How has science fiction inspired science?

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

An exploration into the relationship between science fiction and innovation. By Eloise Smith

Illustration based on Frankenstein

Technology is such an integral part of our lives to the extent that verbs such as “googling” are an everyday part of our vocabulary. Science has also had an impact on the media that we consume; many movies these days use special effects and often films dream up amazing technologies for plots that take place on another world. But what about the flip-side? Has science fiction had an impact on science? After all, it is people who decide where the funding for new research goes and those new ideas for new technologies do not just appear out of nowhere. This article looks at inventions that have been inspired by science fiction, from defibrillators to mobile phones.

Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus’ in the spring of 1817; it was published in the January of 1818. In chapter 5 of this well-known classic, lightning is used to animate the body of the monster. It has been thought that this could have inspired the modern defibrillator, but the research into stopping and starting hearts with electricity was first investigated by the Danish physician, Peter Christian Abilgard, in 1775, through his experiments on chickens. Then, in 1899 (81 years after Shelley’s novel was published) Swiss physiologists, Batelli and Prevost, proved that applying a strong voltage to the heart of a dog could restart it. In 1928, William Bennet Kouwenhoven, a US electrical engineer, began to invent the defibrillator and, in 1933, with help from Orthello Langworthy, a US doctor, demonstrated how ventricular fibrillation could be reversed by applying an internal electrical current. Kouwenhoven then went on to develop external defibrillators in 1956 and, in the process, he developed CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation). In 1947, Claude S. Beck was the first person to save a human life through defibrillation. Portable defibrillators were invented in 1960, allowing defibrillation to be done outside of hospitals for the first time. In 1978 these were followed by the Automatic External Defibrillator (AED), with the introduction of sensors to detect ventricular fibrillation alongside instructions, thus decreasing the amount of training that the operator required. As such, this may be a chicken and egg scenario, where Shelley may have been inspired by Abilgard and then her novel could have gone on to inspire the others.

Another example of how science fiction has predicted science is in the 1888 novel ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy. In this book, the main character falls asleep in 1887 and wakes in the year 2000, where the world is shown to be a socialist utopia. One of the features of this utopia is the credit card; a card that can be used in any store to purchase items, and where both parties have a receipt of the transaction. Sound familiar? Not in 1888, where credit was not universal and, instead, was an agreement between individual stores and their regular customers. In fact, the first cards issued by banks were not introduced until 1946. Named ‘charge-it’ cards, they were invented by John Biggins, a Brooklyn banker; they could only be used in local stores and were only issued to the bank’s customers. This ‘closed-loop’ system involved the bank acting as a middleman, who would reimburse the vendor and then obtain payment from the customer. The Franklin National Bank followed this example 5 years later and the concept took off from there. In 1960, the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) introduced the magnetic stripe on the card, giving it added verification. In the 1990s, embedded EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa) computer chips began to take their place, as they allowed for encrypted 2-way authentication... and voila!... we have the credit cards that we know today.

As perhaps one of the most iconic sci-fi TV shows, ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ also deserves a mention for its role in inspiring mobile phones. ‘Star Trek’ was first publicly broadcasted on 8 September 1966 and, in the episode ‘The Man Trap,’ the communicator device was introduced. This device, which resembled a flip-top phone, was able to call and receive messages between the planet’s surface and the spaceship orbiting overhead. This idea of handheld communication devices was a novel idea. Whilst the British police have been using two-way radios since the 1930s, these types of private systems were bulky, expensive, and thus not suitable for wide use by the public. Throughout the 1970s, the US-based Bell Labs researched setting up a network of base stations for portable telephones that would send and receive radio frequencies. The idea was to set up each station, which would cover an area referred to as a ‘cell’. Each cell would operate at different frequencies, eliminating any interference between them. The stations would connect the signals as part of a network so that users could switch between cells and their corresponding frequencies. This system, called the Advance Mobile Phone System (AMPS), was running on a small scale in the US by the end of the decade. In 1982, the British government licensed Vodafone and Cellnet to set up the country’s mobile communications network. The first commercially available mobile phone that could communicate over AMPS was developed by Martin Cooper, an engineer from Motorola; he was directly inspired by the ‘Star Trek’ communicators. It was released in 1984 by Motorola, known as ‘The Brick’, officially called ‘DynaTac’ and weighing in at over a kilogram. It was wildly popular with wealthy businessmen, despite a price of about £3,000 (roughly £7,500 today). The first flip phone was the Motorola StarTac, released in 1996.

The role of these inventions in shaping society today is invaluable, from saving lives to allowing easier payment options to facilitating seamless communication. Yet, today’s science fiction is as wondrous to us as these current technologies would be to the societies of the past. So, as past societies have driven the science that has shaped the society of today, it is difficult to say which has had the bigger impact: science or society?

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