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Where science fiction becomes science fact - that is the place Hank is exploring in today's episode of SciShow. Many inventions we use today were first imagined in stories that described fantastical futures. Hank talks about the origins of four of these: the cell phone, the submarine, the telemanipulator (or robot arm), and the taser. Blast off for knowledge!

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Hank Green:  For reasons I will never understand, it seems like science fiction gets a bit of a bad rap.  In book stores it's usually relegated to a back corner not far from where the vampire and werewolf romances are.  Sometimes, usually, the folks browsing this section have a whiff of nerdiness about them.  I should know.  Because I'm one of them.  And if you're watching this, maybe you are too.  But to relegate sci-fi to some kooky niche is to sell short its influence, its innovation, and its boundless potential to contribute to real, hard science fact.

Many sci-fi authors are known for the hard science behind their fiction and have serious academic chops.  Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote 2001:  A Space Odyssey had degrees in mathematics and physics.  And I, Robot author Isaac Asimov had a PhD in biochemistry.  These writers, and countless others, were inspired by the existing theories and technologies as much as they, in turn, inspired new ideas in science by expanding the imagination of their readers; many of whom, went into careers into science.

In fact, there are plenty of modern-day innovations that were originally inspired or even made possible by science fiction.  That cell phone in your pocket, for one, and at least three others that I can think of right off the top of my head.

[SciShow intro]

These days, you can't swing a light saber without hitting a cell phone.  You'd be increasingly hard-pressed to even find a person in the U.S. that doesn't own one, but it wasn't always so.  The first mobile car phones showed up in the mid-1940s.  But 20 years later they were still operated more or less like expensive radios and they didn't work very well because the operating network could only support a few users at a time.  And they were still tethered to a home base; in this case, a vehicle.

Phone companies, like AT&T, were working on improving this kind of technology but Martin Cooper, an engineer and executive at Motorola, was thinking about a new way to communicate that allowed even more freedom.  In the 1970s he was thinking and thinking about this stuff and one day just decided to take a break, put his feet up and catch an episode of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek.  Captain Kirk was in some kind of trouble, naturally, and he pulled out a small, hand-held, pocket communicator to call the bridge.  A light went off in Cooper's head.  Kirk didn't have to call a switchboard to direct his call.  His nifty little communicator wasn't attached to his transport shuttle, it was just right there in his hand.

Cooper knew that the future of phone communication had to be in small, hand-held, person-to-person devices supported by a large network.  To others, that kind of Star Trek technology was way fantasy.  But to Cooper, someone at the forefront of mobile communication technology, it was an objective.  And he made it happen.

Cooper himself made the first call from a hand-held cell phone in 1973 on the sidewalks of New York City from a huge brick of a device called the DynaTAC.  Who did he call?  His chief competitor at Bell Labs, just to rub it in.

The DynaTAC hit the market in the mid-80s with a charge that lasted 30 minutes.  You'll remember them as those huge beasts that Wall Street execs and pastel-clad drug dealers used in many '80s movies.  Obviously, we have come a long way since then.  [Shows phone.]  Ths is currently controlling my teleprompter.

So thank you, Star Trek.

Going back a century or so, inventive minds were thinking about ways to travel underwater.  Most concepts for submersible vehicles never left the drawing phase and ones that did were often made of leather and wood and couldn't move or stay under water for any length of time, which is not very practical.

In 1864, the Confederate Army launched their hand-cranked submersible, the CSS Hunley, which successfully sank the USS Housatonic.  But it also sunk itself in the process.  So the world was still waiting, really, for the first submarine.  It wasn't until 1898 that the Argonaut, the first truly successful submarine to operate out in the open ocean, slipped under water and creeped from Norfolk, Virginia, to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, without sinking or crashing or killing her crew. Bonus.

No doubt, its American inventor, Simon Lake, known as "the father of the modern submarine," got plenty of hand shakes and back pats.  But his real triumph came in the form of a note from Jules Verne, the French novelist who captivated Lake with the notion of undersea travel with his famous book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, first published in 1870.

Now Verne may have gotten his idea for Captain Nemo's Nautilus from some of those earlier submarine plans, but his research was impeccable, his imagination was tremendous, and his design was feasible.  Especially considering that he was no engineer, Verne actually had an uncanny skill for crafting and expanding upon emerging technologies in his writing, sometimes creating sound solutions to ongoing, real world challenges.

