Tue
Aug 17 2010 1:00pm

Robert A. Heinlein’s technological prophecies

Robert A. Heinlein’s fiction excelled at predicting the effects of technology, how particular tools would change society and the lives of people who used them daily. He usually didn’t predict the details, but his predictions of what technologies would mean were often uncanny.

The most dramatic example of this kind of prediction is “Solution Unsatisfactory,” a story which Heinlein wrote in 1940, which predicted the Cold War before the U.S. was even in World War II, and before the Manhattan Project. In the story, the U.S. develops a nuclear weapon and, for a brief time, is the only nuclear power in the whole world. America knows that its enemies will get the weapon soon. That much actually happened in real life, five years later.

But the story of “Solution Unsatisfactory” takes a different turn than real-life events turned out. In “Solution Unsatisfactory,” the head of the nuclear weapons project overthrows the government of the U.S. and sets up a global, international dictatorship with monopoly control of the nuclear weapon. And that’s the unsatisfactory solution of the story—the narrator of the story, the head of the nuclear weapons project, and presumably Heinlein himself all hate this option, but see the only other alternative, a global nuclear war, to be worse.

Was Heinlein’s unsatisfactory solution a nightmare scenario which we blessedly avoided? Maybe. But instead, we got 40 years of Cold War, the U.S.S.R. dominating half the developed world, and the U.S. propping up nasty dictatorships in the other half. And just because the Cold War is over, the threat hasn’t gone away; nuclear weapons are still common, as are governments and organizations willing to use them.

Heinlein was writing about these issues before nuclear weapons had been invented. He got the effects of the technology right, but he got the technology itself wrong. The weapon he predicted wasn’t a bomb, it was radioactive dust.

Also in 1940, Heinlein published “The Roads Must Roll,” a story in which enormous conveyer belts replace railroads and highways as the dominant means of transportation in the U.S. Long, thin cities grow up along the sides of these roads, just as suburbs sprouted along superhighways a decade later. In the Heinlein story, restaurants sit on the roadway itself, and you eat while in motion. We don’t have that in real life, but we do have what seems to be the same exact Denny’s replicated every three miles on the highways of southern California.

“The Roads Must Roll” is a story about the technicians essential to operating the roads, the dominant transportation system in America, and how these technicians have the power to credibly threaten to shut down the American economy by going on strike. The story played out in real life in 1981, with the threatened strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Again, real life played out differently than it did in the Heinlein story; in real life, President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.

The leader of the road technicians’ strike was the villain of the Heinlein story, I’m not drawing the same conclusion about the PATCO strike, just noting the parallel of a relatively small number of technicians in a key transportation industry able to threaten economic chaos by going on strike.

Heinlein also invented the internet. In his 1938 first novel, For Us The Living, unpublished during his lifetime, Heinlein predicts a nationwide information network, from which the hero is able to instantly access a newspaper article from the previous century, from the comfort of a friend’s home. Today, the New York Times Archive is online, with articles dating back to 1851. Heinlein’s network wasn’t electronic, though; it was a series of pneumatic tubes (maybe Sen. Ted Stevens wasn’t wrong—he was just a confused Heinlein fan), with librarians at the other end who sent you photostats of articles that you requested. But Heinlein got the effects right: It was a network, and you could get answers to a wide variety of questions, some quite obscure, from the comfort of your home.

Heinlein returns to the theme near the end of his career, in the 1983 novel Friday. The area formerly known as the United States is linked by an information network. By then, this idea wasn’t new; the omnipresent information network had been part of the furniture of science fiction for many years. But Heinlein describes what it’s like to use the Web, a decade before the invention of the real thing. He describes what it’s like to get lost on the network, following one link after another in random research. His prediction wasn’t magic, random research is as old as the library. But Heinlein brings it forward into the electronic age. And he uses this kind of random wandering as a teaching method; instead of taking a class, his heroine Friday is confronted with a series of seemingly silly questions, and in the course of answering them, she spends massive amounts of time in research, soaking up seemingly unrelated and unimportant information, until she is able to predict when civilization will collapse.

Heinlein’s first-person heroine writes that she has become the World’s Greatest Authority, a phrase she borrows from an old comedy video she came across in her random wanderings, just as you might do the same thing on YouTube today:

At one time there really was a man known as “the World’s Greatest Authority.” I ran across him in trying to nail down one of the many silly questions that kept coming at me from odd sources. Like this: Set your terminal to “research.” Punch parameters in succession “North American culture,” “English-speaking,” “mid-twentieth century,” “comedians,” “the World’s Greatest Authority.” The answer you can expect is “Professor Irwin Corey.” You’ll find his routines timeless humor.

