I have chosen ten outstanding technological concepts which had their
popular origins in the world of sci-fi. It is debatable, in some
cases, whether the science fiction source was the actual originator,
but it's certainly true that each of these ideas was given a boost
into reality by an SF writer.
THE GEOSTATIONARY SATELLITE: Arthur C. Clarke
Although this concept was not described in a work of fiction, it was
popularized by a man primarily known for his flights of fancy, Arthur
"A geostationary orbit (abbreviated GSO) is a circular orbit in the
Earth's equatorial plane, any point on which revolves about the Earth
in the same direction and with the same period as the Earth's
rotation. It is a special case of the geosynchronous orbit, and the
one which is of most interest to artificial satellite operators.
Geosynchronous orbits and geostationary orbits were first popularised
by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke Sir Arthur C. Clarke in
1945 as useful orbits for communications satellites. As a result they
are sometimes referred to as Clarke orbits. Similarly, the 'Clarke
Belt' is the part of space approximately 35,790 km above mean sea
level in the plane of the equator where near-geostationary orbits may
The Free Dictionary: Clarke Orbit
THE COMPUTER WORM: John Brunner
"1975... John Shoch and Jon Hupp at the Xerox Palo Alto Research
Center discover the computer 'worm,' a short program that searches a
network for idle processors. Initially designed to provide more
efficient use of computers and for testing, the worm had the
unintended effect of invading networked computers, creating a security
Shoch took the term 'worm' from the book 'The Shockwave Rider,' by
John Brunner, in which an omnipotent 'tapeworm' program runs loose
through a network of computers. Brunner wrote: 'No, Mr. Sullivan, we
canīt stop it! Thereīs never been a worm with that tough a head or
that long a tail! Itīs building itself, donīt you understand? Already
itīs passed a billion bits and itīs still growing. Itīs the exact
inverse of a phage - whatever it takes in, it adds to itself instead
of wiping... Yes, sir! Iīm quite aware that a worm of that type is
theoretically impossible! But the fact stands, heīs done it, and now
itīs so goddamn comprehensive that it canīt be killed. Not short of
demolishing the net!' (247, Ballantine Books, 1975)."
Computer History Museum: Timeline
ORGANLEGGING: Larry Niven
A few organ transplants were being performed in the 1970s, but author
Larry Niven was one of the first to write about some of the social
problems that might accompany widespread use of this life-extending
technology. Niven wrote several stories which involved huge "organ
banks," some of which were kept stocked by unwilling "donations" from
prisoners who had committed petty crimes. A lucrative black market of
human organ trafficking, which many believe exists today, was foreseen
"Organlegging is the removal of human organs by a means of theft for
resale for profit. Larry [Niven] coined the phrase in his Gil the ARM
Stories. The main character and detective of the future police force
or ARM tracks down many of the 'Organleggers' and their crime
syndicates and brings them to justice. Gil Hamilton's most
astonishing special ability is his telepathic psychic arm - but read
the stories! The original Long ARM of Gil Hamilton collection was
published in 1976.
Today the practice of selling organs for profit is becoming
commonplace in the third world and increasingly these organs are being
removed without the donor's consent."
Nivenisms in the News
THE WALDO: Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein, one of science fiction's greatest visionaries, is
credited with creating the name (and popularizing the concept) of the
Waldo, a device with which a human can manipulate objects by remote.
In Heinlein's tale, titled "Waldo," a wealthy genius who is enfeebled
by disease uses mechanical hands to interact with the world:
"Afflicted with myasthenia gravis from earliest childhood, Waldo lacks
the muscular strength to walk or lift things with his arms. By living
in the weightlessness of space he is able to move freely. His primary
invention is a system of remote-controlled mechanical hands which the
world has nicknamed waldoes."
We Grok It: Waldo & Magic, Inc., 1942
"Before their application in motion pictures and television, 'Waldos'
primarily referred to the mechanical arms, telemetry, and other
anthropomorphic gadgetry aboard the NASA spacefleet. NASA engineers in
turn took the name from a l940 Robert A. Heinlein novella about a
disabled scientist named Waldo who built a robot to amplify his
Character Shop: What's a Waldo, Anyway?
GYRO-STABILIZED PERSONAL CONVEYANCE: Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein again. In a 1940 short story, "The Roads Must
Roll," RAH described the "Tumblebug," a one-person vehicle that is
stabilized gyroscopically, much like the Segway Human Transporter (now
available) or the Bombardier Embrio (which is still in development).
The same story described a public transport system, the "rolling
road," that is similar to mass people-moving devices now in use at
"A tumblebug does not give a man dignity, since it is about the size
and shape of a kitchen stool, gyro-stabilized on a singe wheel. . . .
It can go through an opening the width of a man's shoulders, is easily
controlled, and will stand patiently upright, waiting, should its
Danny's Blog Cabin: Sci-fi authors predict the future (kind of)
THE WATERBED: Robert A. Heinlein
I'm not finished with Heinlein yet. ;-)
"The modern waterbed was created by Charles Hall in 1968, while he was
design student at San Francisco State University in California. Hall
originally wanted to make an innovative chair. His first prototype was
a vinyl bag with 300 pounds of cornstarch, but the result was
uncomfortable. He next attempted to fill it with Jell-O, but this too
was a failure. Ultimately, he abandoned working on a chair, and
settled on perfecting a bed. He succeeded. His timing could not have
been more perfect: the Sexual Revolution was under way, and Hall's
waterbed became enormously popular, making it one of the most notable
icons of the 1970s. However, because a waterbed is described in the
novel Stranger in a Strange Land... by Robert A. Heinlein, which was
first published in 1961, Hall was unable to obtain a patent on his
The Free Dictionary: Waterbed
"Heinlein described the mechanical details of the waterbed in Stranger
[in a Strange Land], which is where the rest of the world learned
about it. But what's more interesting, and less known, is why he came
up with the idea: Heinlein, a man of chronically poor health, was
trying to create the perfect hospital bed."
