Many literary forecasts of our technological future have already come to pass: the atomic bomb, the submarine, and even the iPad. Discovering passages of science fiction that turned out to be eerily accurate predictions is certainly quite entertaining.
It’s also a point of controversy among Sci-FI enthusiasts. Eric Rabkin, a professor at the University of Michigan and the 2010 winner of the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction scholarship, explains why.
“First, there’s the infinite monkeys problem. If you have an infinite number of monkeys randomly pounding on typewriters for an infinite length of time, the odds are 100% that at least one of them will … write Hamlet,” explains Rabkin. “In other words, with thousands of [science fiction] writers turning out tens of thousands of visions of the future, in what sense is any coincidence between a future element and what comes to pass a prediction?”
Consider this a full disclosure: the following list is not exactly academic or even scientific. But the members of The Science Fiction Research Association who helped us compile this list agreed that these 11 science fiction prediction passages were entertaining enough to share.
1. The iPad: 1968
We all giggled earlier this year when Apple announced the iPad. Some of us made jokes about certain feminine products. But it looks like Arthur C. Clarke went down the the same naming route with the “newspad.”
“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…Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination…”
2. Tanks: 1903
The first tank battle in history didn’t take place until 1916, though it’s possible that seminal sci-fi author H.G. Wells was drawing upon Leonardo Da Vinci’s 15th century design when he imagined this scene in 1903.
‘Whit, whit, whit,’ sang something in the air…Bang came shrapnel, bursting close at hand as it seemed, and our two men were lying flat in a dip in the ground, and the light and everything had gone again, leaving a vast note of interrogation upon the night.
The war correspondent came within bawling range. ‘What the deuce was it? Shooting our men down!’
‘Black,’ said the artist, ‘and like a fort. Not two hundred yards from the first trench.’ He sought for comparisons in his mind. ‘Something between a big blockhouse and a giant’s dish-cover,’ he said.
‘And they were running!’ said the war correspondent.
‘You’d run if a thing like that, with a search-light to help it, turned up like a prowling nightmare in the middle of the night.’
In that flickering pallor it had the effect of a large and clumsy black insect, an insect the size of an iron-clad cruiser, crawling obliquely to the first line of trenches and firing shots out of portholes in its side. And on its carcass the bullets must have been battering with more than the passionate violence of hail on a roof of tin.
Then in the twinkling of an eye the curtain of the dark had fallen again and the monster had vanished, but the crescendo of musketry marked its approach to the trenches.
3. Virtual Reality Games: 1956
Considering that the first video game wasn’t created until 1958, virtual reality games were a pretty far reach in 1956.
Of all the thousands of forms of recreation in the city, these were the most popular. When you entered a saga, you were not merely a passive observer…You were an active participant and possessed—or seemed to possess—free will. The events and scenes which were the raw material of your adventures might have been prepared beforehand by forgotten artists, but there was enough flexibility to allow for wide variation. You could go into these phantom worlds with your friends, seeking the excitement that did not exist in Diaspar—and as long as the dream lasted there was no way in which it could be distinguished from reality.
4. The Atomic Bomb: 1914
“Though the term ‘atomic bomb’ had been used before Wells, it seems that he came up with the term on his own, and he was the one who popularized it,” says Dr. Patrick B. Sharp, who discusses this connection in his book Savage Perils. “He was extrapolating from the work of Frederick Soddy, a British chemist who worked on radioactivity.”
“It is remarkable that Wells should have written those pages in 1914. Of course, all this is moonshine, but I have reason to believe that in so far as the industrial applications of the present discoveries in physics are concerned, the forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists.”
The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933. From the first detection of radio-activity to its first subjugation to human purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century. For twenty years after that, indeed, minor difficulties prevented any striking practical application of his success, but the essential thing was done, this new boundary in the march of human progress was crossed, in that year. He set up atomic disintegration in a minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrated in its turn in the course of seven days, and it was only after another year’s work that he was able to show practically that the last result of this rapid release of energy was gold. But the thing was done—at the cost of a blistered chest and an injured finger, and from the moment when the invisible speck of bismuth flashed into riving and rending energy, Holsten knew that he had opened a way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to worlds of limitless power.
