Prophecies: mobile phones

Today is Robert A. Heinlein‘s centennial; he was born exactly 100 years ago, on 7 July 1907. I am tempted to write a tribute to him and his influence on science fiction and popular culture, but there’s really no need. Many other people have already done a better job of this than I possibly could. My favorite example is Spider Robinson‘s essay “Rah Rah R.A.H.”, which you can read online courtesy of the Heinlein Society. (That piece and a number of others are collected in Requiem: New Collected Works by Robert A. Heinlein and Tributes to the Grand Master, if you want to read more.)

Instead, I’m going to commemorate Heinlein’s centennial by kicking off a series of posts I’ve been planning to write for some time. It’s called Prophecies, and each post will talk about a technological or social development that was predicted (often with uncanny accuracy) in written science fiction. My knowledge of SF is heavily weighted toward the Golden Age classics, so a lot of the predictions are from fiction that’s at least 40 years old, and sometimes much older.

My first example, of course, is from a Heinlein novel: Space Cadet, one of Heinlein’s earliest juvenile novels. The title is probably enough to make today’s audiences dismiss it, but the book is remarkably sophisticated for something written in 1948 and intended for preteen and teenage readers. Most of the story is about the training and education required for all officer candidates for the Interplanetary Patrol, a spacefaring force responsible for peacekeeping, exploration, and diplomatic contact with extraterrestrials. (Sound familiar?) One of the themes of this novel is that Patrol officers must understand the cultures and customs of alien races, so that they can present themselves as sentient and civilized by the standards of those aliens. In effect, Heinlein invented Starfleet and Starfleet Academy decades before the original Star Trek series.

But that’s not the prediction I want to talk about today. In the very first scene of Space Cadet, as protagonist Matt Dodson is arriving at Patrol headquarters to begin his training, he meets fellow cadet Tex Jarman and strikes up a conversation. A moment later, Jarman remarks, “Say, your telephone is sounding.”

“Oh!” Matt fumbled in his pouch and got out his phone. “Hello?”
“That you, son?” came his father’s voice.
“Yes, Dad.”
“Did you get there all right?”
“Sure, I’m about to report in.”
“How’s your leg?”
“Leg’s all right, Dad.” His answer was not frank; his right leg, fresh from corrective operation for a short Achilles’ tendon, was aching as he spoke.
“That’s good. Now see here, Matt — if it should work out that you aren’t selected, don’t let it get you down. You call me at once and –”
“Sure, sure, Dad,” Matt broke in. “I’ll have to sign off – I’m in a crowd. Good-by. Thanks for calling.”
“Good-by, son. Good luck.”
Tex Jarman looked at him understandingly. “Your folks always worry, don’t they? I fooled mine — packed my phone in my bag.”

A perfectly normal, everyday scene, right? But when I first read it in the 1970s, I was astonished at the notion of a telephone that you could carry in your pocket. A telephone was a stationary appliance, connected to a wall socket by wires. It was also bulky and heavy — an object that sat on a tabletop or was bolted to a wall. The notion that it could weigh mere ounces, be carried in a pouch or bag, and work almost anywhere was . . . well, it was science fiction.
Now we all have these phones, and we take them completely for granted. But let it be noted that six decades ago, Robert A. Heinlein described, with perfect accuracy, the mobile phone as we know it today. Rah rah R.A.H.!

UPDATE: Taylor Dinerman, in a column on Heinlein’s legacy, points out that he also described a mobile phone in the 1951 novel Between Planets — again, in the very first scene. Protagonist Don Harvey is riding a pony named Lazy in New Mexico when a snake startles the pony. After Harvey dispatches the snake (with a ray gun!), the two of them resume traveling:

He clucked and they started off. A few hundred yards further on Lazy shied again, not from a snake this time but from an unexpected noise. Don pulled him in and spoke severely. “You bird-brained butterball! When are you going to learn not to jump when the telephone rings?” Lazy twitched his shoulder muscles and snorted. Don reached for the pommel, removed the phone, and answered. “Mobile 6-J-233309, Don Harvey speaking.”

I had forgotten that scene. Dinerman is right; that’s definitely a mobile phone.

2 thoughts on “Prophecies: mobile phones

  1. Thanks for mentioning the centennial of Heinlein’s birth. I’m one of those who would not have known, although I appreciate his work based on my one exposure to it in teaching “Farmer in the Sky” to eighth graders. His description of our cell phones is astonishingly accurate!
    Your idea of writing a series of posts about SF prophecies is a great one, and I look forward to reading more.

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