We’ve all been watching SciFi since Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon was first released as a silent black-and-white film. OK, maybe some of us weren’t around then, but still… So, here’s my list for the Top Ten SciFi Gadgets of all time; your mileage may vary:
- 10. Time Machines. Known variously as TARDIS, Time Ships, The Guardian of Forever, or simply The Time Machine, this device allows you to travel forward or backward in time. Travel to a time prior to your own inevitably leads to paradox, of course, since any change in the past, no matter how minute, is amplified over time (there’s that word again!) and becomes a completely new time line; thus, if you go back some 75 years and kill your grandfather before he met your grandmother, you will never have been born, but then you can’t travel back in time and kill your grandfather. This was used to “reboot” the Star Trek franchise universe in the latest movie, although the time travel was unintentional (unlike the gravity slingshot used in the TV series, and in previous films for kidnapping whales). There are no known working models of Time Machines in real life today.
- 9. Artificial Intelligence with Speech Recognition. Used in computers (the original Star Trek Enterprise bridge computer, with its sometime emotional attachment to the Captain; Ah-nuld’s Terminator; and Colossus, the modern Frankenstein) and mobile humanoids robots such as R. Daneel Olivaw, the AI in SciFi is always flawless in its ability to understand human speech and ignore extraneous noises that in present real-lie situations lead to completely unintended consequences. Rudimentary AI with limited Speech Recognition exists in most cell phones today, and improves at a slow, plodding rate over the generations of devices.
- 8. Matter Transmitters. Cheap, safe, and easy, the Transporter on Star Trek gets you down to the planet in one piece every time, and it “just works.” Or does it? Other authors have explored the conservation of mass and angular momentum, so that using the “transmat beam” to travel from New York to Denver causes a loss of body temperature due to the rise in altitude, for example. The food replicators on Star Trek’s Federation vessels are a simplified transporter which works from a recording instead of disassembling the original object and sending it “live.”
- 7. Faster-than-light spaceships. A gleeful rejection of Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity, FTL ships have allowed us to flit about the galaxy in our imaginations for decades. In real life, the tachyon is a postulated particle that can (indeed, must) travel faster than light, but there’s no physical evidence for its existence yet.
- 6. Solar Sails. Using the pressure of light itself, a ship propelled by solar sails can accelerate or decelerate without burning fuel. Flight of the Dragonfly used this principle to send a manned ship to a nearby star in a human lifetime, with solar-power lasers providing the motive force. At least one attempt has been made to deploy a solar-sail equipped satellite in real life.
- 5. Personal communicators. The most famous of these is probably the Star Trek flip-phone communicator, which really was the inspiration for the Motorola flip-phone. Cell phones in real life, however, are limited to areas covered by cell network towers, with a maximum range of around 24 km (15 miles). Real-life satellite phones do now exist, and while they are still expensive, the first cell phones were not only expensive, they were the size of a small suitcase.
- 4. Death Rays. Whether they are called phasers, lasers, gravity beams, or electric rifles, death rays have been with us in scifi since Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. In scifi, they can be shrunk to the size of a pistol or enlarged to the size of a small moon, as in Star Wars’ Death Star. In real life, small ones power your CD/DVD/BD player, while a very large one (so large it takes a 747-sized cargo plane to carry it) is being tested for use against missiles.
- 3. Space Colonies. Either floating free in space at the LaGrange points, buried under the Lunar regolith, protected by a dome on Mars, or anchored to a handy asteroid, permanent manned colonies in space have been with us in scifi practically forever. So far, the closest we have gotten in real life is the International Space Station, which is not self-sufficient by any means, and has never had more than 13 or 14 occupants at one time. NASA plans a permanent manned outpost on the Moon, but it is not meant to be self-sufficient, either.
- 2. Holographic TV. Presenting the viewer with a high-definition full-color three-dimensional video image, sometimes tactile (Star Trek’s holodeck) and sometimes low-quality but recognizable (Star Wars’ Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan, carried in R2D2), holographic moving pictures are ubiquitous in the scifi future. Some extremely limited examples do exist in real life, confined to a glass globe or projected into a controlled space such as a darkened room.
- 1. The Sonic Screwdriver. Easily the single most useful gadget in scifi, Dr. Who’s Sonic Screwdriver in the right hands can pick locks, disarm bombs, repair robot dogs, and probably brush your teeth and comb your hair. We poor mundanes in real life must make do with the Leatherman pocket tool.
What’s on your personal list of SciFi’s top ten gadgets? Can you cite the origins of the gadgets I’ve listed above? Tell us in your comments!