TSAT: Predicting the Future
HOME THEATER & WALL-MOUNTED TV: Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is associated more with "soft" SF or fantasy than with
"hard" science fiction. Nevertheless, there are several high-tech
devices in Bradbury's classic 1953 dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451"
(which is absolutely unrelated to Michael Moore's recent filmic
diatribe). Most notable is Bradbury's description of huge,
photorealistic flat-screen televisions with elaborate sound systems in
home entertainment rooms called "parlours," which provide an array of
soap operas and other mind-numbing diversions in a future society
which has banned most books.
This may sound unremarkable to younger readers, but those of us who
remember the tiny, indistinct black-and-white TV sets of the early
1950s were (and are) duly impressed by Mr. Bradbury's vision.
THE FLIP-PHONE: Gene Roddenberry et al.
I've got to get my "Star Trek" plug in here somehow. The original,
'60s Trek looks extremely dated today; although it's set hundreds of
years in the future, technology has caught up with it (and in some
cases surpassed it in ways that the creators could not have
anticipated). One thing that I find quite striking is the resemblance,
both in appearance and function, between the flip-open communicator
devices used by the crew of the Starship Enterprise and today's
Here's a photo of a communicator, circa 1967:
Forbidden Planet Store
And here's a Samsung flip-phone:
When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" replaced the flip-style
communicators with a "com badge" in the late 1980s, the future was
again prefigured. Today, wireless LAN-based lapel communicators are
commonly used in hospitals.
THE TASER: "Victor Appleton"
Author Victor Appleton (the pseudonym of Howard Garis, also known for
the "Uncle Wiggily" books) provided inspiration for the modern
personal protection device, the taser (or "stun gun.") The word
"TASER" is an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electrical Rifle," so
named because the inventor was an admirer of Tom Swift when he was a
child. The book "Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle" was published in
1911. Tom Swift was the adolescent hero of a series of books aimed at
juvenile readers. Tom was the Harry Potter of his day. The books
typically told of Tom's adventures involving high-tech equipment such
as a "sky train" or an "electric runabout." Monorails and hybrid cars,
"The Taser was developed in the late 1960's by Jack Cover, who came up
with the idea as a result of hearing about a U.S. commission which was
looking into non-lethal ways police could deal with violent offenders.
Cover based the Taser on a kind of stun gun he had read about in the
Tom Swift fantasy stories of his childhood, thus the acronym, 'Thomas
A. Swift Electrical Rifle'.
First used by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1976, the Taser is
now used by hundreds of police departments in the U.S."
Smith Secretarial: High-Tech Non-Lethal Weapon New Option for Police!
MULTI-USER DOMAINS IN CYBERSPACE: Vernor Vinge
While many fans attribute numerous important details of cyberspace to
author William Gibson, I'd like to look a bit farther back, to the
seminal novella "True Names," by Vernor Vinge. In this striking work
of fiction (written in 1979 and published in 1981, long before
personal computers and the Web became part of our daily lives), Vinge
offers vividly imagined depictions of many concepts which are everyday
Internet realities today. Vinge's online communities presage chatrooms
and multi-user domains in an uncannily accurate fashion (complete with
a few disagreeable and destructive individuals who take pleasure in
wreaking havoc). Vinge was, as far as I can tell, the first writer to
use the term "avatar" to describe a digital image that represents an
anonymous computer user. Vinge called the online access point a
"portal." As you read this 25-year-old story, it seems totally
contemporary: much of what was fictional in 1979 is factual today.
"True Names is about Roger Pollack, a well-to-do individual living in
the early 21st century. In this wired world, Pollack is known on the
'Other Plane' of the computer net as Mr. Slippery, a top-flight
warlock (hacker) and member of one of the foremost covens of such.
Unfortunately, the government have figured out Mr. Slippery's True
Name, and captures him. But it's not him they want: They want his
assistance in finding and stopping another warlock, the Mailman, who
they suspect of far worse plots than anything the garden-variety
warlocks have concocted. With no choice, Pollack agrees.
Pollack contacts the rest of his coven, which the Mailman - who only
communicates through time delay - has recently joined. The Other Plane
is perceived by most as a fantasy world, and the details of the
network are mapped to concepts familiar to that milieu. Individuals on
the Other Plane adopt new identities, but keep their true names
secret, since - as Roger has found out - blackmail is all too easy
when someone knows who you are in the real world...
True Names was prescient in its day, foreseeing cyberspace and virtual
reality in all its glory several years before William Gibson's
Neuromancer, and building on 70s stories like John Brunner's The
Shockwave Rider. Vinge correctly understood the importance of secrecy
and cryptography, the coming pervasiveness of computer networks, and
how the personal computer would open up the world of computing to the
Pages of Michael Rawdon: Vernor Vinge
Read it! You'll be entertained and amazed.
Amazon: True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier
A personal note: I regard this novella so highly that, when choosing
my Google Answers screen name in 2002, I very nearly went with the
name "Erythrina," a major character from "True Names." I decided not
to use this name after I told a friend about my plans, and she said
"Erythrina??? Isn't that a disease?"
A wonderful site called Technovelgy.com has a list of 652 science
fiction devices and concepts, some of which have "come true." I've
selected a few of the most interesting items:
Communicate with Extraterrestrials
Commuter Cooling Unit
Free Return Trajectory
Traffic Control Camera
Many thanks for a truly fascinating question. I shall sign off by
borrowing a charming phrase from my friend and colleague Denco-ga: