Electronic Design

A Visionary Passes, But The Dream Survives

The recent death of sciencefiction author Arthur C. Clarke has been noted widely by the conventional press. But I wanted to take the time to reflect on his impact on our industry. Clarke joins the ranks of sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, whose dreams remain alive because of their books.

I’d bet only a few of you haven’t read at least one of his short stories or novels. Shades of the HAL 9000 supercomputer from his 2001: A Space Odyssey keep cropping up in conversations, writings, and movies. Not all sci-fi writers come up with ideas that eventually turn into something real, but Clarke has quite a few to his credit.

His work should be required reading for patent examiners because it might prevent the approval of some obvious patents. Sci-fi tends to be rife with ideas that may be ahead of their time. But many ideas in Clarke’s work, such as cell phones and geosynchronous global broadcast satellites, are now mainstays of our industry. In fact, it was Clarke’s idea to use satellites as communication relays.

Not all sci-fi masters are forebearers of the future, nor are all of their forecasts accurate. But they’re often close enough to inspire an innovative engineer create a real incarnation of an idea. Some may take more time to come to fruition, but our headlong dash into new technologies may turn these ideas into real implementations sooner than many of us believe.

For example, Clarke’s 1979 novel Fountains of Paradise describes a space elevator under construction. His space elevator used super-strong diamond-like threads to link a space station to a stationary point on the Earth, allowing movement of people and cargo between the Earth and space. Eventually, the space stations were combined into an orbiting ring where mankind could reside during the next ice age.

The idea of a space elevator is alive and well. Materials research, especially in nanotubes, continues to move toward something that may eventually suit the construction of a real space elevator that would eliminate much of the need for rockets and the Space Shuttle. Massive computing platforms and intelligent machines will likely show up first, but it is exciting to watch how dreams are turning into reality.

As with many of his stories, the vision and outcome of the space elevator was positive. Plenty of intrigue, mayhem, and morality were mixed in as well, but he brought more than science and engineering into play.

If you haven’t read any of Clarke’s work, don’t worry. Most of it is still in print. I could recommend a title or two (or a dozen). But he has more than a hundred good books to his credit, so just go ahead and pick one.

Or, aim your Web browser at the Baen Free Library. Baen, a sci-fi publisher, has posted many novels by other authors online for your enjoyment. Jim Baen, the company’s publisher, passed away a few years back. But like Clarke and many other sci-fi authors and publishers, his dreams remain alive.

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