10 Sci-Fi Gadgets That Inspired Real Inventions
In 1818, Mary Shelley proved that girls do love science fiction after all: she created the genre with Frankenstein. Ever since, sci-fi has always featured a vast array of amazing technology.
Naturally, those ideas have inspired real life designers who use their own brand of ingenuity to turn a spark of an idea or a fictional prop into a real, usable product that can be bought, sold and enjoyed. From that very first story where a man harnessed the power of science and nature to create life, inventors have been inspired. After all, what is the modern defibrillator if not a device that uses the power of electricity to bring human beings to life?
The entire Star Trek franchise is rife with examples of this, largely because of the well-constructed future world that was created and maintained. Their sliding doors (originally operated by two men pulling props apart while awkwardly trying to make sure they looked smooth) were soon seen worldwide, and as illustrated Deep Space Nine’s wearable tech would later be available to all in the form of smart glasses.
With that in mind, here are ten more inventions whose creators drew inspiration from sci-fi gadgets – with original concepts dating as far back as 1870.
10. Tablet Computers
Star Trek The Next Generation first aired in 1987, over thirty years ago. Most of those reading this were probably children then, or not yet born.
A key part of the Enterprise crew’s everyday equipment was the PADD, a piece of technology that seemed entirely futuristic to audiences at the time. Touch screen enabled, able to store and access seemingly limitless data and memory in a handheld device and absolutely commonplace to the crew, the Personal Access Display Device could be used for all manner of things from advanced Starfleet exploratory work to sending simple text messages from one crew member to another.
Designer Michael Okuda explained that the PADD was mainly designed to be, “as inexpensive as possible,” combined with, “as futuristic as possible.” The touch screen technology that has now became such a key part of our modern world was chosen by the art department at the time as it saved the creation of countless buttons, flashing lights and levers on the set.
Now, tablet computers can be found and used everywhere, and are in many settings as readily available as they were on the Enterprise.
9. 3D Printers
Let’s stick with Star Trek for another entry or two. Its influence on technology, after all, is renowned. The replicator appeared from the beginning, and remains one of the most ingenious and seemingly far-fetched inventions of the 23rd Century and beyond. In the show, as well as supporting and feeding the crew of a starship, it helped to cure hunger and bring about world peace.
However, hundreds of years before Kirk and co set out on their five-year mission, 3D printers carry out an extremely similar job to the replicator, at least as far as producing non-edible equipment is concerned. Starfleet officers get their uniforms, gifts for one another and all kinds of solid items from the replicator, and now it is common to see 3D printers working with glass, metal, plastic and even less versatile materials such as wax to produce all manner of end products from car parts to bionic arms.
With the technology becoming rapidly more advanced, it looks as if 3D printers will be carrying out the replicator’s tasks long before the time of the Enterprise. One of the current most accessible 3D printers even bears the name ‘The Replicator,’ and last year technology was exhibited serving 3D printed meat at an Australian conference.
8. Mobile Phones
Perhaps now overlooked for the technological marvel that they are, mobile telephones were predicted with a design remarkably similar to the real thing back in 1966 – when the most mobile of phones were those that came with the longest wires.
The man most often credited with the invention of the modern mobile telephone, Martin Cooper, led a team at Motorola to try to outdo rival AT&T’s domination of the car phone industry. In just 90 days, his team had developed a working handheld phone in 1973. Cooper has often cited that the idea to move from car phone to a completely mobile device came from Star Trek.
As the technology developed, of course, so did the designs (Cooper’s 1973 version had a 20 minute battery and weighed a kilogram) and we would in time see the flip phone appear, even more closely mirroring Star Trek.
7. Bluetooth Devices
The last of the Star Trek inspired inventions in this list is the Bluetooth earpiece. Again, as the technology becomes more readily available it can become harder to appreciate, but small and sophisticated items working without wires to connect them back in the 1960s represented a fantastical idea.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the Bluetooth device is the similarity to the TV series. Communications Officer Uhura would work for hours at a time with the prop sat, seemingly quite comfortably, in her ear carrying out a conversation or listening to input – just as many of us do today. The role in communications is the same, and you can even buy working Bluetooth ear pieces that look just like Uhura’s should the need take you.
Jules Verne published 20,000 Leages Under The Sea back in 1870 featuring The Nautilus, Captain Nero’s groundbreaking submersible ship. In reality, submarine-like technology had been tried for many decades before this with ideas recorded in the 16th Century and patents placed various times in the 18th Century.
