Near Misses in Technology

For six years I’ve used this blog to aid beginning writers, but starting today I’ll occasionally take on other topics. Technology is fascinating to me, and today’s topic is those near misses in history when someone developed a technology before the world was ready.

What do I mean by ‘near misses?’ I’m talking about when an inventor came up with a new idea but it didn’t catch on, either because no one saw the possible applications or because there was no current need.

When you compare the date of the invention to the much later date when the idea finally took off, it’s intriguing to imagine how history might have been different, and how much further ahead we’d be today.

You’ll get a better idea of what I mean as we go through several examples.

Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was likely the first computer, used for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Invented in Greece in the 2nd Century BC, it contained over 30 intricate gears, and may have been a one-off. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been different if they’d envisioned other uses for this technology, such as mathematical calculations. Imagine Charles Babbage’s geared computer being invented two millennia earlier!

I was fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism and the mystery surrounding its discovery in a shipwreck, so I wrote my story, “Wheels of Heaven,” with my version of those events.

Lasers

It’s puzzling to me that inventors came up with radios (1896) before lasers (1960). After all, radio involves invisible electromagnetic waves, but lasers are visible light. Sure, the mathematics behind lasers (stimulated emissions) wasn’t around until Einstein, but with people monkeying around with mirrors and prisms, it’s strange that no one happened upon the laser phenomenon ahead of its mathematical underpinning.

Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot came close in1899 when they developed their Fabry-Perot etalon, or interferometer. Again, imagine how history might have been different if lasers had appeared sixty years earlier, before radio.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance featuring the development of lasers and holograms in the 19th Century.

Manned Rocketry

The first manned rocket flight may have been that of German test pilot Lothar Sieber on March 1, 1945. It was unsuccessful and resulted in Sieber’s death. The first successful manned flight was that of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961.

But did Sieber and Gagarin have a predecessor, beating them by three centuries?

There is an account of a manned rocked flight in 1633, the trip made successfully in Istanbul by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. It’s fun to imagine if the sultan of that time had recognized the possibilities. My story “To Be First” is an alternate history tale showing where the Ottoman Empire might have gotten to by the year 1933 if they’d capitalized on Çelebi’s achievement.

Submarines

The earliest attempts at underwater travel come to us in legends and myths. Highly dubious accounts tell of Alexander the Great making a descent in a diving bell apparatus in 332 BC. There are vague references to the invention of a submarine in China around 200 BC. True submarine development really got its start in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s.

Still, think about how much more we’d know today about the oceans if the ancient accounts were true and people of the time had make the most of them. My story “Alexander’s Odyssey” is a re-telling of the Alexander the Great episode, and “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is my version of the ancient Chinese submarine.

Steam Engines

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. Later, James Watt and Richard Trevithick improved on Newcomen’s design.

However, these inventions were preceded by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. He developed a small steam engine called an aeolipile, though he considered it an amusing toy.

What if Heron had visualized the practical possibilities of this engine? Since the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution, could humanity have skipped ahead 1700 years technologically? My story, “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” imagines a practical use for Heron’s engine along with a reason it didn’t catch on.

Other Near Misses?

You get the idea. I am intrigued by the number of times inventors hit on an idea, but society failed to recognize it and take advantage of it, so it had to wait until much later. Are there other examples you can think of? Leave a comment for me. Your thoughts might well be featured in a post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The 7 Best Science Fiction Submarines

My recent experience moderating a panel on Science Fiction submarines at Chessiecon inspired this blog post. As a former submariner and current science fiction writer, I’m fascinated by the submarines of SF. Earth’s ocean, or oceans in general, are not common settings in SF, and I really enjoy such stories when I come across them.

Before I reveal the list of the seven best, here’s my chronologically ordered list of the more prominent submarines of science fiction. The list includes those from books, movies, TV shows, and some Anime. I included the Red October as a SF sub because of its advanced “caterpillar drive.”

