8 sci-fi legends who were/are also inventors

Contributed by
May 9, 2017

So many articles are populated with "sci-fi authors who foresaw the future," but most entries are a huge stretch.

For instance, you could easily say that my kindergarten short story, "The Enormous Butt that Ruled the World," foresaw the modern 24-hour news cycle.

But any notion that I invented it is ridiculous, unlike these sci-fi royalty who actually made real innovations ...

William Moulton Marston

In 1942, William Moulton Marston (whose 124th birthday is today) was hired as educational consultant for National Periodicals and All-American Publications. Soon, the two companies would merge to form the much-less-boringly-titled DC Comics. Frankly I'm surprised the comic universe doesn't use more educational consultants, because, you know, maybe somebody might have said "hey Superman flying around the world does not reverse time."

On the suggestion of his wife, Marston had the marketable idea to suggest a female superhero. Wonder Woman, the character who emerged from this idea, would do a lot to break down barriers in the comic book world. Still, her superhuman strength wasn't strong enough to shatter the glass ceiling, as writers wouldn't give her a job with the Justice Squad beyond secretary.

The notion of a woman descended from an all-female tribe wasn't entirely unfamiliar to Marston, who had more women in his life than usual. In fact, he cohabitated with two women. Wonder Woman's looks were based on one of these lively gals, Olive Byrne Richard.

Despite his illustrious career, when many people hear his name their cheeks instinctively clinch. That's because he did a lot to pioneer the lie detector test, including inventing a systolic blood pressure testing machine. Before then, figuring out how high someone's blood pressure was involved measuring the steam coming out of their ears.

Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe won the oxymoronically-titled World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1996. His series, The Book of the New Sun, has been ranked alongside The Lord of the Rings in lists of all-time best fantasy novels. Wolfe's exploration of first-person perspective from an unreliable narrator took things to new and exciting heights.

No, the eye patch isn't where his idea for unreliable perspective came from

Still, his thousands of pages of magnificent prose are not Gene Wolfe's greatest contribution to a sentient lifestyle. Before he was a world-renowned fantasy writer, Wolfe was an industrial engineer. One of the jobs with which engineer Wolfe was tasked was the development of a machine to cook large amounts of Pringles potato chips. In later interviews, Wolfe would recall this task will all the gusto of recalling the sunrise on an alien planet.

... we divided the task into the dough making/dough rolling portion, which was done by Len Hooper, and the cooking portion, which was done by me, and then the pickoff and salting portion, which was done by someone else, and then the can-filling/can-sealing portion which was done by a man who was almost driven insane by the program. Because he would develop a machine, and he would have it almost ready to go, and they would say "Oh, instead of 300 cans a minute, make it 500 cans a minute." And so he would have to throw out a bunch of stuff, and develop the new machine, and when he got that one about ready, they'd say "make it 700 cans a minute." And they almost put him in a mental hospital. He took his job very seriously and he just about flipped out.

It is only through the noble, driven efforts of engineers like these that junk food companies can keep up with America's skyrocketing obesity epidemic.

Robert Heinlein

The decorated author of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. During his lengthy bedridden period, he developed plans for a bed filled with water. Those plans would make their way into three of his novels.

While he did not go so far as to actually make a waterbed, he was so regarded as its creator that waterbed patent applications from other inventors were denied on the grounds that Heinlein did it first. Heinlein was correct in his prediction that waterbeds would be superior for the immobile because each part of the body is supported equally. It was no wonder the waterbed became the resting place of choice for the injured, infirm and sexy '70s swingers.

Roald Dahl

With such books as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it's been bandied about that Roald Dahl hated children. However, the renowned author went far above the call of fatherhood when it came to saving his own child and provided sorely needed relief for thousands of sick kids.

After being hit by a car, Dahl's infant son developed hydrocephalus. Standard procedure for the time (1960) was to insert a modified tube into the skull. This would drain the brain of fluid faster than a post-rave comedown. However, the tube would often clog, a painful occurrence that could render the victim blind. Neurosurgeon Kenneth Till tipped Dahl off that debris from ventricles was causing the clogs, which got Dahl to thinking. Turns out, Dahl had spent his childhood flying model aircraft with a man named Stanley Wade, who went on to become a hydraulic engineer.

With Wade as the designer and Till as the medical expert, there was only one more piece needed: Someone good with words to translate between the two specialists. Dahl fit in perfectly, and the trio invented the Wade-Dahl-Till valve. By the time their work was finished, Dahl's son had healed to the point where a shunt was no longer needed (and he's still alive today, in fact). However, thousands of other children benefitted from the device, which the creators refused to take any profit from.

Fun fact: If you roll a copy of James and the Giant peach up really tight and shove it into the base of your skull, it makes for a really poor shunt.

