Sci-Fi Inventions That Became Fact
Replicators. Robots. Spaceships. Tractor Beams. Thanks to gadgets and gizmos like these, sci-fi stories have captivated our imagination for generations—and amazingly, many of sci-fi’s most mind-blowing inventions have gone on to become real.
Grab your hoverboards and jetpacks as we launch into this list of the most astounding sci-fi tech that you can now access in the real world.
In the early to mid-1900s, the Tom Swift adventure series captivated young minds with science fiction that emphasized invention and technology. One reader, Jack Clover, especially liked Tom Swift’s stun gun-like electric rifle. Years later, he became a NASA physicist who invented the taser.
It was a direct nod to the books; TASER stands for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”
Watching Buck Rogers in 1928 and James Bond in 1965 take flight with their jetpacks caused imaginations to soar, but the technology took a while to get off the ground.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the Martin Aircraft Company of New Zealand created a device that could go up to 46 miles per hour and reach a height of 3,000 feet. In 2020, a person with a jetpack reportedly flew around Los Angeles International Airport. Another company, JetPack Aviation, claims that its product can launch a person 15,000 feet in the air.
Inhis 1965 book Dune, author Frank Herbert wrote about a “hunter seeker,” a proto-drone used to assassinate people. Similar flying machines made appearances in Star Wars, Babylon Five, and other popular sci-fi movies and shows before becoming a reality in 2006, when the U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration issued its first commercial drone permit.
Over the last decade, drone popularity has skyrocketed, with the machines now widely used in agriculture, construction, law enforcement, and by your annoying neighbor.
Goldman Sachs forecasts the total drone market size to be worth $100 billion.
Star Trek, The Jetsons, and 2001: A Space Odyssey all featured computers and televisions with flat-screen monitors. Similar technology was being developed as early as the 1960s, but it was riddled with flaws. Then, in 1996, Sony and Sharp partnered to release the first consumer flat-screen television—costing $15,000 for 42 inches.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in flat-screen technology, and you can now get a television almost double the size for 1/10 the price.
The 1990 film Total Recall portrayed high-speed, full-body security scanners. In 2007, full-body scanners (or advanced imaging technology units) were installed at airports around the world.
Today, they are being used in other buildings that require security checks as well, such as courthouses.
In Star Trek, replicators could make just about anything appear out of thin air. Remember when Captain Picard conjured instant Earl gray tea complete with a cup?
Today’s 3D printers can’t quite do all of our biddings, but they can make clothing, jewelry, furniture, musical instruments, and more with impressive precision.
It was hard not to get excited by Marty McFly’s hoverboard in Back to the Future II. A skateboard that can fly? Yes, please!
While we’re still waiting on hoverboards for doing tricks or escaping bad guys, a scaled-down model was created by Arx Pax in 2015. The California company invented Magnetic Field Architecture (MFA™) to levitate the board and continues to develop its models. Marty and Doc would be proud.
Another cool thing featured in Back to the Future II (who said sequels were subpar?) was Marty McFly’s self-lacing Nikes.
In 2011, Nike released a real life-version of the high-tech high-tops. Sold in limited quantities, the sneaker was released again in 2016. Proceeds benefited The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which supports individuals with Parkinson’s disease.
Air Touch Technology
When Tom Cruise slapped on a special pair of gloves in the 2002 flick Minority Report, he was suddenly able to control computers and manipulate digital images through hand gestures without ever touching them.
Just over a decade later, researchers at the University of Bristol announced “ultrahaptic” technology that mimicked this cinematic tech. And in 2019, Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) set out to create motion sensors that would allow users to control televisions, computers, and smartphones sans touch.
Other super-cool technologies from Minority Report that have made their way into the real world include personalized advertising and (yes) insect robots.
In Star Wars, the evil Empire put Luke, Leia, and company in a “tractor beam” that froze their ship and pulled them toward impending doom. While dragging a ship across space doesn’t sound like something we’ll ever see (or at least not anytime soon), professors at New York University did successfully use a light beam to control microscopic particles.
It’s not the Death Star, but it’s a start.
In 1964, Star Trek introduced the communicator, a handheld wireless device with a cool flip design that the crew used to talk to one another when they were separated. Three decades later, Motorola came out with the world’s first clamshell-style flip phone, which the company named StarTac.
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury described “Seashells” as thimble-sized radios that fit snugly into ears and delivered “an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk.”
While headphones existed for years before the book was published, they were large and clunky, so Bradbury’s description felt radical.
In 2001, Apple changed the game with its much-sleeker iPod headphones and then took audio tech even further with its AirPods, truly wireless in-ear headphone. Today, Sony, Bose, and several other companies offer their own takes on “Seashells.”
