Many of the key technologies of our modern world were inspired by the TV Show Star Trek. For 40 years the world's top inventors have been laboring to bring to life the dream gadgets they first saw on their favorite TV show.
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By Lance Laytner
Almost fifty years ago the first episode of the television space fantasy Star Trek was broadcast to millions of viewers. To everyone’s surprise its impact on our planet has been as great as if we really had encountered spaceship riding aliens.
Many of the inventors of the technologies we now find indispensable admit they were inspired by first seeing the futuristic gadgets in the hands of Captain Kirk and pointy eared Mr. Spock on their favorite TV Show.
The creators of the cellular phone, personal computer, Magnetic Imaging Resonance (MRI) scanner, and even top NASA engineers and scientists all acknowledge the role Star Trek played in the birth of their technological advances.
Documentary film maker Alan Handel sat down with these top inventors in his recently released film “How William Shatner Changed the World.” While their specialties and areas of expertise range from astrophysics to telecommunications, the one thing all have in common was their quest to make real their favorite Star Trek technologies.
One such gadget was the famous “communicator” William Shatner was always speaking into while playing the role of the dashing Captain James T. Kirk. The communicator allowed Kirk to give orders to his ship or crew mates from great distances.
Today, chatting on a mobile phone is commonplace, but back in the late Sixties the only way to make a call was to use a phone plugged into the wall.
Dr. Martin Cooper found himself tripping over his phone cord when he saw Star Trek appear on the TV playing in the background. Cooper watched with envy as Captain Kirk calmly conversed while walking across an alien landscape.
“Suddenly there was Captain Kirk talking on his communicator,” remembers Cooper. “Talking! With no wires!”
Cooper, who was General Manager of Systems at Motorola, thought to himself, we need to communicate the way they do on Star Trek. “To the rest of the world it was a fantasy. To me it was an objective." It was the moment the cellular phone was born.
It took a few more years to turn the dream into reality, but in April of 1973 Martin Cooper made the world’s first cellular phone call on his prized invention, the Motorola Dyna-Tac. With true Star Trek flair, Cooper rang his competitor, Joel Engel, chief of research at Bell Labs.
While the clunky 2.5 pound Dyna Tac was a far cry from Captain Kirk’s sleek communicator, today’s cell phones are almost identical. They even flip open to speak.
Every day we’re catching up to the futuristic vision inspired by Star Trek. No where could this be more true than with the personal computer. In the 50s and 60s computers were huge room sized machines. But on board the Star Ship Enterprise they could sit on a desk or even fit in your pocket.
This tantalizing vision of computers that were small enough to be used for everyday tasks helped to inspire the Computer Revolution and the quest to create the microchip.
It sounds like an exaggeration until you discover that the first working personal computer, the Altair 8800, was named after a fictional galaxy from Star Trek. On this Star Trek inspired computer both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates developed the world’s first software. Their subsequent companies, Microsoft and Apple Computers, would change the world forever.
And now millions of people carry Personal Digital Assistants like the Palm Pilot,Windows Smartphone or iPhones – devices that could have come right out of the hands of Mr. Spock. And in a way…they did.
Robert Haitani, the designer of the Palm Pilot, revealed to the San Francisco Chronicle, "my first sketches were influenced by the Enterprise bridge panels...Years later the first Treo (a combo phone and wireless PDA) had a form factor similar to the communicator. You could stand there and talk into it like Captain Kirk."
More than just adding convenience, the television show’s effect on innovation may one day save your life. On Star Trek, advanced energy medicine could cure every human sickness. Dr. John Adler, a brain surgeon from the Stanford School of Medicine, works every day to turn that dream into reality.
“In the 1960s diagnosis of many illnesses required messy and painful exploratory surgery,” explains Adler. “It was very common to do a big operation on a patient, open their skull, look inside, and find nothing.”
“By contrast, Dr. Macoy's Sick Bay on the Enterprise did diagnosis quickly and painlessly without having to cut open patients. Star Trek gave the medical community a tantalizing glimpse into the future.” Doctors in Star Trek would wave a handheld device called a “tricorder” over patients and instantly diagnosis and heal on the spot.
The trick was Star Trek medicine used energy instead of scalpels. Now Adler is leading a revolution to bring real energy medicine into hospitals and doctor offices around the world.
Dr. Adler is the inventor of the “cyber knife,” a highly focused computer controlled laser that can remove cancer without ever opening up the patient with a single cut. “Not quite as cool as the Star Trek tricorder,” he laughs, “But we're getting there."
