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If Isaac Asimov Had Named The Smartphone, He Might Have Called It The “Pocket Computer Mark II”

The sci-fi author correctly predicted a number of innovations that have come to pass

Isaac Asimov at age 70. (Arnold A Newman, in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery)
smithsonian.com

From one perspective, Isaac Asimov wasn’t really a novelist. He was more a futurist who also wrote novels.

It’s hard to say which caused which, though: Asimov’s interest in science fiction, or his love of science. But they certainly shaped each other, write Matthew Holmes and Lindley Homol for Penn State’s books blog. Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia on this day in 1920. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was three, and his parents ran a candy store, where he was first exposed to the luridly-colored science fiction magazines that would steer him toward his life’s work.

Today, Asimov is best-known for the science fiction that he started writing and publishing while still in his teens. Together with Robert Heinlein, he was one of the big science fiction writers of the midcentury who crafted “future history,” what today we would probably call speculative fiction.  

The ethical questions of artificial intelligence and proper robotic behavior his Robot series of novels explores seem particularly relevant today, though, as Erik van Rheenen notes for Mental Floss, in a speculative essay Asimov also predicted postmodern boredom, wireless technology and automation.

But although the writer’s predictions seem astute, and he did have a strong scientific background, even he admitted that the technologies he imagined weren’t all ones he could have designed. In a lecture given to NASA in 1985, Asimov mentioned one idea that had come to pass:

Back in 1950, in a passage that was eventually published as the first section of my book Foundation, I had my protagonist pull out a pocket computer. I didn’t call it a pocket computer, I called it a “tabulator pad.”

By 1959, he did use the phrase "pocket computer," which appeared in a short story. Decades later, he said, somebody mentioned the idea to him and asked why he hadn’t patented it. After all, he could have made millions. His response boiled down to saying he only described what a pocket computer would look like, not how it would work. “I’ll be frank,” he said, “to this day I don’t know what is inside. I have evolved a theory; I think it’s a very clever cockroach.”  

That first reference isn’t the only time the pocket computer appeared in his writing. By the time of that lecture, though, Asimov had witnessed the birth of the real pocket computer. As Jake Rossen writes for Mental Floss, three years before, Radio Shack—seeing an opportunity, one imagines—supplied Asimov with their Tandy TRS-80 Model II microcomputer. Asimov, who loved his typewriter, wasn’t impressed, he writes. “The various boxes sat, unopened, until a Radio Shack employee arrived a week later to set up the equipment in the corner of Asimov’s living room.”  

When he did get into the technology, though, Asimov became part of the future he’d only written about before, by appearing in Radio Shack ads to endorse their pocket computer.

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About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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