5. The cubicle: 1909
We admit that most cubicles aren’t hexagonal and don’t come with armchairs, but still, those beehive-like, fluorescent-lit cubes where so many of us click away our days didn’t catch on until the late 1960’s.
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
An electric bell rang.
The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.
“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.
“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.
But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:
“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes — for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on ‘Music during the Australian Period.’”
6. Earbud Headphones: 1950
Apple’s earbuds became the prominent headphone design when they were released with the first-generation iPod in 2001. When Bradbury wrote this in 1950, headphones looked more like this.
And in her ears the little seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.
7. Video Chat: 1911
AT&T started demonstrating its picturephone at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The public was invited to place calls to a special exhibit at Disneyland. The first webcam was pointed at the coffee pot in the Trojan Room of the Computer Science Department of Cambridge University. Skype () was founded in 2003.
Stepping to the Telephot on the side of the wall, he pressed a group of buttons and in a few minutes the faceplate of the Telephot became luminous, revealing the face of a clean-shaven man about thirty, a pleasant but serious face.
As soon as he recognized the face of Ralph in his own Telephot, he smiled and said, “Hello, Ralph.” “Hello, Edward. I wanted to ask you if you could come over to the laboratory tomorrow morning. I have something unusually interesting to show you. Look!”
He stepped to one side of his instrument so that his friend could see the apparatus on the table about ten feet from the Telephot faceplate.
The two men addressed turned obediently, after one reluctant glance at Graham, and instead of going through the archway as he expected, walked straight to the dead wall of the apartment opposite the archway. And then came a strange thing; a long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap, hung over the two retreating men and fell again, and immediately Graham was alone with the new comer and the purple-robed man with the flaxen beard.
9. The Escalator: 1940
Although this is an often-cited example of a science fiction invention, the first escalator-like machine was actually patented in 1892 and the first moving walkway debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
They glided down an electric staircase, and debouched on the walkway which bordered the north-bound five-mile-an-hour strip. “Have you ever ridden a conveyor strip before?” Gaines inquired. “It’s quite simple. Just remember to face against the motion of the strip as you get on.”
They threaded their way through homeward-bound throngs, passing from strip to strip…
After passing through three more wind screens located at the forty, sixty and eighty-mile-an-hour strips, respectively, they finally reached the maximum speed strip, the hundred mile and hour strip, which made the round trip, San Diego to Reno and back, in twelve hours.
10. The Submarine: 1869
Jules Verne’s submarine is similar to the escalator in being frequently misquoted as an invention. According to Rabkin, the Nautilus was actually based on a submarine that had been used with military success by the Confederacy five years earlier.
“Verne didn’t so much predict the submarine as imagine how, in a more capable form, it might bear on social, political, scholarly, and even psychological matters,” explains Rabkin.
For some time past vessels had been met by “an enormous thing,” a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.
The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various log-books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question, the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a whale, it surpassed in size all those hitherto classified in science. Taking into consideration the mean of observations made at divers times — rejecting the timid estimate of those who assigned to this object a length of two hundred feet, equally with the exaggerated opinions which set it down as a mile in width and three in length — we might fairly conclude that this mysterious being surpassed greatly all dimensions admitted by the learned ones of the day, if it existed at all.
11. Radar: 1911
The evocation of radar in this passage is to Rabkin’s knowledge, the “one invention that ever appeared first in science fiction in adequate form and detail to count as a true prediction.” Guglielmo Marconi didn’t create a working device that could detect remote objects by signals until 1933.
A pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light ray is reflected from a bright surface… By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area. Sooner or later these waves would strike a space flyer. A small part of these waves would strike the metal body of the flyer, and these rays would be reflected back to the sending apparatus. Here they would fall on the Actinoscope, which records only the reflected waves, not direct ones.
…From the intensity and elapsed time of the reflected impulses, the distance between the earth and the flyer can then be accurately estimated.