And Star Trek has helped us to decide just how far we want to go. It is the worst kept secret of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration that Star Trek is the force that lured many of their top scientists and engineers to join the space program. NASA even named their first space shuttle “Enterprise” in honor of the fictional ship that inspired so many of the shuttle’s designers as children.
“I was always fascinated by Star Trek. It offered a vision of what could be,” explained Dr. Marc D. Rayman, Chief Propulsion Engineer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during his interview for Handel’s documentary.
When prompted Raymon rattles off whole chunks of memorized lines from Star Trek, spouting the science fiction he has turned into science fact. His boyhood hero was Scotty, Chief Engineer of the Enterprise.
"One of the reasons I think the control room in the space mission simulator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab is so cool is that it looks like something right off the Starship Enterprise," says this designer of real life space ships.
Raymon and his colleagues have even used the science fiction of Star Trek as the starting point for developing real space technologies. Raymon helped develop Ion Propulsion, a highly advanced thrust technology. He first heard of it on a Star Trek episode, forty years before he made it real. “The opportunity to connect what I saw on Star Trek to what I'm doing now is very exciting."
And the Star Trek vision helped launch not only NASA’s space craft, but the careers of those who fly them. Many astronauts credit the TV show with shaping their life long dream. These future astronauts aspired to the same mission as the crew of the Enterprise, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
For Mae Jemison, who would become the first black woman in Space, Star Trek offered a vision not only of attractive alien worlds, but a better Earth to call home. Growing up amidst the racial and social turmoil of America in the early Sixties, Star Trek’s gender and racial equality offered a brighter future.
Jemison’s girlhood hero was the sexy and sharp communications officer of the Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura. "Not only because she was an African-American woman on the show,” Jemison told Handel, “but because it was the first time a woman was portrayed as technically savvy and a full member of a crew. That opened up possibilities."
Indeed, Gene Roddenberry wanted the show to serve as a blueprint for a more harmonious tomorrow. “Gene said that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for the Starship Earth,” explained George Takai who played Mr. Sulu, “and he believed the strength of this starship was in its diversity."
Star Trek even made history in 1968 when black Lieutenant Uhura and white Captain Kirk shared the first interracial kiss ever seen on American television. "Star Trek gave us the opportunity to consider social problems in this context of a completely different world," says Jemison, “and showed us and how we can learn to get beyond them."
The show’s optimistic vision of the future provided the fuel that inspired Mae Jemison to earn a PhD and eventually lifted her all the way into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour.
“When I was on the space shuttle I would begin my communications with 'All hailing frequencies are open’,” said Jemison. It was the signature line of her TV hero, Lieutenant Uhura, and Jemison’s way of paying tribute to the show that helped her believe she could rise above every limitation and soar amongst the stars.
In 1993 Jemison saluted to Star Trek when she exchanged her NASA uniform for an Enterprise costume and made a guest appearance on the sequel show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. And in 1996 she hosted the 30th Anniversary celebration.
While Jemison and her astronaut colleagues were inspired by Star Trek to take mankind’s first baby steps toward the stars, other scientists were motivated by the show to find out who we might meet when we finally get there.
Are we alone in the universe? It is a question man has been asking since the dawn of time. Our most sophisticated attempt to find the answer is a project called SETI, The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which uses massive radio telescopes in the hope of hearing a faint signal from an alien civilization.
Leading this search for real life aliens is Dr. Seth Shostak, SETI’s chief astronomer. You guessed it, he’s a Star Trek fan. "I still have very pleasant memories of my grad school days when we would have our physics homework spread out on the floor and Star Trek playing in the background,” reminisces Shostak. “The emotional appeal of that show had a lot to do with the fact that I went into astronomy.
And Shostak says that Star Trek has actually helped legitimize his field. "Decades ago, when SETI first got underway, the public's reaction was fairly skeptical. I think that has changed. They have met Mr. Spock and seen lots of aliens on Star Trek. They're convinced now that they are out there."
But more importantly, Star Trek convinced generations that no matter who we find or don’t find on other planets, we can make this one a better place to live.
"Rodenberry possessed something very rare in Hollywood,” said William Shatner, “something called morality. To him Star Trek was far more than a TV show, it was a vision of the future in which mankind would use their advanced technology to march across space. And there would be no greed, no war, no hate, and no hunger – a perfect tomorrow where we would all just get along.”
While the social vision of Star Trek seems a long way off, our technology is looking more and more like the techno-wizardry of the television show that has inspired so much innovation.
In 1991 Gene Roddenberry died, but he left behind a planet remarkably changed by his vision. In recognition of his contribution to moving mankind one step closer to reaching the stars, NASA launched his ashes into space. In death, as he did in life, he travels ahead of the rest of us “boldly going where no man has gone before.”
By Lance Laytner
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