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Star Trek Technology: Today

Star Trek Technology Today

Star Trek Technology: Today.

September 8, 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of the original Star Trek Television series. Each month, here at Geeks & Beats, we will feature a special article that will look at various aspects of this ground-breaking show.

In this, the first feature to launch our 50th Anniversary series, I will look at some of the technology that was presented in the original Star Trek Television series. While much could be written about the series and movies that followed, this article, like the others, I will offer in the coming months will focus on the original Star Trek.

Much of the technology featured in the original Star Trek is today part of pop culture. Terms and technology like Phasers, Transporters and Communicators have become part of our folklore. Even non-Star Trek fans understand the phrase “beam me up.”

The focus on technology was no accident. It was important to Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, that they get the science and technology right. Gene Coon, a producer on the original series, puts it this way:

“Gene (Roddenberry) created a totally new universe…. You can submit our ship or our technology or anything you want to NASA and they will say … I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.”

Once Roddenberry was given the green light to produce the first pilot, “The Cage”, in 1964 he set out to research all the various components that would be needed to go into creating a new universe like this.

This was not going to be a kid’s show if Gene Roddenberry had anything to do with it. This would be arguably the first serious and more importantly, the first believable Science Fiction series to ever be offered on primetime television.

Before we could seek out new life and new civilizations on a weekly TV show, Roddenberry would seek out some of the best scientific minds at the time using his own aviation and military background as his starting point. He then sought out some impressive research and design think-tanks of the day.

Physicists at RAND Corporation like Harvey P. Lynn, Isaac Asimov, USAF and even NASA all served as technical consultants on the show in one way or another. According to Jeffrey Hunter (The original Captain of the Enterprise in the 1965 pilot “The Cage”) in a rare interview unearth just a few years ago:

The things that intrigues me the most is that it is actually based on the Rand Corporation’s projection of things to come.

This was all under the guidance of Harvey P. Lynn of the RAND Corporation, who would work on the show for over a year and a half on his own time.

Sidebar: The RAND Corporation established in 1945 is an American think-tank that researches global policy, space and military technology among other things. Among its accomplishments include artificial intelligence, the initial concepts of the internet and war-gaming. Unsurprisingly, it is often associated with conspiracy theorists.

This dedication to getting the science and technology right is one of the reasons the show would go on to inspire future scientists and researchers. It is also one of the reasons the show at least from the technology presented continues to hold up so well. In spite of the hokey sets by today’s standards, the ideas and technology were at least plausible. To Gene Roddenberry, it all had to look believable.

While all the technology shown in the original series was projected to be well into the future and much of it like Warp drive and Transporters still is, much has already become a reality.

10 technologies that were Science Fiction in 1966

Technology: Communicator

Star Trek Communicator

Star Trek Communicator

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Many Episodes
First Episode Appearance S1 E1 “The Man Trap”

The Communicator as presented was a handheld two-way communications device. Occasionally used within ship where a fixed communication panel was not available or practical. Issued for all away missions and carried under the standard crew shirt. Communicator was able to communicate between 2 communicators – walkie-talkie style, between ship and away team – like a satellite phone (See Pilot “The Cage”) and finally by sub-space (See S1 E6 “Mudd’s Women”) between ships or planets. Check out the Ode to the Communicator here.

Technology Today

This may be the most recognizable technology on our list. “Communicators” otherwise known as cellphones have been a reality for over 20 years. Yet some aspects of the original Communicators as shown in the show have only become a reality in the last 7 years or so. Adding GPS receivers to provide coordinates to the cell phones adds an additional feature that was part of the original Star Trek Communicator. The handheld communicators also served as the homing beacon for the away team while exploring strange new worlds. (See Episodes: Day of the Dove and Tomorrow is yesterday.) Without their communicators at their side, it was extremely difficult to locate the crew while off ship. Today the GPS systems in our smart phones, help us find our own way around while also helping us locate others that are lost or in trouble.

The Communicators shown in Star Trek also differ to our smartphones of today. Rather than terrestrial-based radios that communicate between land-based cell towers. The Star Trek communicators have more in common with today’s Satellite phones being able to communicate with satellites in orbit or in Star Trek’s case the Enterprise.

Other aspects of the communicator are still science fiction including their sub-space capabilities. We have no idea how to do that yet.

