15 Sci-Fi Predictions That Came True
Sci-fi gets a bad rap for a lot of its cornier stories, so it’s easy to forget just how prescient the genre can be. Science fiction is all about extrapolating a future based on technology only slightly beyond imagination, and sci-fi storytellers have in many ways acted as leading voices in the development of the tech and ideas we all take for granted. Here are 15 devices that sounded outlandish when people first read about them but are now such an integral part of our lives that we wouldn’t know what to do without them. These are just a few of the many sci-fi predictions that came true:
1. Scuba Diving
First mentioned: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne, 1875
Although diving suits existed when Jules Verne’s novel was published, they were the stiff, clumsy ones that limited the user’s movement and connected them via a long tube to an air supply above. But in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, characters use a backpack-sized breathing apparatus that presaged modern divers’ tanks decades before they were used.
2. Credit Cards
First mentioned: Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy, 1888
Edward Bellamy’s novel envisioned a 21st century in which money was eliminated and people carried cards that held a certain amount of capital that could be spent. The idea’s a little closer to debit cards than credit cards, though the principle is the same.
3. Automatic Doors
First mentioned: The Sleeper Awakes, H.G. Wells, 1899
Originally published as When the Sleeper Wakes but given a title tweak when Wells polished it in 1910, this novel was the earliest depiction of the kinds of automatic doors that are now used in everything from banks to convenience stores. Wells’ device rolled up like a desktop rather than slide vertically, though it’s the same core idea.
4. The Rotating Space Station
First mentioned: The Prince of Space, Jack Williamson, 1931
Although many people first took notice of the idea of rotating space stations in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the concept was first popularized in 1931 in Jack Williamson’s novel The Prince of Space. The story’s City of Space was a large metal cylinder that rotated to simulate gravity through outward force. Modern space flight uses this same idea.
5. Artificial Womb
First mentioned: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World was the first sci-fi story to describe a world in which children are grown in artificial wombs outside the mother. The tech now has very real implications.
6. Geosynchronous Satellites
First mentioned: “Extra-Terrestrial Relays,” Arthur C. Clarke, 1945 (Wireless World magazine)
Arthur C. Clarke makes repeat appearances on this list, thanks to his inventiveness and method for conjuring seemingly magical new devices that would soon be commonplace. In 1945, he published an article titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” that posited the idea of satellites that orbited the Earth in such a way that they were always over the same spot on the planet. Because of his forward thinking, geosynchronous orbits are now often referred to as “Clarke orbits.”
7. Television Surveillance
First mentioned: 1984, George Orwell, 1949
George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel about totalitarianism spawned a number of phrases and ideas, from Big Brother to doublethink. It was the concept of omnipresent telescreens that foreshadowed the real-world rise of security cameras and closed-circuit television as a criminal deterrent. We now deal every day with cameras and monitors that seemed farfetched 60 years ago.
8. The Pocket Calculator
First mentioned: Foundation, Isaac Asimov, 1951
Isaac Asimov’s multi-volume Foundation series has won numerous awards, and it was in the first novel that he introduced a concept that would later be recognizable to school children around the world. Calculators in 1951 weren’t remotely pocket-sized, and computers spanned desks and entire rooms, but Asimov was already writing about a world where handheld computational devices were the norm.
9. The Inflatable Air Lock
First mentioned: Space Tug, Murray Leinster, 1953
This reference to inflatable air locks, a more compact alternative to fixed ones, appeared in print 12 years before the Soviet space vehicle Voskhod 2 used the same technology. That voyage was the first space walk in history.
10. Computer-Aided Design
First mentioned: The Door Into Summer, Robert Heinlein, 1956
Drafting programs that use computer software to create schematics and designs are now standard in the industry, but Robert Heinlein’s 1956 imagining of a computer-aided design system was a few years ahead of its real-world adoption. Real CAD use didn’t explode until the 1960s.
11. The Light Sail
First mentioned: The Lady Who Sailed the Soul, Cordwainer Smith, 1960
Light sails, also known as solar sails, use radiation pressure emanating from stars to push an object’s sails, which are made of thin mirrors. The first major use of the idea appeared in this 1960 novel, with the fictional sail stretching 20,000 miles to catch an enormous amount of energy and propel its craft at high speeds. Real solar sails are now being tested in vacuums, and minor deployment tests have taken place on space stations.
12. Digital Books
First mentioned: Return From the Stars, Stanislaw Lem, 1961
Digital readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have helped popularize the idea of reading electronic copies of books and shopping for them via a digital store, but it was Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Return From the Stars that first tested the waters with the concept. The story tells of how books have been turned into “crystals with recorded contents” that are read and navigated using touch-screen technology. Fifty years later, you can buy something that does the same thing.
13. Online Newspapers
First mentioned: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, 1968
Clarke’s seminal sci-fi novel, paired with Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name, was the first to popularize the notion of reading newspapers online. The book’s descriptions of being able to scan through the world’s daily papers sounds a lot like the now-common practice of visiting news sites and aggregators to get the latest headlines.
First mentioned: The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974
Niven was noted for his prominence in the field of hard sci-fi, the subgenre that pays a closer attention to technical details than other stories do, and this 1974 work with Jerry Pournelle was the first appearance of what modern readers recognize as a personal data assistant, or pocket computer. The book’s device even uses a stylus, much like the popular PalmPilot would in the late 1990s.
15. Laptop Computers
First mentioned: Inherit the Stars, James P. Hogan, 1977
Although computing had made great strides by 1977, the idea of a portable computer was still largely fictional, especially if the computer in question was supposed to be small enough to fit on someone’s lap. But that’s just what James P. Hogan had in mind when he wrote of powerful personal computers small enough to fit inside briefcases. It’s a little head-spinning to realize that you’re probably reading this on a machine that most people hadn’t conceived of 30 years ago. Science fiction has a funny way of working out like that.
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