AT Book Club

Science Fiction is the Mother of Invention

Science fiction has long been a medium through which the boundaries of the world’s technology can be pushed. Have you ever wondered just what sort of things have been predicted, and wen? Or seen a certain idea pop up in a few differing stories, and wondered just when it first made a fictional appearance? The website (a play on technology and novel [both novel like a book and novel like a new idea. Witty, no?], with the tag ‘where science meets fiction’™)¹ has just the Timeline for you! Starting with Johannes Kepler discussing weightlessness in Somnium (The Dream) in 1634, and running all the way through a causality-violation device (or weapon)² from Singularity Sky by Charles Stross in 2003. You can see when the first use of terms like grok and crysknife occurred, or when someone first proposed a ray gun or reaction engine, complete with a excerpt from the book or story, in addition to links to other inventions from that particular tale, as well as links to other ideas from the same author. To give you an idea of quality of the timeline, I pulled out a few examples of sci fi innovators.

In 1867, Jules Verne proposed the concept of retro rockets, a  booster that would retard or stop the progress of a spacecraft in From the Earth to the Moon:

This answer brought Barbicane back to his preparations, and he occupied himself with placing the contrivances intended to break their descent. We may remember the scene of the meeting held at Tampa Town, in Florida, when Captain Nicholl came forward as Barbicane’s enemy and Michel Ardan’s adversary. To Captain Nicholl’s maintaining that the projectile would smash like glass, Michel replied that he would break their fall by means of rockets properly placed.

Thus, powerful fireworks, taking their starting-point from the base and bursting outside, could, by producing a recoil, check to a certain degree the projectile’s speed. These rockets were to burn in space, it is true; but oxygen would not fail them, for they could supply themselves with it, like the lunar volcanoes, the burning of which has never yet been stopped by the want of atmosphere round the moon.

Barbicane had accordingly supplied himself with these fireworks, enclosed in little steel guns, which could be screwed on to the base of the projectile. Inside, these guns were flush with the bottom; outside, they protruded about eighteen inches. There were twenty of them. An opening left in the disc allowed them to light the match with which each was provided. All the effect was felt outside. The burning mixture had already been rammed into each gun. They had, then, nothing to do but raise the metallic buffers fixed in the base, and replace them by the guns, which fitted closely in their places.

Credit cards were visualized by Edward Bellamy in 1888 in the tale Looking Backward:

A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers. Perhaps you would like to see what our credit cards are like.

“You observe,” he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, “that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answers to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another. For this purpose they are all priced in dollars and cents, just as in your day. The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.”

Robert Heinlein proposed traffic control cameras in the 1947 story Methuselah’s Children:

Mary Risling had no intention of permitting anyone to know where she was going. She dropped down the lift tube outside Ventura’s apartment, claimed her speedy little ground car from the attending automaton in the basement, and set the control combination for North Shore. The car slid up the ramp, waited until the traffic control signaled a predicted break in traffic, then joined the high-speed northbound stream. Mary Risling settled back for a little nap…

She woke just before the signal from the car which would have called her… She signaled the traffic control ahead; it cut her out of the stream of vehicles and reduced the speed of her car, then rang the alarm which notified her to resume local control. Before doing so she fumbled in the storage compartment on the instrument board and fumbled, apparently purposelessly.

But the registration number which the traffic control automatically photographed as she left the controlway was not the number in which the car was registered.

Growing algae for a basic food stock was ideated by James Blish in 1957 in Cities in Flight:

“It’s the food situation I’m worried about… There’s been another mutation in the Chlorella tanks; must have started when we passed through that radiation field near Sigma Draconis. We’re getting a yield of about twenty-two hundred kilograms per acre in terms of fats.”

“That’s not bad.”

“Not bad, but it’s dropping steadily, and the rate of decrease is accelerating. If it’s not arrested, we won’t have any algae crops at all in a year or so. And there’s not enough crude-oil reserve to tide us over to the next star.

1. As a warning, this website might serve as a suitable answer for last weeks’ User Input: Web Flashback!
2. Any of a variety of technologies intended to exploit time travel as a weapon.


Images via,, and Timeline discovered on

  • CaptianNemo2001

    "An opening left in the disc allowed them to light the match with which each was provided."

    Verne in his stupidity forgot electricity when it would have been most useful. Also I might note that the Columbiad space gun in Florida was fired with a fuse iirc correctly. I guess we cant have everything in one book and need to save some ideas and technology for other books…

    Looks like From The Earth To The Moon was published 4-5 years (1865 French 1867 English) before Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Seas (1869-70). But still… I DEMAND my electrically fired cannons and rockets.