Here is Professor Irwin Corey in a 2008 routine, age 94. Here he is on the Smothers Brothers in 1966. The real internet beats Heinlein’s invention there; I didn’t have to go through Friday’s taxonomic rigmarole, I just typed “Professor Irwin Corey” into the search box of Firefox, and Google did the rest for me.

In an earlier sequence of the novel, a character takes a call on a mobile phone she carries in her knitting bag.

CMPalmer and Jo Walton stole my thunder in describing my favorite example of Heinlein predicting the effects of technology; in this one he got both the details and the effect right. In Between Planets, the boy hero is out riding his horse in the desert when he gets a call on his mobile phone. Later, Walton notes, Heinlein predicted teenagers would pack the phone away so their mothers couldn’t get a hold of them. CMPalmer writes:

The funny thing about the scene is that when I re-read this book a few years ago, I was one or two pages past the scene when I realized that the phone ringing while on the horse was a “gee whiz futuristic moment” when the book was published in the 1940s (or so)—whereas I just pictured a guy on his horse talking on a cell phone.

The hero of Between Planets clearly wasn’t using AT&T.


Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.

29 comments
John Adams
1. JohnArkansawyer
The hero of Between Planets clearly wasn’t using AT&T.


He tried! He even got past that nasty letter-of-credit problem.
Bill Patterson
2. Bill Patterson
ISTR there's a moment in Space Cadet, several years before Between Planets, when Matt has deliberately packed his in his luggage so his mother can't reach him.
Paul Howard
3. DrakBibliophile
On “Solution Unsatisfactory", the reason that the head of the nuclear weapons project overthrows the government of the U.S. was because at that 'time' he was the head of an international "peace keeping force" that was to ensure nobody used nukes or made war *and* the US government decided to use that "peace keeping force" on the behalf of the US.

IE instead of it being a true "neutral force" the US government wanted it to be one controlled by the US.
David Dyer-Bennet
4. dd-b
Bill, yes, Space Cadet is the canonical example, and the thing that made it so telling was not that they had mobile phones (Dick Tracy had that; hmm, not until 1946 though), but that Heinlein immediately made the jump from there to wanting to get away from them.

Also, that he seems to have missed the obvious solution; our actual mobile phones all have on/off switches, so you don't have to pack it away to be free from it. (If you dealt with the phone company before deregulation, you know it was terribly difficult to get them to install any setup where you could stop the phone from ringing; did he unconsciously carry that forward into the mobile phones?)
Nancy Lebovitz
5. NancyLebovitz
IIRC, there's also a bit about someone stepping away from a group to talk on his phone.

SiaSL has voice mail.

There are about half a dozen inventions presaged in The Door into Summer, but I don't remember my list. CAD and Ticketron were there, but I think the most remarkable prediction is the bit where the main character is looking at the help wanted ads, and he can't even figure out what most of the jobs are.
David Dyer-Bennet
6. dd-b
Oh, and I can't resist mentioning the "Perkins wireless telephone", an element in the magazine version of Edward E. Smith's The Skylark of Space.

The only possible way in which any of his subordinates could get in touch with him was by means of the wonderful wireless telephone already referred to, developed by a drug-crazed genius who had died shortly after it was perfected. It was a tiny instrument, no larger than a watch, but of practically unlimited range.

As usual, the real world has quite caught up with SF yet :-) .
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
An even earlier mobile phone instance can be found in Heinlein's 1942 story _Waldo_, which has a rather lengthy segment about the development of a radio-telephone network (powered by beamed electricity from cheap nuclear / fusion power plants) and the eventual tearing down of the copper wire network. Heinlein even addresses the problems of excess radiation from mobile phones!
Bill Patterson
8. Tocks Nedlog
"nuclear weapons are still common, as are governments and organizations willing to use them."

-- The mere fact of possessing a nuclear weapon does not equate to a willingness to use it.
Bill Patterson
9. CMPalmer
What struck me about the phone use was how casually it was mentioned. Heinlein didn't say that the boy pulled out his Perkins wireless telephone, which could receive calls anywhere in the world, and extended the parabolic reflector to improve his reception.

The phone rang, he answered it. Neat.
Bill Patterson
10. Redwood Rhiadra
Don't forget that Heinlein described the waterbed so thoroughly in Stranger in a Strange Land that when Charles Hall tried to patent it, he couldn't!

This was an area where he got the details right, but not the effects - Heinlein's waterbed was used in hospitals.
John Adams
11. JohnArkansawyer
Minor nit: I believe the waterbed in question was in The Door Into Summer.
Mitch Wagner
12. MitchWagner
Actually, I think it was in Beyond This Horizon. I seem to recall that when wake-up time came, the bed automatically drained of water, leaving the occupant lying on the floor and encouraging him to get up.

