printed since 1500. The word Internet seems to first appear in the early 1900s.
  • In October 2010, filmmaker George Clarke noticed an oddity in Charlie Chaplin's film The Circus - footage shows a woman talking into what appears to be a mobile phone in the background. The film was released in 1928.

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