James Cameron

After making Titanic and The Abyss, James Cameron was fed up with the limited underwater movement afforded to camera operators. This was a particularly important peeve, as Cameron's plans to film underwater seem limitless. Ghosts of the Abyss and Expedition: Bismarck take the viewer under the real ocean exploring the murky depths. So, Cameron decided he needed to invent a better way to film underwater. In his own, easy-to-understand words:

The apparatus comprises a hull assembly for maintaining the apparatus at the desired level of buoyancy. The hull assembly for propelling the apparatus through the water. The thruster means are positionable at the desired angular orientation relative to the longitudinal axis of the hull assembly. The hull assembly is angularly oriented independently of the direction of the movement of the apparatus. Means are provided for connecting the thruster means to the hull assembly.

The net effect is that the device allows the camera operator to travel underwater in one direction while filming in another. This will really help my filming of my personal project, Jaws 5 (which is currently just shots of blue ocean with me screaming.)

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll is best remembered as the creator of the fantastic universes in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. However, Carroll was highly accomplished in other fields as well. A well regarded mathematician, he also had an interesting hobby ...

If you guessed "collecting coins" you couldn't be more wrong, shame on your stereotypical beliefs of mathematicians. In fact, Carroll's hobby was collecting postage stamps.

Carroll was a prolific letter writer, so much in fact that his biggest concern was usually obtaining the correct postage. To help with this, he invented a case for carrying postage stamps of up to 12 different values.

Also contained in the charming case was a series of illustrations from Carroll's signature literary series. The pictures detailed Alice carrying a baby (or, on the inside, a pig). Not as charming was the inclusion of Carroll's "Eight or Nine Wise Rules about Writing," an incisive list of orders about how exactly one should go about penning a greeting to a loved one. Rules include "Don't repeat yourself" and "Don't try to have the last word."

I tried not getting the last word in a letter and, yeah, it's impossible.

Bill Nye

Bill Nye is famous for his show about a science guy as well as for appearing any time someone needs a scientist who is actually camera-friendly (but Neil Degrasse Tyson is unavailable). Here's a fun clip of him arguing about UFOs on Larry King.

Despite this foundation in strict science, Nye made a very curious and potentially valuable invention for furthering the arts. If you're like me and most average-brained humans, you watch ballet and think, "When are they going to do the Moonwalk?" However, Bill Nye looked at a ballet and said, "Wow, those shoes look unnecessarily painful!"

The hook to Nye's invention lies in the toes, which often support the entire weight of a ballet dancer (while still looking unnecessarily painful). Nye's shoes include a "toe box," which protect the digits and distribute force along the entire sole.

While Nye went so far as to obtain a patent for his "toe shoes," he has not produced them yet. If he doesn't start following through on some of his ideas, he'll never amount to anything.

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg has a series of inventions with a wide variety of purposes: Editing scripts and positioning a camera.

Okay, I guess that's just two purposes.

Let's take Spielberg's Patent number: 8762853, "method and apparatus for annotating a document." According to the abstract, its purpose is "To facilitate the use of audio files for annotation purposes, an audio file format, which includes audio data for playback purposes, is augmented with a parallel data channel of line identifiers, or with a map associating time codes for the audio data with line numbers on the original document. The line number-time code information in the audio file is used to navigate within the audio file, and also to associate bookmark links and captured audio annotation files with line numbers of the original text document. An annotation device may provide an output document wherein links to audio and/or text annotation files are embedded at corresponding line numbers. Also, a navigation index may be generated, having links to annotation files and associated document line numbers, as well as bookmark links to selected document line numbers."

After doing extensive research, I was able to wrap my brain around the notion that this "apparatus" would allow people to add audio to script edits. So, let's say you're reading the producer's edits for a script you wrote for "Ernie and Bert vs. the Martians." In the big scene where Bert hides from the Martian leader, there's a little link you can click. When you click the link, Spielberg says, "You need cut about two minutes from this scene. Also, you're fired because this is unbelievably stupid."

Spielberg's other patents revolve around getting smooth shots but also keeping the option to change a shot mid-scene. Traditionally, Spielberg (and other notable directors) have used a "dance floor." This is a smooth surface upon which a dolly carrying the camera can move in any direction. However, sometimes the director wants a little more rigidness to keep the flow of the shot on track. Spielberg came up with a "dolly track switch," wherein the director can switch between several overlapping tracks (think train tracks, except for a dolly carrying the camera). From what I can tell, the Dolly Track Switch was never made, which is no doubt why there are hundreds of accidents involving dollies crashing into each other every year.

The tales of these eight inventors illuminate an interesting part of the human condition: Lateral thinking is like a muscle in the brain. Building one's lateral thinking "muscle" in one area can allow someone to achieve great things in an entirely different field, just like my bicep curls allow me to lift 700 cans of Pringles to my mouth every minute. The out-of-the-box thought processes required to come up with original science fiction can often be extrapolated to coming up with new inventions for common problems.

The opposite isn't true, thought: Finding new places on my face to stick my pencil hasn't cured my writer's block.