On a recent trip to the Aspen Ideas Festival, I had the distinct pleasure of listening to inventor, designer, and former Disney Imagineer, Bran Ferren, discuss the importance of entertainment-inspired technology.
"Both entertainment and science—throughout history—have benefitted from an exchange. I think it’s a crisis in the United States that we separate them, that there isn't an institute of arts and technology. It’s all intertwined together. If you look at the history of technology, geocentric satellites happened because Arthur C. Clark imagined it and put it in a science fiction novel. Then the science followed," Ferren told a packed lecture hall.
That begs the question: what other technological advancements occurred as a direct result of pop culture's influence? If you're reading this on your smart phone, you'll want to stick around to find out.
1. The Taser
Inspired by: Young adult fiction from the early 1900s
Did you know the word "taser" is an acronym? Thomas-A.-Swift's-Electronic-Rifle. If you're asking yourself, "What the hell?" as you rightfully should be, let me enlighten you. Thomas A. Swift was a fictional inventor from a series of young adult novels, published in the early 20th century. When Jack Cover, a physicist from NASA, developed the Taser, he named it after his childhood hero (Swift) and one of his favorite books featuring the character.
2. Cell Phones
Inspired by: Star Trek
Next time you get a text, thank William Shatner. Martin Cooper was the Director of Research and Development at Motorola for decades, and is often referred to as "the father of the cell phone" for his work developing theMotorola DynaTAC, the world's first one. Cooper openly admits to being directly influenced by Star Trek's Communicator devices, while designing and conceptualizing the DynaTAC. That's pretty impressive, but we're still waiting on those teleports, guys...
Inspired by: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
As a child, inventor Simon Lake fell in love with legendary science fiction writer Jules Verne—namely Verne's classic undersea adventure/anti-squid novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and its fictional sub, The Nautilus. This early fascination led him to an interest in undersea exploration, and eventually he built what we know now as the modern submarine, complete with a periscope, diver's quarters, and an airlock. Though the concept of a submarine had previously been explored, Lake created a fully functional version that allowed for complete operation in the open ocean—and the spark came from one of his favorite books. Jules Verne even sent Lake a congratulatory letter, which probably made him geek out.
4. The rocket
Inspired by: Various novels by H. G. Wells
Robert H. Goddard, the dude who invented liquid-fueled rockets, was obsessed with early Sci-Fi author/pioneer H. G. Wells and his writings on theoretical space travel. Wells' novels War of The Worlds and Fighters From Mars—along with their detailed descriptions of not-yet-invented spaceships—"made a deep impression" on the imagination of a young Goddard. Goddard brought these radical concepts into the real world years later, developing the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, and kept a correspondence with Wells till his death.
Inspired by: Star Trek
So the idea of tablets has been around for a long time, but Steve Jobs was a known Star Trek fan, even commenting once that if he could have it his way, he'd want our world to be like Star Trek, technology-wise. But how much inspiration was drawn from Star Trek's ubiquitous PADD? It's hard to say, but the impetus behind the original iPad definitely had hints of Trekkie installed in its DNA. Don't believe me? Check out the promo images for the original iPad announcement. Kind of subtle, but not really.
6. Telecommunication satellites
Inspired by: Arthur C. Clarke novels and papers
Author Arthur C. Clarke earned the nickname "Prophet of the Space Age" because so much of his theoretical writings ended up becoming reality. For instance, the theory of using satellites for communication relays. Though the idea of modern, geostationary satellites wasn't his brainchild, the (then) novel idea of using them for communications was. In 1945, he published a paper in Wireless World, outlining his plan, which was seriously ahead of its time. So much so, that no one really took it seriously when it was published. It took two decades for the world's first commercial geostationary communication satellite to launch in 1965, no doubt resulting in Clark saying "I told you so, jerks," at least a few times.
7. The Helicopter
Inspired by: Jules Verne's Clipper of the Clouds
Another invention that leapt from the pages of a Jules Verne novel, and straight into the noggin of a brilliant inventor—the helicopter. Igor Sikorsky's story mirrors that of Simon Lake's: as a child he was fascinated by the work of Verne, and as an adult, turned his fiction into the world's reality. In 1939, Sikorsky created the first real, operational helicopter, and is now considered to be the father of helicoptering (pretty sure that's a real word). In a New York Times article, Sikorsky's son claims that his father was directly influenced by Verne's book, Clipper of the Clouds, which featured a helicopter-like machine, and would also use this Verne quote often: "Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real." True that.
8. Atomic power
Inspired by: H. G. Wells' The World Set Free
Yet another occurrence of H. G. Wells' science fiction influencing real-world scientists, this one happened when noted physicist Leo Szilard read The World Set Free. The novel (written in 1913) detailed the fictional emergence of artificial atomic energy, followed by an intense World War, which preceded eventual world peace. Szilard read Wells' book in the early 1930s, which led him to create nuclear chain reactions, as well as campaign for the peaceful, responsible use of the newfound, God-like technology. Unfortunately, I think we know how that turned out.
Inspired by: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Yep, another Apple-Star Trek connection. When Apple scientist Steve Perlman saw a character on Star Trek: The Next Generation listening to multiple tracks on his space computer, he thought, "Hey, I wish I could do that!" So, he created Quicktime, the little bit of software that lets you maximize your computer's potential, and makes you update every month or so, often at the worst time possible.
10. The Waldo (mechanical arms)
Inspired by: Robert Heinlein's Waldo
Though he doesn't have the mainstream name recognition of Wells or Verne, early science fiction author Robert Heinlein lent a...hand...in the creation of mechanical arms, designed to do the the dangerous dirty work that could harm feeble human limbs. In his short story Waldo (written in 1942), a disabled inventor uses remotely controlled arms to aid him in inventing. The Central Research Laboratories consequently created a mechanical arm, which they questionably titled the "Master-Slave Manipulator," inspired by Heinlein's writings. Now, these remotely controlled mechanical arms are often referred to as "Waldos." The more you know, right?
11. Self-tying shoelaces
Inspired by: Back To The Future: Part II
Okay, so this isn't really world-changing, but it is kind of cool that at least one thing we saw from Back to the Future: Part II came true by the year 2015 (we're looking at you, hoverboards). Anyway, thank Nike for creating another shoe-based advancement that will clearly elevate the human race to unimaginable new heights. Now seriously, someone start working on that hoverboard.
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