Name Source (Book, Movie, TV, Anime) Year(s)
Nautilus (B,M,T) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1870 (B)

1916, 1954 (M)

1997 (T)

Wonder (B) Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat 1910
Rocket Submarine (M) The Undersea Kingdom 1936
The Iron Fish (C) The Beano 1949
USS Triton (B) Attack From Atlantis 1953
Jetmarine (B) Tom Swift and His Jetmarine 1954
Diving Seacopter (B) Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter 1956
Fenian Ram S1881 (B) Under Pressure or The Dragon in the Sea 1956
Seaview (M,T) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 1961, 1964-1968
Flying Sub (FS-1) (T) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 1964-1968
Unnamed (M) Atlantis the Lost Continent 1961
Stingray (T) Stingray 1964
Gotengo (M) Atragon 1963
Proteus/Voyager (B,M) Fantastic Voyage 1966
Blue Sub 006 (A) Blue Submarine #6 1967,1997-2000
Dyna-4 Capsule (B) Tom Swift and His Dyna-4 Capsule 1969
<Unknown> (B) The Deep Range 1970
Rorqual Maru (B) The Godwhale 1974
S.S. Cetacean (T) The Man from Atlantis 1977-78
Sea Trench (B) Aquarius Mission 1978
Blue Noah (T) Thundersub 1979-80
Red October (B,M) The Hunt for Red October 1984 (B) 1990 (M)
Seaquest (T) Seaquest DSV 1993-96
Gungan Bongo Submarine (M) Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace 1999
Ulysses (M) Atlantis: The Lost Empire 2001
UX (A) Submarine 707R 2003
I-507 (M) Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean 2005
Vorpal Blade (B) Looking Glass series 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009
I-401 (A) Arpeggio of Blue Steel 2009-Present
Hydra MiniSub (M) Captain America: The First Avenger 2011

To choose the best of these, I considered these criteria:

  • Vividness. How detailed was the description, or how thoroughly was it depicted on screen? Did the audience form a clear mental picture of the sub?
  • Technological Advancement. How much more advanced was the submarine when compared to typical submarines of the era in which the work was produced (not necessarily the time of the story)?
  • Necessity to Plot. Did the plot of the story require a submarine at all, or would the story have worked if set aboard a different kind of vessel?
  • Coolness. Was the depiction of the submarine aesthetically pleasing?
  • Memorability. Does (or will) the submarine in this fiction work stand the test of time? Can you recall details of the submarine and the story years later?

Here’s my list of the 7 best science fiction submarines:

  1. Fenian Ram S1881. This is the submarine from Frank Herbert’s 1956 novel The Dragon in the Sea (also published as Under Pressure). The novel is intense, and focuses on the psychologies of the characters, and how the submarine setting affects them. The Fenian Ram is a nuclear-powered “subtug” that sneaks into the underwater oil fields of enemy countries, pumps out the valuable oil, and tows it back home. Herbert took the name of his fictional vessel from the submarine built by John Holland for the Fenians in 1881.

 

  1. Proteus/Voyager. Most will recall the submarine from the 1966 film, and Isaac Asimov novel Fantastic Voyage. In the book and movie, the submarine was known as Proteus, but in the 1968-1970 cartoon it was known as Voyager. It didn’t go underwater, but was miniaturized and injected into a human body. You’ve got to love the many windows, and the bubble window on top. The movie version was designed by Harper Goff, a movie prop man I’ll mention again later.
  1. Sea Trench. Here is the submarine from the 1978 novel Aquarius Mission by Martin Caidin. The novel is not well-known, but I like that the book contained a foldout picture of the submarine, a complete side view depiction of its interior. This sub was huge, and well equipped for both exploration and military missions. Nuclear-powered, it had an observation deck with a window, an observation bubble that could be lowered, a mini-sub, torpedoes, nuclear missiles, and a handball court.