Technology: Universal translator

Star Trek Universal Translator

Star Trek Universal Translator

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: S1 E18 “Arena” and S2 E9 “Metamorphosis”

The Universal Translator provided a way to translate spoken language in real-time between alien races and the crew. This translation could be face to face or remotely acting as a two-way radio. As presented the Universal Translator did not merely translate the audible sounds of the language but rather the brain waves of the life forms. As explained by Captain Kirk in Metamorphosis. The translator compared frequencies of brainwave patterns and presented the ideas it recognized as audio. The translator also presented the brainwaves complete with masculine and feminine qualities it discovered.

Check it out in use here.

Technology Today

Between Google translate and a host of other real-time apps on our smart phones the idea of a Universal translator between known earthbound languages is almost a reality. However the concept of being able to in translate unknown languages is still science fiction.

Technology: Gesture-Based Computer Control

Spock Gesture Computer Control

Spock Gesture Computer Control

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: The Pilot “The Cage”

Spock while reviewing data at his computer station is seen simply waving his hand to call up the next display. The computer interprets these hand motions and changes the readout on his display.

Technology Today

Today it is common place to control our technology with simply a gesture or a swipe of our hand. Hover your hand over your smartphone and it turns on or displays a message. The Kinect sensor on your Xbox One allows you to navigate the menus using just a move of your hand.

Technology: eBooks

eBooks on Star Trek

eBooks on Star Trek

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: S1 E3“Where No Man Has Gone Before”
First Appearance Second Pilot

Kirk and Spock review computer electronic book data on a bridge computer terminal. While crewman Gary Mitchell recovering is sickbay reads eBooks on his bedside display. From this display, he is able to read any book in the ships library.

These eBooks contained in the ships library can be displayed on any computer display and can be switched out at incredible speeds.

eBooks in Star Trek’s time have become so prevalent that in S1 E14 “Court Martial” Kirk’s Defense attorney Samuel T. Cogley, waxes nostalgic about books real books not cold computer data banks.

Technology Today

Today eBooks have become so prevalent that they have revolutionized the publishing industry. It is not uncommon to buy and read books on our eBook readers, smartphones and tablets. While it has become uncommon to find actual brick and mortar bookstores.

Technology: Tablets – Pad Computers

STOSPad

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Many Episodes
First Episode Appearance S1 E1 “The Man Trap”

While more widely associated with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Pad computers or tablets were present on the original Enterprise. By the time the show became a series it had abandoned the paper based clipboards see in the pilots. They were replaced with portable tablets. The crew are seen, reading even digitally signing documents on these hand-held computers. Crew rosters, reports, and other administrative documents are presented to the Captain or other crew to sign. The Pads are also seen to take notes during briefings.

Technology Today

The notion of a tablet or a pad type computer has been a gradual transition from mini Palm Pilots to the release of the IPad. Tablet computers are now considered a mature market in a market segment all its own. Today’s tablets are used in the same way they were 50 years ago on Star Trek. Including note taking, reading digital documents and so much more.

Technology: Bluetooth Ear Piece

Uhura with Bluetooth earpiece

Uhura with Bluetooth earpiece

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Many Episodes
First Episode Appearance S1 E1 “The Man Trap”

As evidenced in watching the series in production order the producers quickly realized that ear pieces would be wireless in the future.

Starting in the second pilot episode “Where no man has gone before” Mr. Spock is seen holding a wired earpiece to his ear to listen to audio logs from the computer’s memory bank. By the time the series reached its first season the bridge crew were seen with wireless earpieces in their ears. The crew would listen to ship communications, computer read-outs in private while working at their bridge stations.

Obviously, these earpieces were never called “Bluetooth” the overall function was the same.

Spock with wired earpiece

Spock with wired earpiece

Technology Today

Today we routinely listen to our phones, computers music players using a wirelessly connected earpiece. In fact, today’s devices are significantly smaller and more discrete than presented in the show.

In addition today, we connect much more than audio devices using this same wireless standard. We connect, keyboards, cameras and so much more using Bluetooth. It is not a stretch to assume that other handheld devices presented in the show like the Tablets in the previous example wouldn’t also be connected wirelessly to one another as they are today.

Technology: Hypospray

Star Trek Hypospray

Star Trek Hypospray

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Many Episodes
First Episode Appearance S1 E1 “The Man Trap”

The Doctors were often seen administering medications, sedatives, and stimulants using a “Hypospray” into their patient.

Rather than the barbaric metal needle as McCoy would call it. The device was often referred to as a hypo. The technology featured a hiss sound as compressed air was used to push medications into the soft tissue. Dosage could be set with controls while small vials inserted into the top the device determined the drug being dispensed. The most famous scene was in the fan-favorite episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”. In the opening act of this episode Doctor McCoy is seen administering a dangerous drug into Sulu to deal with a heart condition. Shortly after administering the drug he accidently injects himself with an overdose of the drug. Classic Star Trek follows.

