March's featured article

Science Fiction to Science Fact

Messina Smith : Office of Innovation Development

Many of us today still recall our mothers telling us to stop “living in a fantasy world” or to “put down that comic book and go outside!” The concern being that our brains would rot if we didn’t get the fresh air needed to grow and succeed. Little did our mothers know how inspirational fantasy books, movies, and comic strips have been to American innovation.

Some of the most well-known inventions, past and present, can be traced back to science fiction. Of course there’s no way to list every invention that has its roots in fiction, and in many cases it is simply a coincidence that someone invented a device that another person first imagined in a story. But with every new sci-fi book, movie, or video game that is released, there’s no knowing if it will be the spark of inspiration for the next flip phone (aka the Star Trek communication device).

In the 1899 novel “When the Sleeper Wakes” by H.G. Wells, the main character sleeps for 200 years and awakens in the future. At one point, the narrator describes “a long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap, hung over the two retreating men and fell again.” Readers at the time may have had difficulty imagining such a contraption or understanding its purpose, but just over 60 years later, Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt invented the automatic door, now a common component of buildings all over the world. In 1967, the pair were issued their first patent for the sliding panel traversing housing and supporting means (U.S. Patent no. 3,327,428). Then, in 1969, a second patent was issued for the swinging slide panel construction (U.S. Patent no. 3,464,159). Today, Horton Automatics is still selling doors to commercial, industrial, and institutional locations.

Another book that heralded a very popular invention is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” published in 1953. In it, Bradbury describes “little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in” that people put in their ears—a pretty fair description of what we would come to call “earbud” headphones. Earbuds are now a common sight on the street for the young and old. Inventors have been playing with the concept for decades, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s when Sony released the Walkman that earbud headphones gained popularity. A gradual incline of users through the ‘80s and ‘90s led to a boom when Apple came out with the iPod. With every purchase, users received a pair of white earbuds. These headphones became a mark of owners’ brand loyalty and pride, and since their introduction, earbuds have become even more popular and iconic.

Children of the 1960s and later will remember “The Jetsons,” an animated show produced by Hanna-Barbera. There were many futuristic inventions portrayed in this show, but the one with the biggest personality was Rosie the Robot. Serving as maid for the Jetson family, she also helped raise the children and dispensed advice (along with food pills) as needed. Today, a less humanlike robot can be found helping with the cleaning in many a home. Roomba, the autonomous robotic vacuum, was launched in 2002 by iRobot.. Today, more than 10 million have been sold, with multiple model versions released to the public. iRobot holds many patents for the Roomba’s technology, but the first was U.S. 6,594,844 for a robot obstacle detection system.

And finally, the one the world has been waiting for with bated breath: the hover board. In 1989, Amblin Entertainment released the feature film “Back to the Future 2,” in which Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels forward in time to 2015. Yes, his future is currently our present. There were a multitude of futuristic inventions portrayed in this film, some of which have come to pass, but the most beloved and wished-for invention—the one that stoked the imagination of many ‘80s kids (and adults for that matter), was the hover board. As of 2014, we finally have one. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Hendo Hover created a working hover board. The device is based on magnetic technology, and though it can only operate above a non-ferrous metal surface (for now), it has piqued many people’s interests. You can go online and watch legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk test the device, and though it’s a little bulkier than what was in the movie, the design is nonetheless breathtaking.

The human imagination has taken us from living in caves to the technologically advanced world we now inhabit. With every step forward, we create a wealth of possibilities for the next generation of humanity. Writers, filmmakers, artists—they are all dreamers who foresee a world that is often unimaginable to the rest of us. Of course, it takes a lot of time and work, but there’s no denying that what was once science fiction can eventually become science fact.

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