On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew used a flat, touch-screen device called PADDS (personal access display devices) to get information, watch videos, or listen to music. In 2010, Apple unveiled the remarkably similar iPad, which even included some of the PADD’s key features, such as a built-in microphone and security access restrictions.
In The Empire Strikes Back, after Luke Skywalker had his hand cut off by dad Darth Vader, he famously received a cool new prosthetic hand. Inspired directly by the movie, Singaporean biotechnologist Benjamin Tee began engineering “electronic artificial skin” that adds the sense of touch and other physical sensations to prosthetics.
Writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov predicted the world would see “robot-brain cars” that drive themselves all the way back in 1964. More than 25 years later, the idea was further advanced in Total Recall, featuring the self-driving Johnny Cab taxi.
In more recent years, major tech companies and organizations like Apple, Tesla, and even NASA have worked to develop fully autonomous vehicles, which many predict will transform transportation in the years to come.
On Star Trek, viewers watched in awe as alien languages were instantly decoded. These days, apps like Google Translate—launched in 2006—can do the same for foreign languages, eschewing the need for pesky language dictionaries. You can even point your smartphone at a street sign or restaurant menu to see what it means in your language.
It’s not as cool as translating Klingon, but it’s pretty nifty nonetheless.
All the way back in 1927, the classic silent film Metropolisdepicted a man using a large, clunky phone with a unique feature: a video screen. Years later, at the 1964 World’s Fair, AT&T won over crowds with a similar device, and by the mid-1990s standard household phones offered video features.
While these products weren’t megahits, they did influence the creation of mobile phones capable of video calling. And the rest is FaceTime history.
Another technology breakthrough predicted on Star Trek? Medicine administered via a painless jet-injected hypospray.
In 2012, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineered a device similar to one featured on the sci-fi show, capable of delivering medicine through a “high-velocity jet of liquid that breaches the skin at the speed of sound” instead of a hypodermic needle.
How many of us wish we could summon Rosey from the Jetsons to do our household chores?
Roomba, invented in 2002, was a step in the right direction with its automated vacuuming, but lacked the spunky personality and cooking know-how of our favorite robot maid.
Enter Aeolus Robotics, a company currently working on robots to “autonomously assist people’s work in human’s open environment to increase convenience, productivity and happiness.” These robots won’t be able to whip up a three-course meal in no time, but they will be able to, among other things, vacuum and bring owners their favorite drink.
Iron Man’s Suit
In his Iron Man suit, Tony Stark became one of the world’s greatest superheroes. Now, the United States military has created a similar suit for its heroic servive members.
Called TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), the protective suit is made of liquid armor that solidifies on command. It’s also designed to repel billets and has sensors to enhance situational awareness.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, communicator badges worn on Starfleet uniforms served as high-tech walkie-talkies. Today, Vocera’s Smart Badges similarly enable hands-free alerts, messages, and calls.
The snazzy badges are used primarily in hospitals to deliver up-to-the-minute, privacy-protected patient information while eliminating distracting overhead announcements.
These days, seeing people tap or speak into their wrist is commonplace thanks to the prevalance of smartwatches from Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, and others. But imagine the excitement of seeing this technology for the first time in the 1960s, when characters on The Jetsons used high-tech watches to watch, of all things, The Flintstones.
“Help me, Obi-Wan.” Who can forget Princess Leia asking for help in Star Wars: Episode IV—in the form of a hologram projected by R2-D2?
In 2012, AV Concepts used holographic technology to bring Tupac, who’d died in 1996, on stage to perform with Snoop Dog at the Coachella Music Festival. Capitalizing on people’s nostalgia, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, creating holographic performances from Whitney Houston, Maria Callas, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Michael Jackson, and more. Help us, Obi-Wan!
In 1999, a Disney Movie called Smart House featured a robot named PAT (short for Personal Applied Technology) who could control the thermostat, make calls, play music, and provide the daily forecast.
Today, more than 4 billion digital-voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are being used around the world to perform similar functions. Alas, these assistants aren’t played by Katey Sagal.
In his 1865 book From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne wrote about a spacecraft that would take three astronauts to the moon. Just over a century later, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin famously made it to the moon on the Apollo 11.
Verne also accurately predicted weightlessness in space.
In addition to writing about space travel, Jules Verne took readers to earth’s lower depths in his classic 1870 tome Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, featuring a massive underwater ship that ran on electricity.
Years later, in 1897, the novel inspired an American inventor, Simon Lake, to invent a real-life submarine. Named the Argonaut, the vessel traveled 300 miles from Virginia to New York.
