11 Times Sci-Fi Novels Actually Inspired Real-Life Inventions, Like The Credit Card

by Charlotte Ahlin

You can roll your eyes all you want at the aliens and spaceships and dimension-hopping shenanigans of classic science fiction. You can deride sci-fi as "genre" writing, and you can choose to read only the realest of "realistic" fiction instead. But if you like listening to podcasts on your phone, or paying for things on your credit card, or using the occasional automatic door, then you owe a huge debt to sci-fi writers. Science fiction writing has inspired everything from underwater travel to massive multi-player online role-playing games. One author's fanciful imaginings becomes the next generations real-life technology. So here are just a few of the sci-fi books that inspired real world inventions, because science fiction has a real impact on science fact.

When we talk about the influences of science fiction on the real world, we often look to sci-fi movies and TV shows. Modern shows like Black Mirror seem to predict the (worst case scenario) future of our current technologies. And yes, it's true that older shows like Star Trek gave us the mobile phone (among other things) back in the day. But quite a few of the science nerds who grew up to create our modern day tech read actual science fiction books to get their ideas. Here are just a few of them:

'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules Verne

Let's get this out of the way first: they traveled twenty thousand leagues while under the sea. They didn't go twenty thousand leagues deep into the sea. But regardless of which direction the Nautilus sailed, it sparked readers' imaginations. One of these readers was American inventor Simon Lake, who became enamored by the idea of undersea travel after reading about Captain Nemo's adventures. In 1898, he finally completed the Argonaut, the world's first successful open-water submarine. Verne even wrote him a congratulatory note.

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'Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle' by Victor Appleton

Tom Swift was a YA series from the early 1900's, about a teen genius and his various adventures. The series contained over 100 novels in total, but the most memorable is probably Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, in which Tom (you guessed it) invents an electric rifle. It shoots electricity instead of bullets. That's all well and good, but the plot of the novel has... not aged well, to say the least. Tom travels to the "darkest Africa" for an extremely racist safari adventure of hunting elephants and fighting "savages." But, for better or worse, this book did inspire NASA researcher Jack Cover to invent "Tom A. Swift's Electric Rifle" in real life, called a "TASER" for short.

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'Rossum's Universal Robots' by Karel Čapek

Robots might not be the most household invention these days, but there's no question that artificial intelligence and industrial automation are a huge part of our modern world. And we owe the very word "robot" to the Czech writer Karel Čapek and his play R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots. The play tells the story of an android factory, and follows these human-like robots as they go from happy, mindless workers to sympathetic rebels who overthrow the human race. Let's... hope that last part stays science fiction.

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'The World Set Free' by H.G. Wells

In more upsetting sci-fi predictions, H.G. Wells wrote The World Set Free about the potential benefits and dangers of harnessing atomic power. Wells thought this power would either utterly destroy society or force mankind to put aside violence and focus on hugs and making art. His 1914 book apparently inspired the scientist Leo Szilard to go ahead and figure out atomic energy in real life, leading to the invention of the atom bomb. So... hopefully Wells was only kind of right about weapons of mass destruction destroying life as we know it?

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'Clipper of the Clouds' or 'Robur the Conqueror' by Jules Verne

If Jules Verne liked anything, it was writing overly specific, hard sci-fi and then waiting for someone else to come along and make it into reality. The Nautilus wasn't the only fantastic vessel he inspired, either: a young boy named Igor Sikorsky read the Verne novel Clipper of the Clouds or Robur the Conqueror back in the day. Lil' Igor was so taken with the idea of a flying, lighter-than-air ship that he grew up to invent his very own flying machine, also known as the modern helicopter.

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'The War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells

Verne and Wells pop up a lot when we're talking about classic sci-fi that influenced real life science. The main difference, though, is that Verne usually came up with fun new modes of transportation, and Wells usually came up with devastating new ways to wipe out most of humanity. The War of the Worlds is about Martians invading Earth, but the American scientist Robert H. Goddard actually did use it as a jumping off point for inventing a mode of transportation. The liquid fueled rocket was inspired by Wells' terrifying Martians and their interplanetary ships.

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'Snow Crash' by Neal Stephenson

The 1992 novel Snow Crash features an immersive “Metaverse,” where people can log in and interact online via virtual avatars. This system captured the imagination of one Philip Rosedale, who had already been experimenting with virtual communities. The fully-fledged imagery of the Metaverse inspired him to create the online game Second Life, which in turn inspired a whole slew of virtual worlds and customizable digital avatars.

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'Looking Backward' by Edward Bellamy

Written in the late 1800's, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward imagines the fantastical future of the year 2000. He got a lot of things wrong, especially since he assumed that America would be a socialist utopia by the 21st Century. But he did predict/invent one totally real thing that we're still using today: the credit card. Looking Backward is spookily accurate about how credit cards work, right down to having a receipt for both customer and merchant.

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'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley

Honestly, Mary Shelley pretty much invented the entire genre of science fiction with Frankenstein, so she should get credit for the whole lot of this list. But more specifically, Frankenstein captured the fuzzy scientific notions of resurrecting a body using electricity. No one has managed to cobble together a living corpse monster yet, but the technology in Shelley's book does exist in a less fantastical form these days: the defibrillator, which is capable of restarting a human heart through a shock of electrical current.

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'Dial F for Frankenstein' by Arthur C. Clarke

Speaking of Frankenstein, Shelley's creation directly inspired another sci-fi author more than a few decades later. Arthur C. Clarke's short story, Dial F for Frankenstein, was published in a 1964 copy of Playboy. The story tells of a bunch of telephones forming a network with each other and eventually becoming sentient (and destroying the world). A kid named Tim Berners-Lee got his hands on the adult magazine and actually read the articles, including Clarke's story. Berners-Lee was so impressed with the idea of a machine-network that he started experimenting with his own real life version, until he finally attended MIT and invented the world wide web.

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'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 gives us a dystopia in which everyone is zonked out on technology and books are routinely burned. Ray Bradbury would probably be less than thrilled to know that his "sea shells" and "thimble radios," as described in the book, have come true in the form of earbuds and Bluetooth headsets. Nearly everyone in the world owns a pair of earbuds. But at least some of them are using those earbuds to listen to audiobooks, right?

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