Known as the father of the modern submarine, American inventor Simon Lake had been captivated by the idea of undersea travel and exploration ever since he read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a boy. Lake’s innovations included ballast tanks, divers’ compartments and the periscope. His company built the Argonaut—the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean, in 1898—earning him a congratulatory note from Verne.
While Jules Verne is perhaps most famous for his fictional submarine, the Nautilus, the French author also envisioned the future of flight. Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the modern helicopter, was inspired by a Verne book, Clipper of the Clouds, which he had read as a young boy. Sikorsky often quoted Jules Verne, saying “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”
Robert H. Goddard, the American scientist who built the first liquid-fueled rocket—which he successfully launched on March 16, 1926—became fascinated with spaceflight after reading an 1898 newspaper serialization of H.G. Wells’ classic novel about a Martian invasion, War of the Worlds. As Goddard would recall later, the concept of interplanetary flight “gripped my imagination tremendously.”
In 1914, H.G. Wells published a novel, The World Set Free, imagining the emergence of “artificial” atomic energy by 1933, followed by a devastating world war and the eventual emergence of a peaceful global government. Physicist Leo Szilard read the book in 1932, which inspired him to solve the problem of creating a nuclear chain reaction—in 1933. The same book would inspire Szilard to campaign for arms control and the peaceful, international use of nuclear power after World War II.
Combat Information Center
In the 1930s and ’40s, E.E. “Doc” Smith delighted readers with his “Lensmen” novels, chronicling the adventures of a futuristic Galactic Patrol. In a 1947 letter, sci-fi editor John W. Campbell informed Smith that the Directrix—a command ship featured in his series—had inspired a U.S. naval officer to introduce the concept of combat information centers aboard warships.
In 1942, famed sci-fi author Robert Heinlein published a short story about a physically infirm inventor, Waldo F. Jones, who created a remotely operated mechanical hand. Real-life manipulator arms that were developed for the nuclear industry in the mid-1940s were named “waldos,” in recognition of Heinlein’s innovative idea.
Martin Cooper, the director of research and development at Motorola, credited several “Star Trek” technologies as partial inspiration for the design of the first mobile phone in the early 1970s. “That was not fantasy to us,” Cooper said, “that was an objective.”
One of the most famous literary characters of the early 20th century was Tom Swift, a genius inventor who was the protagonist in a series of juvenile science fiction books created by Edward Stratemeyer. NASA physicist Jack Cover, who invented the Taser, was a fan—“Taser” is an acronym for one of Swift’s fictional inventions, the “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”
Apple scientist Steve Perlman says that he got the idea for the groundbreaking multimedia program QuickTime after watching an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” wherein one of the characters is listening to multiple music tracks on his computer.
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash describes a fully immersive online “Metaverse” where people interact with one another through representations called “avatars.” Philip Rosedale, the inventor of the once popular online community Second Life, had been toying with the idea of virtual worlds since college, but credits Snow Crash for painting “a compelling picture of what such a virtual world could look like in the near future, and I found that inspiring.”
Editor’s Note, October 14, 2021: A previous version of this article misnamed John W. Campbell as James W. Campbell. The story has been edited to correct that fact.