I also remember Beyond This Horizon had voicemail (I don't remember it in SiaSL, but I'll take NancyLebovitz's word on it). And Beyond also had custom ringtones, the hero's phone has a special ring when it has messages for him, it says, "Better look at me, boss, I got troubles. Better look at me, boss, I got troubles. Better.... "
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
CMPalmer @9: That was a technique which Heinlein used often. It is even often said that he invented it, generally citing "The door dilated." When you get right down to it, it means that he trusted his audience to be smart enough to figure out what was going on without a ton of exposition, even when he was writing for young people. Several of his contemporaries and immediate successors picked the technique up and used it. It seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhere along the line. Maybe just because authors simply have more room for exposition these days.
David Dyer-Bennet
14. dd-b
There are detailed descriptions of waterbeds in the hospital in Stranger. Whether it's that description, or other earlier ones that block the patent application is a more detailed question.

One thing he got wrong about them -- his characters quite casually drain and re-fill them. As somebody who has had waterbeds since 1978, I can tell you that one does NOT casually drain and fill them! It takes HOURS to fill one at the full flow rate of a normal household faucet, and quite a while even to drain one. And quite apart from time there's a question of water use.
Bill Patterson
15. Bill Patterson
#4, DD-B

I believe you're right. I remember that he had the ringer turned off on his phone in CS and replaced with a flashing light (but I also str that was an alternative offered by the phone company). There was no mention of whether he engineered that himself (easy enough, for some values of "easy").

and #14 -- I believe Heinlein's hospital beds were fixed tanks so they could have a drain big enough practically to fill and drain -- I'm just not entirely sure why this was particularly desirable.

Our expectations have been re-set in the intervening years by the actual IRL water-beds being flimsy things (relatively) without much of the engineering Heinlein imagined to bring the then 120-year old water bed concept into the 20th century. On the other hand, I think individually fillable cells is a refinement on his engineering.
David Dyer-Bennet
16. dd-b
Bill Patterson@15: You could get the phone company to do things like that, just not all that easily; you could also get just a single phone on a plug (not the current modular plug, the big 4-prong plug) with multiple jacks, which you could then leave unplugged if you wanted -- but I know people who got that one, and had to sign a form saying they knew they might miss calls if they left it unplugged. They REALLY tried to get you to have a fixed phone as well, or else a separate ringer. Apparently the phone company was worried about being sued for missed calls.

You could make a bigger drain relatively easily; a faster fill would require larger standard pipe sizes. One could do that, but it's a huge change. It might have to go all the way out to the main in the street -- the pipe coming into my house is just 3/4". And this doesn't address the water use; a few hundred gallons per fill. For that matter, locating beds anywhere we want is taken for granted, and if they needed major special plumbing that would be a big deal.

I'm not sure I'd want to climb out of a drained waterbed. Setting aside that ours aren't engineered for that (they use the water weight to make them rigid), there's still the fact that you'd be climbing up over a fairly high side.
John Adams
17. JohnArkansawyer
Mitch, I believe you're right about the waterbed going back to Beyond This Horizon and I'm suspecting I'm wrong about The Door Into Summer. I think the scene is replayed in Between Planets, too, but I'm not sure--I recall the "alarm clock" pretty well, though.

Heinlein must've liked the hell out of that idea.
Robert James
18. DocJames
He spent enough time in hospital beds trying to recuperate from TB that it was a persistent daydream. Curiously, I work with Admiral "Buddy" Scoles' former son-in-law, and the Scoles' family history is that he and RAH invented it together. Somebody should build the one that was envisioned :)
Bill Patterson
19. Captain Button
I'm far from certain, but weren't there something like water beds used as acceleration couches in "Sky Lift"?
Bill Patterson
20. PaintedJaguar
Don't know if it's true, but I've often read that sleeping on a water filled bladder goes as far back as Cleopatra.

I also recall some story or other that used acceleration couches that were essentially waterbeds intended both to cushion G-force and prevent bedsores during extended immobilization. It could have been a Niven story or even Heinlein himself.
William S. Higgins
21. higgins
Heinlein was writing about these issues before nuclear weapons had been invented. He got the effects of the technology right, but he got the technology itself wrong. The weapon he predicted wasn’t a bomb, it was radioactive dust.

Heinlein was aware a uranium bomb was possible. Among other things, one of his best friends* was a cyclotroneer at Berkeley, and they regularly discussed atomic research.

In a 1957 talk, he said of "Solution Unsatisfactory:"

"I might even add that one of those predictions would have come true even more precisely had I not just finished writing another story on atomic power and wished to avoid repeating one of the incidents in it."

He refers to "Blowups Happen" (1940), where potential explosion of the barely-stable nuclear reactor is the threat that drives the whole plot. Apparently he didn't want to typecast himself as The Atomic Explosion Story Guy.

