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Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to
all we might yet discover and create.
- Albert Einstein
A network of machines that allow people to talk to each other over continents, cameras that record your every movement and portable media players you carry around with you. Sound familiar? Of course they do because they are part of our everyday life, and yet all of these remarkable gadgets and technologies were mooted a long time before they ever existed by some of the world’s most famous science fiction writers. The likes of Isaac Asimov, HG Wells and George Orwell inspired generations of inventors, and some of their fictional devices are eerily similar to real life innovations.
CCTV – as imagined by George Orwell in ‘1984’ (1949) In one of the most famous dystopian imaginings, George Orwell plunged his character Winston into a world of paranoia and suspicion, watched over by the sinister Big Brother. First published back in 1949, Orwell pictured a life where the populace was watched over by telescreens, with nobody ever sure if they were being watched. CCTV arrived as a means of watching the public in the 1970s, and there are now an estimated four million cameras in the UK alone.
The Internet – as imagined by Mark Twain in ‘From the London Times of 1904’ (1898) "The improved 'limitless-distance' telephone was presently introduced, and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues." A little bit more a stretch for this one, but back in 1898, Twain wrote of a global communications network called the telelectroscope that you could see and hear through – pretty good going for the 19th Century! The Internet, or at least the American military precursor to it named ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency NETwork), was first brought about in 1969, as a way of keeping lines of communication open in the event of a major attack during the Cold War.
Geosynchronous Satellite – as imagined by Arthur C Clarke in ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays’ Wireless World magazine (1945) Arthur C. Clarke came up with one of the most astoundingly accurate predictions of our time when he postulated that a network of geosynchronous satellites that revolved at the same speed as the earth and therefore remained in the same position over it, could make global communication possible. Hermann Oberth in his 1920 book ‘Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen’ and John R. Pierce also have claims to have come up with the idea. Although this idea was not first published in a fictional context but in a scientific forum, Clarke also used the idea in his books.
The video iPod – as imagined by HG Wells in ‘When The Sleeper Wakes’ (1899) Wells, the writer of some of the most important books in science fiction, came up with a device that sounds almost exactly like a modern day media player such as a video iPod in his book ‘When The Sleeper Wakes. His version was a flat square with a little picture that was ‘very vividly coloured.’ Not only were the people on the screen moving, but they were conversing with clear small voices.
Test-tube babies – as imagined by Aldous Huxley in 'Brave New World' (1932) Brave New World is one of the most famous glimpses into an imagined future, and author Aldous Huxley’s imagination conjured up a world where the population is not born naturally but from a machine, where their genes can be perfected and the nutrition controlled. This pre-dates the arrival of so-called test tube babies, where the egg is fertilised outside of the body, by some 46 years – although in reality a human is still needed for the pregnancy, which means you'll have to hold off on suggesting a test-tube baby's star sign is Pyrex...
CD/DVD – as imagined by EE ‘Doc’ Smith in 'Triplanetary' . (1934) In Smith’s book Triplanetary, the author talks of records surviving a noxious gas attack because they were on playable discs of platinum alloy. Although CDs and DVDs are, of course, not platinum alloy, a metallic looking storage disc is fairly prescient.
Robot – as imagined by Karel Capek - 'Rossum’s Universal Robots' (1920) There are links to mechanical servants traceable back to Greek Mythology and the legend of Pygmalion, but the first use of the word robot in its modern usage comes from Capek’s play R.U.R – the root is from the Czech word ‘robota’ which means drudgery, although the author kindly gave credit to his brother Josef who had suggested the term.
Nanobots – as imagined by Raymond Z Gallun in 'A Menace in Minature' Astounding Stories magazine (1937) Gallun talks of ‘Scarabs’, a machine constructed by man which in turn constructs a replica of itself that is much smaller and so on, until you have an ‘ultra-microbot. This is an idea that caught on in a major way in fiction, and work is still ongoing on a real working nanobot to this day.
The Screensaver – as imagined by Robert Heinlein in 'Stranger in a Strange Land' (1961) Heinlein talks of a television screen ‘disguised as an aquarium’ in his book Stranger in a Strange land, with guppies and tetras swimming around, describing the now familiar site of a computer screen with fish floating serenely across it. Screen savers were brought in to stop an image being burnt on to a screen, and even the advent of monitors much more resistant to this problem has not really curbed their usage.
Scuba diving – as imagined by Jules Verne in '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' (1875) Although diving gear was nothing new, even in 1875, it was then only possible through a pipe to the surface and a semi-rigid suit. Captain Nemo introduces Arronnax to a portable system of diving in which air is compressed into a tank that is then ‘fixed on the back by means of braces, like a soldier’s knapsack.’ The progression of the aqualung continued through the early part of the 20th century, but was not perfected until the 1940s.
Verne's analysis resulted in the following correct predictions:
* The United States would launch the first manned vehicle to circumnavigate the moon.
* The cost of the program would be $5,446,675 US dollars in 1865 (equivalent to $ 12.112 billion US dollars in 1969; Apollo cost $ 14.405 billion dollars up to the Apollo 8 circumnavigation mission).
* The circumlunar spacecraft would have a crew of three. The names of the crew were Ardan, Barbicane, and Nicholl (Anders, Borman and Lovell on Apollo 8; Aldrin, Armstrong, Collins on Apollo 11).
* The circumlunar spacecraft would be built predominately of aluminum and have a mass of 19,250 pounds (empty mass of the predominately aluminum Apollo 8 circumlunar spacecraft was 26,275 pounds).
* The cannon used to launch the spacecraft was called a Columbiad. The Apollo 11 command module was named Columbia.
* After considering 12 sites in Texas and Florida, Stone Hill, south of Tampa, Florida is selected in Verne's novel. One hundred years later NASA considered 7 launch sites and selecting Merritt Island, Florida. In both cases Brownsville, Texas was rejected as a site; politics played a major role in the site selection; and site criteria included a latitude below 28 degrees north and good access to the sea.
* Verne's spacecraft was launched in December, from latitude 27 deg 7 min North, 82 deg 9 min West Longitude. After a journey of 242 hours 31 minutes, including 48 hours in lunar orbit, the spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 20 deg 7 min North, 118 deg 39 min West, and was recovered by the US Navy vessel Susquehanna.
The crew of Apollo 8 was launched in December 100 years later, from latitude 28 deg 27 min North, longitude 80 deg 36 min W (132 miles / 213 km from Verne's site). After a journey of 147 hours 1 minute, including 20 hours 10 minutes in lunar orbit. The spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean (8 deg 10 min North, 165 deg 00 min West) and was recovered by the US Navy vessel Hornet.