There are a number of taglines we’ve been using to try to explain our new Discover Steampunk exhibit to confused portions of the public. The exhibit’s official subtitle is “A Fantastical Hands-On Adventure.” We’ve also been using “19th-century Visions of the Future.” Another one we picked up this last week is “Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact.”
We kind of like that. In addition to the four esteemed Victorian-era inventors whose advances we highlight, there are three well-known writers: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley. All three have been called the founders of science fiction, which, we know, can get hokey. But the whole genre shouldn’t be judged on the merits of movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Good sci-fi has an impressive record of accurately predicting future technology and society, and Wells and Verne in particular truly set the pace, foreseeing a number of things we’re just now starting to get down:
- the internet: In the 1930s, Wells penned a collection of essays featuring something he called the “world brain.” He described it as a universally accessible compendium of world knowledge. He also said it would help establish world peace, though. We may not be to that phase yet.
- lasers: In 1898’s War of the Worlds, Wells described the “Heat-Ray,” which was a weapon that concentrated heat and light on a target, not unlike lasers we use for medical procedures, and other directed-energy weapons militaries are developing now.
- voice mail: In Wells’s 1923 book, Men Like Gods, he discussed a future Utopia wherein people could send voice messages to one another wirelessly, wherever they were, and the recipient could access the messages at his or her convenience.
- war planes and parachutes: People had been trying to design workable flying machines for decades, but Wells’s prediction of the “aeroplane” in 1901 – two years before the Wright brothers’ success – took it a step further. Wells described the plane’s use in modern warfare, as well as parachutes that would save the lives of “aeronauts” shot out of the skies.
- videoconferencing: In In the Year 2889, Verne described the “phonotelephote,” which was essentially a video phone, but with a much better name.
- electric submarines: When Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870, submarines were extremely primitive, and certainly weren’t powered by electricity. Verne’s Nautilus was, though. Better yet, in a glorious example of life imitating art, Verne’s descriptions probably also contributed to real developments on real submarines in the early 20th century.
- seawater fuel: The Nautilus’s electricity came from sodium/mercury batteries that operated in part by extracting seawater from outside the sub. Eventually, the US Navy also pioneered a way to convert seawater into fuel – in 2014.
Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and many sci-fi writers besides Wells and Verne have made prophetic predictions. If you’re interested in more, the website Technovelgy chronicles literary mentions of future tech (starting in the 1600s) and tracks current developments of real stuff that once only appeared in fiction. If that’s any indication of what’s to come, those Martians better watch out, they’d better not cry, they’d better not pout, and I think you know why.
Experiment with machines inspired by Wells, Verne, and others at Discover Steampunk, on display at the Museum of Idaho through January 2019.