In the case of Lake's 11-meter gasoline powered Argonaut, it had many similarities to Verne's fictional Nautilus.  Both vessels were cigar shaped and both achieved submersion through the flooding of ballast tanks.  The Argonaut was the first vessel to allow men equipped in diving suits to pass through doors back and forth between the sea and floor and submarine, collecting things from the bottom of the ocean in the way that Nemo's crew did.  Yes, Captain Nemo's rig was pimped out with an organ, extensive library, and fine art collection, but still, for a non-specialist, Verne was really well informed as a visionary.  In his autobiography, Lake wrote, "Jules Verne was, in a sense, the director-general of my life."

Of course, we can't talk about sci-fi without mentioning the extremely influential, popular but controversial author Robert Heinlein, who, along with Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, is known as one of "the big three of science fiction."  His writing provided the namesake and inspiration for Waldos, also known as remove manipulators or telemanipulators used today, especially in the nuclear industry.

Published in 1942, Heinlein's short story Waldo detailed the life of a mechanical genius born with a severe neuro-muscular disease who could barely lift his own head.  Using his intellect and the family money, he invents the great Waldo F. Jones' Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph, which is essentially a giant robot arm that he controls with his hand.

Heinlein describes the device as working like a robotic extension of a human hand, not controlled by levers or buttons but rather a glove that you put your hand into and manipulate the arm as if it were your own.  He envisioned different-sized Waldos: tiny ones for micro-manipulations, huge ones for building construction.  Naturally this technology could allow a person to work remotely in an environment that was dangerous to humans, so soon both the need and the engineering behind these fictional robotic arms proved to be valid in the nonfictional world.

In 1945, Central Research Laboratories was asked to develop a remote manipulator for the Argonne National Laboratory that was just starting work on the nuclear reactors for the Manhattan Project.  The idea was to replace existing devices that accessed radioactive materials from above a sealed chamber, or hot cell, with a remote arm that can be manipulated through an adjacent wall.  The resulting device was given the dubious name The Master-Slave Manipulator MK.8, but they lovingly nick-named these handy robo-arms "Waldos," a nod to Heinlein.

And one final example of how science fiction has made our lives kind of awesomer is the Taser.  Hopefully you've never personally experienced the acute displeasure of being tased, so if you want to live vicariously through countless victims, just search for "Taser" on YouTube and you'll get an inkling of what it feels like to have jolts of unwanted electricity running through your body.

Invented by aerospace scientist and physicist Jack Cover in the early 1970s, the Taser was designed as a non-lethal weapon that could be used be used by law enforcement officers as a type of stun gun.  Apparently Cover was inspired by two things.  1) An article in the newspaper that described a man running into an electric fence and being temporarily immobilized.  And 2) by an old Tom Swift sci-fi adventure book he read as a kid.  Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle was published in 1911 as the tenth volume in a 100 book series written by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a group of ghost writers publishing under the pen-name Victor Appleton.  That same group also wrote the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series.

The Swift books promoted benevolent science and technology through the glories of heroic invention in the spirit of teen adventure.  In this particular book, main character Tom Swift heads out on an African safari to, yeah, kill some elephants and other megafauna.  It was the nineteen teens, they were all doing that.  Things get crazy when his friends are held captive by some red pygmies (oh my gosh!), whereupon Tom unleashes his newest invention, the electric rifle.  The gun pretty much looked like any old rifle but shot bolts of electricity instead of bullets and could be set to varying levels of intensity from tickle to kill.

Sixty years later, Cover brought the first version of this electro-shock gun into reality, giving Tom Swift mad props by naming the device the Taser for Tom A. Swift's Electric Rifle.  Rather than blasting through solid walls and bringing down angry whales like Tom's magic gun, the real life Taser works by shooting electrified darts tethered to the gun by insulated wires and flooding the target's body with current that causes uncontrollable muscle spasms.

Up until the mid-90s, Tasers were classified as firearms because they required a small amount of gun powder to fire the darts. Nowadays they use compressed nitrogen instead of gunpowder and are sold and used freely in most states.  [sarcastically] Yay!

While small amounts of electrical current are not necessarily dangerous and Tasers can provide a good alternative to firearms, they can also be seriously dangerous so DON'T GO TASERING YOUR FRIENDS FOR FUN.  And also, just in general, leave elephants alone.

But still, pretty cool.  Life imitating art, art imitating life.  It makes a lot of sense.  So much sense in fact that in 2000 the European Space Agency, looking to remain competitive with the U.S., asked the public to submit promising ideas from old and new sci-fi novels that might warrant a closer look with the advent of new technologies and materials.

So you see, science and science fiction can be very cooperative when done well.  The nerds shall inherit the earth, and as Jules Verne once said, "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real."

So let's get going on those hoverboards!  I've been waiting since 1989, people!

And thanks for watching this episode of SciShow.  If you have any questions or comments or suggestions for us, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter or down in the comments below.  And if you want to keep getting smarter with us here at SciShow, you can go to and subscribe.

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