 

  1. FS-1.You’ll recognize the flying submarine from the 1964-1968 TV Show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Nuclear-powered, it had windows, a manipulator arm, and room for two operators, plus perhaps a passenger. It launched from and returned to its mother sub, the Seaview. Oh yeah, and it could fly. It could land on water, on an aircraft carrier, or on a runway ashore.
  1. Seaview. Now we’ve come to the submarine from the 1961 movie “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and the 1964-1968 TV show of the same name. In the movie, it was USOS Seaview, for United States Oceanographic Survey, but in the TV show it was S.S.R.N. Seaview, apparently to indicate it was part of the US submarine fleet, but still a research sub. Nuclear powered, it could deploy the Flying Sub, as mentioned. It had observation windows near the bow. The bow had a distinctive shape, reminiscent of a manta ray. The stern looked like the back end of a 1961 Cadillac.
  1. SeaQuest. The second-best SF submarine is from the 1993-1996 TV series “seaQuest DSV” (or “seaQuest 2032” in the final season). Measuring over 1000 feet long, the sub could move at 160 knots thanks to its twin fusion reactors. Its shape resembled a squid, and its hull had a bio-skin coating to repel sea organisms. It could dive to 29,000 feet. Seaquest travelled with a cloud of unmanned undersea vehicles, with sensors and other capabilities. Its armament included torpedoes, missiles, and lasers. One member of the crew was a genetically enhanced dolphin that moved throughout the sub in water-filled tubes.
  1. Nautilus. The best science fiction submarine could only be the Nautilus, from Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne also mentioned it in his 1874 novel, The Mysterious Island. The story has been depicted in at least six films and there have been several spin-off novels and films featuring the submarine. With a length of 230 feet and a maximum speed of 50 knots, the vessel used a bow ram as its weapon. It could deploy divers as well as a small rowboat. It had a large “living room” with a pipe organ. Despite Verne’s meticulous description, there have been numerous different depictions of what the Nautilus looked like. The best, in my view, is the version Harper Goff created for the 1954 Disney movie.

There they are, the 7 best science fiction submarines. Did I miss your favorite, or would you have put them in a different order? Leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 18, 2016Permalink

My Chessiecon Schedule

Those of you who’ll be in the Baltimore, Maryland area during Thanksgiving weekend might want to stop by the Radisson North Baltimore Hotel and drop in on Chessiecon. Chessiecon is the science fiction convention formerly known as Darkovercon.

I’ll be speaking there this time, and here’s my schedule:

Date Time Topic Location
Friday, Nov. 25th 3:00 – 4:15 Gadgets in Fiction Greenspring 1
Friday, Nov. 25th 6:45 – 8:00 Care and Feeding of Critique Groups Greenspring 2
Saturday, Nov. 26th 10:00 – 11:15 Dive! Dive! Submarines in Science Fiction Greenspring 1
Saturday, Nov. 26th 1:45 – 2:15 Book Reading Greenspring 2
Saturday, Nov. 26th 6:45 – 8:00 Book signing Atrium

chessielogoThat schedule is subject to change. I’ll post any changes here as I find out about them. There are many other things to see and do at Chessiecon, other than attending my panels, readings, and signings.

Why do they call it Chessiecon? Chessie is a huge beast thought to inhabit the Chesapeake Bay environs, but few have seen it and it may be mythical.

Hmm… that describes me!

Anyway, I’d love to see you at Chessiecon. Please attend. You could get a priceless selfie taken with—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 13, 2016Permalink

The Techno-Thriller, a Tribute to Tom Clancy

Author Tom Clancy died earlier this week on October 2nd at the age of just 66.  During his writing career he reinvented and popularized the genre known as the techno-thriller.

Tom_Clancy_at_Burns_Library_croppedYou can read all about Clancy’s life elsewhere; my purpose today is to mention how he and his work influenced me.

When his first book, The Hunt for Red October was published in 1984, I was completing my first (and last) tour as an officer aboard a submarine and headed for two years of shore duty.