Score another one for Jules Verne. In his 1886 story, Robur the Conqueror, he described an aircraft with high-speed rotors that propelled it to fly. Though prototypes were already out there, Verne imagined new details that would inspire the creation of the world’s first helicopter 50 years later.
Crediting Verne as his inspiration, creator Igor Sikorski said, “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced an eyepiece that enabled wearers to see beyond their direct vision. In 2014, Google Glass expanded on this concept with an eyepiece that wearers could use to check their email, surf the web, view photos, and more.
Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see the point and the product failed, though the company is reportedly back at it again.
When Starfleet members wanted a break from their ship, they used a virtual reality system called the holodeck. The program allowed users to interact in a virtual environment for both recreational and training purposes.
Three decades after holodecks were first introduced on Star Trek, virtual reality has become a billion-dollar industry. Companies such as Oculus now offer competitively priced VR gaming headsets and continue to make strides in advancing the tech.
It may be more horror than science-fiction, but in Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein uses electric currents to shock his “monster” back to life. Less creepily, in 1947 Dr. Claude Beck saved a teenager’s life with a jolt from two silver paddles wired to an electric outlet.
Today, deliberators are widely used in hospitals around the world (and are prominently featured in hospital dramas, too).
Ridley Scott’s iconic 1982 film Blade Runner showed a futuristic Los Angeles where large digital billboards were projected onto the sides of skyscrapers. Today, can you imagine walking through cities like New York, London, or Tokyo without seeing the bright lights of massive digital billboards?
Let’s just hope Scott’s evil Replicants don’t become a thing.
Can you imagine Star Wars without the “pew pew” sound of laser cannons?
In recent years, the United States Army has been working on its own version of the weapon, The Indirect Fires Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL). Called the “most powerful laser weapon to date,” it’s expected to be powerful enough to destroy large targets, such as incoming missiles.
In Aldous Huxley's 1931 dystopian novel, Brave New World, almost everyone took a mood-altering pill called Soma to wipe out their unhappy thoughts and feelings. Twenty years later, scientists began making antidepressants a sobering reality.
In 1988, Prozac was introduced to the public and became one of the most widely used drugs in the United States. According to the CDC, “13.2% of Americans aged 18 and over reported taking antidepressants” between 2015 and 2018.
Artificial Intelligence is pretty common in sci-fi. In Blade Runner, it was Replicants. In The Terminator, it was an android played by Arnold. And in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was a controlling, murderous computer named HAL.
Today, AI is alive and well in various forms, from virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa to facial recognition software to a robot named Watson who was a Jeopardy champion.
In 2014, George Orwell’s book 1984 (which came out in 1949) once again topped the bestseller list. The reason? His dystopian story with the classic “Big Brother is watching” tagline started to hit close to home thanks to a rise in video monitoring, GPS tracking, mobile phone eavesdropping, and NSA spying.
While not as exciting as flying cars (maybe one day!), electric cars were predicted by John Brunner in his 1969 novel, Zanzibar. Today, many major automobile companies such as Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota, Mercedes, and Mitsubishi all make a form of rechargeable driving machines.
Reality Show Competitions
In the 1987 film Running Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man forced to participate in a violent (but highly rated) reality show that involves prisoners literally running for their lives while being chased by professional killers.
The movie helped launch reality competitions like American Gladiators (which, funny enough, was pitched as RunningMan without the killing), plus Survivor, The Greatest Race, and more.
In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson described a fully immersive online “metaverse” where people interacted with one another through representations, or “avatars.” Today, millions of people use digitally-represented versions of themselves (or alternate identities) in online meetings, role-playing games, shopping, and more.
2001: A Space Odyssey’sSpace Station V orbited the earth and featured a hotel and lounges. In 2000, astronaut Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev became the first crew to reside onboard the similar and very real International Space Station.
Today, the station houses residents 365 days a year as NASA continues to “push the boundaries of 21st-century science, technology and engineering.” While there isn’t a hotel yet, NASA is working on it.
In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy described a world where people could make purchases with a card containing a set amount of credit. At the time, this seemed like a wild idea, but of course it’s exactly what came to be with our modern-day credit and debit cards.
Seriously, does anyone even carry cash anymore?
In 1989, Nils Rydbeck, CTO at Ericsson Mobile in Sweden, initiated the development of “short-link” radio technology, later named Bluetooth. The tech closely echoed tech used by Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, who wore a giant, silver wireless earpiece to communicate with people around the ship.
On Star Trek, the tricorder was a handheld device that performed three functions: senor scans, data recording, and analysis. In the late 1990s, software developer Jeff Jetton added a program to palm pilots that mimicked the device, including the chips and beeps.
In 2012, Dr. Peter Jansen announced his development of a new tricorder that had visible spectroscopy, radiation sensing, thermal imaging, and environmental sensing.