Science fiction writers dreamed about all these first!
We will try to determine who thought first about rockets, submarines, or robots. Were they engineers? Or science fictions writers and poets?
So, let us play a little game, a variant of the classical one about the prerequisite of the egg versus the chicken.
From the beginning of the written word, literature helped to expand the realms between reality and the imagination. Long before engineers, before software development or IoT systems, some people imagined the unthinkable. They wrote about objects that, for their time, were scary, a madness.
I could not find any literary references on technology earlier than the 17th century, it might have been some, but the list of writers that were so much ahead of their time is impressive. Luckily, in the last 100 years or so, engineers caught up and transformed their imagination into our reality.
Rockets, submarines, and the first literary computer in science fiction
Some of you might remember Cyrano de Bergerac as the guy with an unbelievably powerful nose structure that created emotional speeches for a friend to help him win the attentions of a young lady.
Some of those are historically true, like the nose. But you might not know that Cyrano, being a utopist, imagined a machine that launched when soldiers fasten fireworks underneath it. The first Rocket-powered space flight was mentioned in The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon, by Cyrano de Bergerac, in 1657.
Additional readings for you, book worms, you: Astronomer Johannes Kepler imagined lunar travel in his Somnium in 1608, but the hero was transported employing some demons.
It was a woman that imagined the first submarine and presumably wrote the very first science fiction book. Margaret Cavendish, in 1666, described an early form of a submarine in The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (1666). Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote a book about a satirical utopian kingdom, perhaps the only known Utopian fiction created by a woman in the 17th century.
200 years and so later, the next mention of a submarine is from the globally famous Jules Verne and his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870).
The first computer was imagined in the famous Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, in 1726. When Swift described an “engine” that could form sentences on his own, he was making fun of the so-called scientific methods of some of his contemporaries: “…the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labor, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study”.
In the end, the high-brow joke made by Swift is the earliest known reference to a device broadly representing a computer. No joke!
Jane Wells Webb Loudon wrote science fiction, as the term was still not coined, and she was considered, for a century, as a writer of Gothic fiction, fantasy, or horror. Under heavier scrutiny, there was nothing gothic or horror in a future where women wear trousers. But the idea of automatons functioning as surgeons or lawyers might have been too scary for some people, even today.
In her The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, she made a very early mention of the notion that to survive in outer space in Earth’s orbit, it would be necessary to take some air with you. She wrote: “… and the hampers are filled with elastic plugs for our ears and noses, and tubes and barrels of common air, for us to breathe when we get beyond the atmosphere of the earth”. It was the very first description of the oxygen masks!
Additional info for the most curious of our readers: She also created the first popular gardening manuals, branding the art of gardening as proper and fit for young women s education. Cultivating minds and cultivating a garden, what a combination!
In 1888, Edward Bellamy reflected upon the year 2000 to come. In his Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887, he wrote about an American utopian society that used credit cards. It took more than 60 years for the financial industry to invent and launch to general use debit cards and credit cards.
As stated before, Jules Verne was not the first one thinking about rockets and submarines, but it is generally acknowledged that, in 1889, the famous French sci-fi pioneer firstly described the “phonotelephote”, the imaginary forefather of videoconferencing. The phonotelephote imagined in the short story titled In the Year 2889 allowed the transmission of images through sensitive mirrors connected by wires. The same book predicted newscasts, recorded news, and skywriting. Luckily, humans managed to invent them well before 2889.
Stay tuned to this blog! We will come back with two more episodes dedicated to the writers that challenged the imagination and society.
If you are looking for more interesting visionary writers from 1600 to 1899, visit this site to be amazed. Technovelgy.com is a site that traces inventions and ideas from science fiction and literature, in general.