The novel didn’t really become popular at first, but the publisher, U.S. Naval Institute Press, was used to leaving books out and available for longer periods than traditional fiction presses were.  Good thing, too, because the book eventually caught on and became a best-seller.

The U.S. Navy benefited from that novel, I think, because it popularized the military at a time when it still suffered from the post-Vietnam stigma, and it rode the wave of the expansion of the military led by then-President Reagan.  It was a heady time for the submarine service.

I recall a cartoon at the time depicting a young woman addressing a naval officer seated at a bar table, drinking beer.  He wore sunglasses and had winged aviation insignia on his uniform.  She was asking, “Are you a submariner, like those guys in Red October?” and he responded, “Yeah, babe.”  The caption read, “The first recorded instance of an aviator impersonating a submariner.”

I enjoyed the book, and my familiarity with submarines probably heightened my appreciation for it.  I went on to read the first six of Clancy’s books, through The Sum of All Fears.  Although Hunt is the shortest of his works (I think), readers should not be intimidated by the length of his novels, for they are split up into short sections and chapters, and Clancy writes with considerable tension so that you won’t want to stop reading.

In the mid 1990’s, when Tom Clancy’s fame was assured, he actually spoke to the local writing group in my area, of which I was a member.  He waived his usual speaking fee, which was probably thousands of dollars.  Unfortunately for me, I was away on travel for my day job at that time and missed his talk.  I heard it went well and that he was inspiring.

As I mentioned, Clancy took the genre of techno-thriller to new heights.  Some complain about the lengthy paragraphs he devotes to describing how technology works.  But as an engineer, I never minded that.  I disagree with those who assert that technology itself becomes a character in Clancy’s novels.  He well knew that people operate technology, and he created memorable characters who had been well trained to work with the sophisticated equipment.

In fact, Clancy lavished much attention on those lowest in the military hierarchy.  His novels are filled with enlisted men from humble backgrounds who operate complex machinery with skill and great competence.  I think he greatly admired American enlisted men and women, and at one point I believe he said they were the real difference between the U.S. and Soviet militaries.  He said you’d expect officers from both countries to be top-notch, and they were, but it’s the American enlisted who far exceeded their Soviet counterparts.

Almost all of my stories deal with characters grappling with technology, too.  Moreover, many of my characters are low on the social pecking order, as are Clancy’s enlisted characters.  None of my works can be called techno-thrillers, but I think Clancy’s works did influence mine in some way.

Rest in peace, Mr. Clancy, and thanks for the pulse-pounding excitement!  You gave many enjoyable hours to millions, and to—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

Why Write about History—Isn’t it Past?

When I was a kid, I wasn’t much interested in history.  It seemed just a bunch of old stuff—old music, ancient buildings, incomprehensible books, crumbling artwork—all irrelevant to modern life.  I wanted new things, modern stuff, the best of my own time.  I couldn’t understand some people’s fascination with people long dead.

I’m not really sure when the transition happened or if there was a single tipping point.  Maybe some of those boring history classes made an impression along the way.  Maybe some of the fiction I read or movies I watched fired some previously inactive neurons.  Maybe my attraction to the novels of Jules Verne had something to do with it.  For those of us reading science fiction in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was hard to ignore the flourishing subgenre of alternate history.

In a parallel thread of my life, I had become captivated by submarines, and while learning more about them I soon found out about their history too.  That history includes brave men daring to submerge in rickety craft made of inferior materials, with insufficient understanding of the dangers.  It is a history of bitter failures, tragic disasters, and rare successes.  Some of the men involved are famous, some obscure: Alexander the Great, de Son, Cornelius van Drebbel, David Bushnell, Robert Fulton, Wilhelm Bauer, Horace Hunley, and others.

When my muse first urged me to write, it didn’t take me long to start writing stories with historical settings. As you can see from my ‘Stories’ page, I’ve written a few of them, mostly tales involving the sea and various vessels.

