June 8, 2012

World-Bettering Example 2

    Inspired Inventions

        Last post I mentioned Neal Stephenson's claim that it's the job of speculative fiction writers to inspire scientists and inventors.  He wasn't making up the connection out of thin air.  Throughout history there have been any number of real-life inventions that have been presaged by fiction, but I want to focus on the ones that didn't merely follow in fiction's footsteps but that can be explicitly attributed to inspiration from a specific fictional source.  Other people have made lists of technologies from sci-fi, and you can see Smithsonian's list here.  But I narrowed down all these proposed technologies based on two criteria.  1. The inventor acknowledged direct inspiration from a sci-fi source, and  2. The invention makes the world a better place.  That meant I am inclined to leave out of my collection a number of inventions used exclusively or primarily for killing people.
        Take the example of atomic power, pioneered by Leo Szilard after he read H.G. Wells's The World Set Free.  I know people often argue that the ability to kill lots of those people makes the world better for our people, but I find this much too problematic in my celebration of how the world can be bettered.  However, Wells did not inspire Szilard to work only on the science.  His book also inspired Szilard to campaign for arms control and the peaceful use of nuclear power.  Technology is the proverbial genie which, once set free, is difficult to control.  This is why helping people envision a variety of possible outcomes is crucial if we are to learn to use new technologies responsibly.  (D and I fall into this discussion from time to time - how much should science be reined in because of the probability that some new discovery or invention will be applied to unscrupulous or downright evil purposes?)  Still, just because something has been used for evil doesn't mean it can't also be used for good, so I have left a few ambivalent inventions on my list.
        Jules Verne is probably the place to begin.  He wrote, "Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real."  This idea was taken to heart by Igor Sikorsky, who invented the modern helicopter under the inspiration of a Verne book called Clipper of the Clouds.
        Verne, with his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, also gets credit as the inspiration behind "father of the modern submarine," Simon Lake.  Indeed, when Lake's Argonaut became the first submarine to work successfully in the open ocean, Jules Verne sent him a note of congratulation.
        "Star Trek" and its nifty communicators was the inspiration for Motorola's development of the mobile telephone.  The director of research and development Martin Cooper said, "That was not fantasy to us.  That was an objective."
        "Star Trek" is a great example of a sci-fi future in which technology has been a positive force, and I'm sure it's inspired more than just a few people.  It was "The Next Generation" that inspired Steve Perlman's idea for Apple QuickTime.
        Arthur C. Clark is the sci-fi writer who portrayed satellites being used for mass communication.  In a list of technology inspired by sci-fi, Robert Rea proposes this as the inspiration behind the launch of satellites in the following decade.  But although this seems plausible, Rea offers nothing concrete to back up his assertion, so I just don't know.  There are an awful lot of inventions in the "I'm not sure about the inspiration" category.  Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy envisions something very like a modern e-reader, but again, I don't have any evidence that the inventors of e-readers were responding to the inspiration of Adams's idea.
        At least we do know that The Hitchhiker's Guide influenced the developers of AltaVista's web translation software.  I assume that the importance of translation is pretty obvious to a lot of people without any need for particular inspiration from science fiction.  However, the team that named the program were obviously sci-fi fans, because they called their software Babel Fish.  (Of course, Douglas Adams's Babel Fish is not technology, but a miraculously improbable alien species…)
        This may be a similar case to that of the Taser.  Invented by Jack Cover as a non-lethal alternative to guns, the Taser's name was originally the acronym TSER, after a fictional invention, the Tom Swift Electric Rifle.  The long-running Tom Swift series was written under the collective pseudonym Victor Appleton and featured myriad inventions.  Certainly Cover found the sci-fi series inspirational in a general way, but whether his invention is directly attributable to the specific idea in the book I don't know.
        Tom Swift also gets credit for inspiring Apple founder Steve Wozniak to become a scientist.  Wozniak said that the Tom Swift books made him feel "that engineers can save the world from all sorts of conflict and evil."
        But I can't neglect to mention the most iconic sci-fi technology of all, space flight itself.  Robert Goddard, who built the first liquid-fueled rocket, attributed his fascination with spaceflight to H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds.
        Finally, here's some inspiration in progress.  NASA's web site has an article called From Inspirations to Inventions, mentioning some of the fictional inspirations behind the modern space program.  It ends with a brief analysis of some "Star Trek" technologies, such as warp drive, that are under study and development by scientists now.
        So just remember (to paraphrase Verne and Wozniak), Anything that one person can imagine, another person can make real… and then use to save the world from evil.  Now get out there and get inspired!

[Pictures: "The clipper of the clouds," illustration by Léon Benett from The Clipper of the Clouds by Jules Verne, 1887;
Cover of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle: or, Daring Adventures in Elephant Land by Victor Appleton, 1911.]

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