§00. Practical invention following conceptual abstraction | The civilizational significance of literary art is this: sensory evocation and model generation (and secondarily, application). The preferred format for model dispensation varies (novels, novellas, short stories, manifestos, poems, etc) but the effect of all great literary works is, at least in one way, the same: that the generated concepts of the fictive world are externalized so as to impact the real one by the creation of new cultural milieu or inventions (which, given sufficient use, have the same effect; milieu creation by proxy). To illustrate this point are twelve examples of literary conceptions which drove practical and significant technical invention.
§01. Creation of the credit card | Everyone knows the credit card, its conceptual inventor, Edward Bellamy, however, is considerably less well known. A college drop out and fiction author, Bellamy’s 1888 utopian scifi novel, Looking Back, prefigured both the modern debit card and contemporary department stores.
§02. Invention of the TASER | The Tom Swift series contained over 100 novels, one of which was, Tom Swift & His Electric Rifle (1911), which saw the titular hero traveling to “Darkest Africa.” Interestingly, Swift’s device formed the conceptual basis for the TASER, originally TSER (‘Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle’).
§03. Invention of the modern helicopter | In 1886 Jules Verne published the novel, Robur le Conquérant (Robur the Conqueror), also known as The Clipper of the Clouds. The story follows Robur and his airship, Albatross. It so inspired Igor Sikorsky that it lead him to invent his own flying machine; the modern helicopter.
§04. Invention of the open water submarine | After reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, inventor Simon Lake became enamoured with undersea travel. As a consequence of this newfound passion he designed The Argonaut (completed 1897), the world’s first successful open-water submarine. Jules Verne congratulated him via letter. [The ‘20,000 leagues’ in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870), referred to the total distance traveled whilst under the sea, not the lowest depth to which the Nautilus descended.]
§05. Invention of teleconferencing | In his book, In the year 2889 (1889), Jules Verne wrote of a technology called the ‘phonotelephote’ that allowed for “the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires,” conceptually forerunning modern video-conferencing technology.
§06. Origin of the word ‘robot’ | The word ‘robot’ is a relatively new addition to the english language and finds its origin in the play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (1920) by Karel Čapek (1880-1938). The play concerns the story of a industrialist who creates a class of synthetic people called ‘roboti.’
§07. Inspiration for chain reaction theory | In 1932, British scientists determined how to split an atom. The same year, physicist Leo Szilard discovered H.G. Wells’ novel, The World Set Free (1914), which helped the scientist to understand “what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean.”
§08. The literary inspiration for the world wide web | In 1964 Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, Dial F for Frankenstein, was published in Playboy. The plot concerned a telephone network that becomes sentient. This concept greatly impressed Tim Berners-Lee, who later went on to MIT where he laid the groundwork for the world wide web.
§09. Creation of geostationary satellites | Between 1942 & 1945, the Venus Equilateral short story series by George Oliver Smith (also known by the pen name Wesley Long), was published in Astounding Science Fiction. The stories were the first in popular literature to make mention of geostationary orbit.
§10. Creation of the waldo/telefactor/remote manipulator | Robert A. Heinlein’s 1942 short story, Waldo, tells the tale of a genius born with crippling physical weakness, who fashions mechanical arms to ameliorate his difficulties. ‘The waldo’ (telefactor) of the nuclear industry was named in recognition of Heinlein’s innovative idea.
§11. Invention of self-replicating program | The sci-fi cyber-thriller, The Shockwave Rider (1975) by John Brenner, described a self-replicating program that spreads throughout a computer network. In 1982, Shoch and Hupp created the first computer worm (self-replicating and spreading computer virus).
§12. Inspiration for warship combat information centers | In the 1930s-40s the Lensmen novels series by E. E. Smith, proved popular with readers in its depiction of the adventures of a fantastical galactic patrol. The Directrix, a command ship featured in the series, directly inspired the creation of warship combat information centers.
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- Bill Ryan. (1995) What Verne Imagined, Sikorsky Made Fly. New York Times.
- Charlotte Ahlin. (2018) 11 Real-Life Inventions Inspired By Science Fiction Novels. Bustle.
- Daniel P. Kirkpatrick. (2012) Dail F For Frankenstein: The Birth Of The World Wide Web. Living In The Metaverse.
- Gabriel Thebeholder. (2015) 33 Inventions Inspired by SF. Slide Share.
- Howard Markel. (2011) The Origin Of The Word ‘Robot.’ Science Friday.
- Trent Hamm. (2014) Edward Bellamy, Inventor of the Credit Card. The Simple Dollar.
- Vangie Beal. (2015) The Difference Between a Virus, Worm & Trojan Horse. Webopedia.
- Yazin Akkawi. (2018) The Role Of Science Fiction In Design. Prototypr.
- Archive.org: Astounding Science Fiction collection.
- George O. Smith wikipedia entry.
- Venus Equilateral wikipedia entry.