But I want to get back to the ‘why’ of all this.  Why do readers read historical stories?  Why do authors write them?  First, for both reader and writer, the setting and some of the characters come ready made.  The author doesn’t need to spend much time creating the world of the story, and in many cases need not describe some characters beyond stating their names.  So there’s a comfortable sense of familiarity with historical stories.  We can already picture the setting and characters in our minds.

Also, I think there can be—really should be—a sense of relevance to these stories, a sense they share with stories set in the modern day.  We all know we’re connected to history by vast chains of cause and effect; our world is a product of what happened before.  So there’s an attraction to reading about characters in the past grappling with problems, when we know how it all ends up, and when we know what effects linger from that time to ours.  At least we know what the history books say about the events of the time.  The trick for the writer is to bring these characters to life, give them real dimension, and to make a point about life for us today, to relate the story to a modern dilemma.

A major challenge for the writer of historical tales is to get the details right.  Any anachronism or other incorrect detail in the story can make a reader lose interest in the story, and respect for the author, in an instant.

Before I close, I’d like to mention the types of historical stories, at least the types I write.  First is the alternate history, where the story takes place in a world where things proceeded differently than our own.  This website contains some great discussions about alternate history.  In these stories, it is necessary to describe the world of the story so the reader knows which event triggered the split from our world.  But the author need not worry as much about getting details right because, after all, he’s not writing about actual history.  The other type of historical tale, one I actually prefer, is the ‘might have been.’ Here that type is called ‘Secret History.’  In this type, the author uses an actual historical setting and characters, creates a situation for the characters, and resolves it in a way consistent with how history books record the outcome.  In other words, everything in the story might really have occurred.

I’d love to hear what you think about this.

Poseidon’s Scribe

January 23, 2011Permalink

Writing of seas and ships

What makes stories of the sea different from stories taking place in other settings?  Wikipedia has a nice, short entry touching on this question and I agree with its authors about the themes common to such stories and I won’t rehash those here.  By their very nature, sea stories create interest because the setting is different from most readers’ land-dominated lives.  People who have never been to sea are curious about what life is like out there.  Those who have been to sea enjoy relating to the experiences of the story’s characters.

The ocean makes for a paradoxical setting in that it is always in motion, but never really changing.  For the most part, the land just sits there, but the surface of the sea moves in a restless, rippling, chaos of crests and troughs.  The characters look out from their vessel and see a continuous display of nature’s power.  In general, this cannot be said about stories set on land or in outer space.  However, despite all this motion, water has a dull sameness to it.  Other than varieties of waves and some differences in water color, there’s little to distinguish one patch of ocean from another.  The sea shares this characteristic with outer space.  However, land provides a much wider variation in appearance, giving a descriptive writer more paints and textures for his word palette.  I think that’s why sea stories tend to skip over descriptions of the traveling part, compared to stories set on land.

I regard the ocean as a setting more illustrative of man’s creative powers.  We can stand up and move about on dry ground without any special assistance at all; we possessed from birth everything necessary to do that.  But the only way we can survive for long at sea, or travel through it, is through an act of creation—we must first build a vessel.  So stories based at sea must intrinsically involve a demonstration of our tool making skills and our exploratory urges.  The ship itself shows man’s genius and his desire to conquer nature, to test its limits.

I said I wouldn’t rehash the Wikipedia article, but I can’t resist emphasizing what it states its description—how stories set at sea possess a crucible aspect.  The characters have limited contact with the rest of humanity and must deal with each other in a confined vessel from which there is no easy exit.  They must confront their problems using their own personal attributes and whatever materials they have on hand, without the assistance of outsiders.  The reader can easily see their plight and focus on it.

Please don’t think I’m disparaging stories set in locales other than the sea.  I write and enjoy reading those tales too.  My purpose was only to explore what marks the sea story as different and unique.  Feel free to contact Poseidon’s Scribe with your comments!
Poseidon’s Scribe
January 16, 2011Permalink