So he may lose a few prognostication points for failing to name the correct weapon, but he gains a lot more for laying out the nuclear arms race and its attendant paranoia.

Imagine the strain this put on his wartime experience-- knowing that physicists have stopped publishing uranium research, knowing that his buddy has disappeared into a "deep, dark void," wondering every morning (according to a visiting relative) whether New York has yet been vaporized. And knowing that even if America got the Bomb first, the world would be plunged into terrible danger.



*Robert A. Cornog, about whom I have recently published a biographical article.
john mullen
22. johntheirishmongol
Someone mentioned Waldo, but forgot the most important thing. There is now a usable technology using gloves to do micro or macro work with machines and they are called waldoes. He beat that technology by 30 years.

I believe there was another technology that was named after a Heinlein book or person but it escapes me right now.
David Levinson
23. DemetriosX
Re: waterbeds. It need not be a matter of filling the bed with fresh water every time. The water could be drained to a dedicated holding tank and then pumped back to the bed using a high-volume pump in the evening. That gets around some of the plumbing problems.

Of course, this leaves open the question of why you would want to do this. One possibility might be to allow the frame and drained mattress to be folded out of the way, opening up space. Sort of a Murphy bed type solution. The only reason I think Heinlein even hints at, though, is to force you to get your lazy butt out of bed in the morning.
David Dyer-Bennet
24. dd-b
Yes, you could have a water storage tank and reuse the water. In terms of space this is a net loss, though, not a gain -- the storage tank has to go somewhere.

And it doesn't exactly get around plumbing problems -- you now need dedicated plumbing from the bed location to the holding tank. It means you don't have to upgrade the general plumbing, which is good, though.
David Levinson
25. DemetriosX
Well, I assume the holding tank would be underground, so there wouldn't be that much loss of space. Once these beds become standard (and Heinlein has them pretty fully integrated in the society he's describing), the house would be built with the plumbing pre-installed. Getting things to the point where the self-draining bed is that standard is another matter.
Mitch Wagner
26. MitchWagner
Another element of Friday which is not technological, but which seemed prophetic, is his description of the California election process. I thought about that many times during the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, where candidates included a porn star, porn publisher, former child TV star and washed-up action movie star.

And then the washed-up action movie star won, and he actually turned out to be a pretty good governor. Not great, but not a disaster either. The state is going bankrupt, but I don't know that anybody could have done any better. Which made me think of Heinlein's other observation about California state-level politics, that it's a ridiculous circus but it seems to work pretty well anyway.
Karen Lofstrom
27. DPZora
I read a Victorian novel which mentioned a waterbed, used by an invalid.

Old tech.
Bill Patterson
28. HelenS
http://books.google.com/books?id=uZhIAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA89 (the catalogue of the Paris universal exhibition, 1855)

MANUFACTURED, UNDER THE DIRECTION OF DR. ARNOTT,

BY

SMITH & SON,

253, TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD, LONDON.

These Beds prove by experience to be such a real blessing to humanity that Messrs. Smith and Son feel great pleasure in assisting to make known an improvement of such importance to the healing art.

The effect of the use of a Water Bed is in giving that continual ease and rest to a Patient which is not had in the softest Feather Bed, that becoming hard in a few hours, but this, being composed of Water, is always the same, giving equal support to every part of the body (resting on a hair mattress, which floats on the Water), instead of its being supported by the hips and shoulders, as in a common Bed, the consequence of which is that all Sloughs or Bed Sore,s are avoided: these, in many cases of illness, prevent the Patient having that rest which is needful, and cause Fever or such constitutional irritation as much to retard the cure of the original disease, and not unfrequently produces a fatal termination.

Messrs. Smith and Son, having supplied many of the Nobility and Gentry (by the recommendation of the Medical profession), likewise most of the London and Country Hospitals and Government Institutions, can speak from 22 Years' experience of the great comfort afforded by their use to suffering Invalids.

Price of a Water Bed with Mattress and loose sheet of India-rubber cloth £9 10s. Hire of ditto, 2 Guineas the First Month, and 30s. per Month afterwards.
Bill Patterson
29. Mark A Watson
One note about the hierarchical search method emplyed in Friday. The heroine presumably has NO prior knowledge of Prof. Corey - no name, history etc, and has simply found the reference through the meanderings of her research. While it is true that we could nowadays find the reference simply by typing the name, without at least some information to start the search, we woudl follow a similar meandering path. I know - I've had to do it often enough in writing my research reports!

One of the points I have found most fascinating about Robert Heinlein's work is how brilliantly it hangs together, even a half-century after it was written. It may not be entirely accurate compared to today's reality, but dammit, it works! from a sociological and story plotline view. Heinlein is, for my money, still one of the best SF writers since the Babylonians.

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