Way back in 1926, the year of the first transatlantic telephone call, it would have taken a true genius, a technological wizard, a thinker unconstrained by the limitations of reality, to foresee the modern smartphone. Nikola Tesla was all of those, and in January of 1926, Collier’s magazine published a prediction from the Serbian-American physicist and inventor that proved remarkably prescient.
When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.
Here, Tesla envisions elements of the internet, video conferencing, and personal electronic devices, while whiffing only on the continued popularity of vests.
In the nine decades between Tesla’s prophecy and the smartphone’s ubiquity, he was joined by several other great minds in anticipating handheld connectedness that would distract us from real life.
1906: Punch magazine cartoonist Lewis Baumer imagines a future in which two people interact only with the machines on their laps and not humans right next to them.
1964: Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, in a New York Times op-ed, predicts life in 2014 with remarkable accuracy. “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”
1970: Twenty-two years after he unveiled the first instant camera, Polaroid founder Edwin Land lays out his vision for the future of taking pictures. It may sound familiar. “We are still a long way from the camera … that would be, oh, like the telephone: something that you use all day long … a camera which you would use not on the occasion of parties only, or of trips only, or when your grandchildren came to see you, but a camera that you would use as often as your pencil or your eyeglasses.”
1978: For his radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams concocts a touchscreen-enabled device that contains a wealth of information and, among other things, can translate foreign languages on the fly. He would later say this was less a sign of his vision, but rather a clever “narrative device.”
1989: Ziggy, the supercomputer that runs Project Quantum Leap in the NBC sci-fi show, could be seen as an early version of Siri, if the Apple assistant had a massive ego and could express human emotion. Dreamt up by show creator Don Bellisario, Ziggy can be communicated with through a handheld device that looks a lot like an iPhone with a ridiculous case.