Technology Today

Today the Hypospray is a medical reality. While the modern devices are not a miniaturized as present in the show the function is the same. Using compressed gas “Jet injectors” are used to dispense drugs. The device is often used for mass vaccinations in developing countries.

Technology: Memory Cards

Spock at desktop terminal Memory Cards seen under the monitor

Spock at desktop terminal Memory Cards seen under the monitor

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Most Episodes
First Appearance Second Pilot

The crew is routinely seen inserting computer memory “Tapes” as there were called into computer terminals. These terminals were all over the ship. From the Bridge stations to the monitor displays on the desks and even in the armrest of the Captains chair. Thes memory tapes were shown to contain computer programs, ebooks, and computer logs.

 

Technology Today

These The idea of storing computer files, programs and data on little cards seems common place today. But in 1965 when computers used large reels of tape the idea of a small portable package was science fiction.  This is one technology that has easily surpassed anything shown. Our memory cards are many times smaller and in some cases replaced entirely by online storage.

Technology: Voice Control Computer

Spock speaking into Microphone

Spock speaking into Microphone

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Most Episodes
First Appearance S1 E13

The crew is seen talking to the ship’s computer on a regular basis. Voice is used to select contacts to call when using the Communicators as in “Kirk to Enterprise” As if voice control is not enough the computer is even able to identify who is speaking by the voice pattern (See Season 1 Episode 13 The Conscience of the King). By the 23 century with nothing more than your voice print and the right combination you can even order up a self-destruct.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Scotty forgetting that you can’t talk to a computer in the 80’s tries to talk to a vintage Mac computer. Yes Voice is a big deal in Star Trek.

Technology Today

Today using our voice and the digital assistants in our smartphones we can look up almost anything. We can call a friend on the phone using just our spoken command. We’ll leave the self-destruct though for Star Trek.

Technology: Optical Memory Disks

Star Trek Optical Disk w/reader

Star Trek Optical Disk w/reader

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: S3 E23 All Our Yesterdays

This example of technology comes from the second last episode of the original series.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet with only hours to spare before the planets sun goes super-nova. Upon arrival, they find that the planet inhabitants have all escaped into the planets history.  The inhabitants selected the history they wished to escape to using a large library of history. The history was all stored onto optical disks. These disks present a visual look at the history to the viewer when the disk is inserted into a reader. Once the era is selected the viewer could enter the history presented through a time portal.

Technology Today

The disks shown in the episode look uncannily like our CD and DVD disks today. Today we store vast amounts of video and audio information on optical discs that are a lot thinner than shown in the episode. The disks are used similarly as the were in 1969 as optical storage medium to store video. The time portal connected to the reader on the other hand is still science fiction.

Technology: Medical Scanner

Star Trek Sickbay with Medical Scanner over bed

Star Trek Sickbay with Medical Scanner over bed

Technology as Presented

As Seen In: Many Episodes
First Appearance Second Pilot “The Cage”

Star Trek presented the Medical scanner as both a hand-held model and a display mounted over the beds in Sickbay.

These scanners were shown to determine many bodily functions, including heartbeat, blood pressure among other vital signs. These vital signs could be gathered from patients without any wires or anything touching the patient.  This provided a visual indicator as to the patient’s condition.

Technology Today 

The Star Trek Medical scanner was seen as a marvel when it came out considering what hospital rooms looked like in the 60’s. Using simple displays to view vital signs is no longer science fiction. Today with CT scanners, heart monitors Doctors can see so much more than was shown. With a few exceptions we still need wires in most cases.

Hospital Room in the 60's

Hospital Room in the 60’s

It seems remarkable that more than half of these once “Science Fiction” technologies were presented in the very first filmed pilots “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.

Yet at the time in the 60’s the first communication satellite had only arrived in 1962. DRAM the computer memory we now take for granted was only just invented and computers were the size of entire rooms and used punch cards and large reels of magnetic tape for storage. All of these devices were visionary at the time.

Makes you wonder what the crew at that RAND Corporation know?

Notes:

In referring to first appearances and episodes of the various technologies, I have gone with the air-date and not the production order of the episodes. The episodes were not aired in the order that they were filmed.

Sources: The Making of Star Trek ISBN: 0345246918195 By Stephen E. Whitfield
Inside Star Trek ISBN: By Herbert Solo

The Star Fleet Technical Manual ISBN: 0345340744By Franz Joseph
Numerous Episodes (Any excuse to watch them again)