The Gadget with a Thousand Uses: How Science Fiction has Become Science Fact

When Francis Bacon wrote, “books must follow sciences, and not sciences books” it was 1657 and movies had yet to be invented, but I think, after reading the above quote, we can be fairly certain what his attitude would’ve been to the cinema…Well, here in the 21st century movies certainly do follow science, but sometimes they go one better and imagine bold new discoveries first…

A great many inventions have migrated from our imaginations and into our reality over the centuries. To some degree, imagination is the first step for every invention. In recent years, however, there seems to have been more ‘science fiction’ technology coming into reality than ever before…

But before we get to that, here are a few classic examples: Persian polymath (and personal hero) Al Jazari first imagined (and built) robots as far back as the 12th Century AD. Italian master inventor and artist Leonardo Da Vinci first conceptualised the helicopter, solar power and the calculator back in the 15th-16th centuries and in 1901, ‘Wizard of Oz’ author L. Frank Baum dreamed up a ‘character marker’ that took the form of a pair of glasses and worked in much the same way that AR (augmented reality) technology does today.

But that’s not all, not by a long shot.

The space craft first imagined by writer H.G Wells in ‘The First Men on the Moon’ became a reality in 1969 and, if British physics professor and sometime pop star Brian Cox is right, Wells’ time machine may not be too far away either (although, as always with time, its all relative).

Another favourite of mine was the elaborate setup of tape recorders employed by The Avengers’ Mrs Peel, which would automatically record a message in case Steed called her and she happened to be out. That was then. Now? Leave a message at the tone, Mrs. Peel…

So, what imaginary technology has recently made the jump from science fiction to science fact? 

Firstly, there’s the interactive newspaper from the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie ‘Minority Report’, this newspaper was constantly updating itself as Tom Cruise’s character read through it. It was a fun piece of fiction, until, in 2010, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) made it into fact. Now, if you use a special smartphone app, you can bring some of their supplements to life in much the same way that the imaginary newspaper did back in 2002. It’s a trend that has caught on around the world.

Oh yeah, remember that bit in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ where the bloke eats some food while watching a video on a flat, slab-like screen? Well, my generation will be the last one to find that 1968 scene surprising. Our children will simply assume he’s using some sort of iPad (and a crappy looking one at that). 

‘Star Trek’s dermal regenerator took its first steps towards the world of the real when scientist Jörg C. Gerlach invented what he calls a ‘skin cell gun’, its not yet approved by the FDA, but it has proven to be an effective way of re-growing skin following a bad burn (although it is unable to cure third-degree burns, sadly).

Also, its worth pointing out that earlier this year Paypal founder Elon Musk announced that he was working towards developing a viable ‘warp drive’ technology.

Put simply, everything begins life as an idea. To quote comic book author Grant Morrison’s 2011 book ‘Supergods’, (which also points to the Jack Kirby concept of ‘Mother Boxes’ and neatly relates them to modern smartphones and tablets) “the bomb, too, was only an idea that someone hammered into being”…

So what’s next? Well, close your eyes and imagine.