However, production stalled and the idea of a true submarine was almost given up on – until Verne’s Nautilus provided inspiration. His fictional sub featured a double hull, a design separated into multiple watertight compartments and powerful pumps to empty its floodable tanks at speed and to control its buoyancy with precision. Verne even wrote about the concept of hydroplaning, in which The Nautilus dives deeply and quickly at a steep angle.
Just 28 years after the publication of 20,000 Leagues, American Simon Lake’s The Argonaut became the first submarine to operate successfully in the open sea. It travelled for over 2,000 miles in dangerous waters and Lake received a congratulatory telegram from Jules Verne, whose ideas he had admitted to taking inspiration from.
5. Video Calls
Video calls have been a huge staple of science fiction, almost as if creative teams have assumed that these will happen no matter what. They have played key roles in films such as Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Back To The Future Part II, and were actually first seen as far back as 1927’s Metropolis.
1927 – think about that. Just nine years after the end of World War One. A year before the invention of Mickey Mouse and a decade before Snow White. But Metropolis, the German silent science fiction film (which was one of the first ever of feature length in the genre) features the powerful master of the dystopian city using a combination of video and telephone to give his orders.
Director Fritz Lang includes a strange paper-related aspect and a complicated control system, but the effect of video calling is created in a way that was later closely mirrored in the video phones of the end of the 20th Century.
4. Voice-Activated Computers
Voice-activated computers are another genuine staple of science fiction. If it’s set in space, with a computer, chances are that computer can talk. Perhaps less famously than its 23rd Century cousin (though both were voiced by Majel Barrett) the original Enterprise had a talking computer, though it rarely said more than, “Working…” Far more expressively, with the voice of a soothing therapist, we met and were terrified by HAL 9000 in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When these were originally on our screens, and indeed when the Enterprise D’s upgraded and far more articulate computer appeared, the idea of conversing with a computer seemed appealing as both a technological marvel and also something of a luxury.
By 2010, Siri appeared in an app for iOS. It was quickly integrated into the iPhone 4s for a release in 2011 and people the world over were talking to – and often joking with – a computer.
3. Digital Billboards
In recent years, digital billboards have blazed across our cities, along our roads and into our shopping centres and underground train stations. Before much time has passed, they begin to seem unremarkable. However, ten or so years ago they were the stuff of science fiction.
Predicted as a huge and everpresent reminder of the capitalism that drove the dystopian setting of Blade Runner and also appearing prominently in the city-planet of Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels, the idea of gigantic and light-polluting adverts dominating our cities seemed overpowering and, well, just too money-hungry. That feeling doesn’t seem to have put off the advertisers of the 21st Century, however, because as soon as the technology became available, their popularity in reality boomed.
They don’t yet quite cover the side of a skyscraper, but once again this tech has become real far sooner than many would ever have expected.
The first sighting of a smartwatch in fiction was way back in the 1930s with the comic strip adventures of Dick Tracy. His was mostly used to communicate with headquarters, complete with TV display, but it is worth remembering that this idea predates World War Two.
Since then, smartwatches have appeared in Inspector Gadget, James Bond, Knight Rider, Futurama and in the Men In Black films. They’ve had laser beams, the ability to remotely control vehicles and to do just about anything to move their stories along.
Now, the Apple Watch and fitbit devices such as the Garmin Fenix carry out the communicative jobs the sci-fi writers of the more distant past would have imagined, and these affordable pieces of wearable tech are beginning to take over the globe. We hope it won’t be too long before laser beams and car summoning apps are released.
1. Virtual Reality Devices
The idea of virtual reality actually dates back to 1935, in the story Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbaum. In his groundbreaking story, he wrote of a form of entertainment similar to a dream, more immersive than a movie, in which, “the story is all about you, and you are in it.”
Looking further into the later years of the 20th Century, ideas of virtual reality were developed in popular films like Total Recall and The Matrix. In each of these, the user was dropped into a world which felt entirely real to them – though they had to lie back in chairs and suffered rather unpleasant installation processes. Other instances were even closer to modern reality and featured the entry to a virtual world through a mask which can be pulled over the face. These included Lawnmower Man, Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic.
In reality, the 1990s were plagued with failed attempts to develop a fun virtual reality experience, for example Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (or VR-32) whose games were coloured entirely in red and black and that was discontinued after just a year. Fast forward to the present day, however, and VR systems like those seen in Hackers are being given away with mobile phones as a freebie.
We might not yet be in the world of fully-immersive experiences, but we’ve made tremendous progress in recent years and once again the inspiration was drawn from fiction.