Friday, March 19, 2010

Wireless Communication in 1901

I was researching Tesla the other day, for a couple reasons including one that's novel-related, and I rediscovered one of his inventions which never really got anywhere but could've changed the world. It is too cool not to share. (Honestly, this goes for just about everything I've heard of him inventing, in my opinion, but this is even cooler.)

The Wardenclyffe Tower was an audacious attempt to give the world wireless communication. It was nearly complete before the funding was lost, so the "Radio City" on Long Island, which should have arisen, didn't happen, or the second tower that was planned for England. Nor, of course, did any of Tesla's tower-related predictions:
As soon as it is completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind. More important than all of this, however, will be the transmission of power, without wires, which will be shown on a scale large enough to carry conviction.
On the Wardenclyffe Tower, in "The Future of the Wireless Art" in Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony (1908)*
Read that again. In one paragraph, Tesla predicted: speech recognition; email/instant messaging; international phone calls without satellites; portable radio; the internet; and a global information revolution. In 1908. With wireless electricity and radio waves.

We didn't get email, or the internet until 1988, or IM until the 1960s. We didn't have portable radios until 1947. We didn't have speech recognition until 1952 and it was incredibly rudimentary. We still can't always make international calls without satellites, unless we factor in web-based or digital phones, and not everyone has web-connectivity. We hit the global info revolution in the '00s.

We could've had this by 1920. Among the things that would've changed with this technology (though I don't know how, not being an expert in these fields):
  • the Great Depression
  • World War II
  • the Korean War
  • the Vietnamese War
  • the Cold War
  • the Third World
  • the USSR's dissolution
  • the space race
  • nuclear power
  • the progression of technology (of course), including computing
  • the layout, demographics, and economic power of New York City (viz. the Radio City)

There would've been less of a lag before everyone knew of news events, so anything dependent on news (economics, politics) would have been affected. We'd have developed mass media faster, had a completely different approach to Hollywood and superstardom. We'd probably have seen multicultural awareness happening much faster, because anyone with a tower could've transmitted. Fashions may or may not be more unified across the globe, and they may or may not've been Teslapunk in nature. 

I definitely see the youth of the Roaring Twenties latching onto this "instant" communication (a flapper with a cell phone?). I see scientists running with it and pushing its boundaries—the same scientists and aficionados who started Golden Age SF and comics. I see the Classic American Family of the 1950s with Web 2.0 and color TVs. I see something very, very cool happening in the materialistic 1980s. I see pirated movies in 1940. I see conglomerates by 1960. I see Gernsback having a heyday. I see The Jetsons.

Note that I haven't mentioned Tesla coils, motors, force fields, particle beams, electric submarines, death rays, man-made earthquakes, the "dynamic theory of gravity" that predated Einstein, or the electric aircraft.

Steampunk's a crazy right now, so why not Teslapunk? I'd love to see someone with a physics degree run with that alternate history.

Yes, if you're wondering, this does tie in somewhat with that post I wrote at the start of February. Theme-wise, anyway.

* yanked wholesale from Wikiquote


Anonymous said...

I know this blog is for speculative fiction writers, but man, posts like this are a GOLDMINE for RPG players such as myself.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double post but really the term -punk should only be used for those works that contain the Gibsonian message of the masses being oppressed by a rich elite and the masses rebelling in a crude and gritty fashion.

Most "steampunk" has forgotten these roots and would better be tearmed 'Age of seam' or somesuch as there is nothing punk about them.

Anassa said...

Hey, the blog's about fostering ideas and creativity as much as it's for writers. Feel free to use anything in RPGs too.

And no worries on the double post, though I respectively disagree about -punk. I think the meaning's shifted and believe we shouldn't hold any word to its original meaning, if most people are using it differently.

Perhaps this is a generational thing: I've always thought -punk originally signalled high levels of technology combined with a dystopia, rather than dystopia with a side of technology.

And who's to say a Tesla-heavy world wouldn't be gritty?

Anonymous said...

What generation do you think I'm part of? I just looked up where the term steampunk is from and use it that way. The problem with allowing words to shift like that is you get ambiguity.

For example Flamboyant's true meaning according to the OED is "Flamingly or gorgeously coloured." While in most modern uses it means in a homosexual fashion. Now if I read a book I have to sit down and think about which use of the word Flamboyant they are trying to use.

Now shift will happen over time, and we must accept that. However I fail to see why the word Steampunk is misused given the fact it has 'punk' in the very name. 99% of all "steampunk" is very upperclass, very sophisticated, the antithesis of punk, which is at it's very nature about smashing all that is safe, and violating all social conventions.

For the record I'm in my early 20s, I'm just highly pedantic.

Oh and I see no reason why a Tesla-heavy world wouldn't be gritty, however nothing in the post mandated that it would be gritty. Therefore while it has the potential to be steampunk I don't think it was steampunk in itself, though I think you where justified as tagging it as such. I do kinda wish I where 10 years older so I could have had the chance to nip the misuse of the term in its bud back when several dozen people where using it instead of thousands.


Anassa said...

Ah, sorry. I was kind of going by your pendanticness and assuming you were, like you said, 10 years or so older. My bad. Forgive me?

True, you do get ambiguity when meanings shift, but that doesn't necessarily mean we should keep them that way. If you want to go the whole nine yards, we should still be speaking Old English or sticking to the original meanings of all loanwords. Not criticizing if that's what you believe, but I like that shifting and multiplying meanings gives us a richness of language we wouldn't otherwise have. I don't mind sorting through meanings to match context, either.

As for my not specifying grittiness in this post, I like to keep things open so that radically different results can come from the same idea. Some people will take this and try for a sanitized world, and some will go gritty. It may be a holdover from my linguistics degree, but I don't like planting any more ideas in people's heads than I need to.

DR said...

I just have to say this is awesome, and a great source for different ideas (granted, this is the point). I can't help but think of this and then of the show "Fringe" which is getting the job of "favorite ongoing show" after Lost sees its end in 4 episodes. I don't know what you've heard about it, if anything, but its a great series about a mad scientist just released from the mental institution so he can work with the new "Fringe" division of the FBI, who are investigating "The Pattern," a series of events that seem to be occurring because technology's progress has begun to unravel the fabric of reality itself. It's awesome.

The larger, overarching plot is about an Alternate Universe that seems to be gearing up for a war against our unsuspecting universe, likely all cased by what the Mad Scientist character, Walter Bishop did in 1985 when he made the very first break through the boundary between worlds. The other universe is more technologically advanced in most fields than ours, and certain things in history went differently. For example, Michael J. Fox never got the job for Back to the Future, and the Zeplin docks on the Empire State Building are still functioning. Considering in 1985 they had 2010 cell phones, I could see one of the things that went differently being Tesla being far more well respected and his inventions like this one being given deeper consideration and weight than what they were here.

Sorry about that little rant, but I couldn't get working on my homework until I got that out of my system.

Anassa said...

Heh, yeah, I've heard of Fringe. It's an intriguing idea for a show, though not one that's hooked me. I didn't know what the differences of the alternate universe were, though! Cool! I can see the Tesla thing as well. (It would be very weird to find that out on the show, though. Heh.)

Speaking of 1985's cell phones: