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Futurama has all the heads in jars. The Invisibles (a little more fantasy than scifi) has a scene with the detached head of John the Baptist supposedly speaking prophecies. The general idea gets around a bit.

What was the first appearance of this motif in fiction? The earliest that I know of is way back in 1945, where in C. S. Lewis's dystopian That Hideous Strength scientists of the N.I.C.E. reanimated the head of a scientist who had murdered his wife (whereupon it was possessed by evil beings from the Moon bent on world domination). But that's not actually the first... is it?

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I don't know whence it came, but I do know that part of it's attraction seems to be related to the cheap puns that are available. For instance Varley succumbed to "Sometimes you just gotta go that extra kilometer if you want to get a head." in Steal Beach which is too easy. And it still made me laugh. – dmckee Jun 13 '14 at 0:40
+1 Not a bad question, but you might want to add what research you have already done, set a bench-mark and don't expect us to do the hard-yards for you. – Mooz Jun 13 '14 at 0:47
I'm pretty sure H. P. Lovecraft used it at least once. That would have been sometime in the 1920's. – Joe L. Jun 13 '14 at 0:48
Are you looking specifically for science-fictional examples, or fantasy and folklore as well? – Joe L. Jun 13 '14 at 3:46
If you include fantasy, it probably goes back farther than recorded fiction does. It's a fairly obvious concept, after all; the question is only whether it's achieved by magic, by divine powers, by (pseudo)science, ... – keshlam Jun 13 '14 at 4:57
up vote 10 down vote accepted

The earliest English-language example I know of is "The Head" by Joe Kleier, a short story in Amazing Stories, August 1928. The following review is quoted from Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years by Everett F. Bleiler (ISFDB, Wikipedia):

Short story. * Dr. Leeson makes a strange offer to Beardsley, who is dying of cancer. Leeson has developed the technique for keeping a severed head alive apart from its body: artificial blood and elaborate machinery, carefully attended perpetually by two assistants. And he wants to buy Beardsley's head. * At first Beardsley is shocked, but when Leeson offers him fifty thousand dollars to provide for his young daughter, Beardsley accepts. * The conditions are that Beardsley will stay alive for two months; if after that, he desires death, Leeson will fulfill his wishes. If Beardsley makes no signal, he will also be put to death at that time. * The operation proceeds successfully, but Leeson is killed in an automobile accident almost immediately afterwards, and the Beardsley situation receives much publicity. Legal action against Leeson's assistants fails, since Beardsley is not dead and had consented to the operation; and no one can take the responsibility of releasing him. * Time passes, during which the head is cared for. A religious cult arises around it, and its facial movements are taken as oracles. Not until years later, during a war, is the head destroyed by an invader.

An earlier example from Russia is Professor Dowell's Head aka The Head of Professor Dowell by Alexander Beliaev (ISFDB, Wikipedia) (transliterated variously), originally published in Russian in 1925 as Голова профессора Доуэля (Golova professora Douela). The following is extracted from a long review in Science-Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler (ISFDB, Wikipedia):

When young Marie Laurent, apparently a qualified physician, applies for a job with Professor Kern, she certainly does not anticipate what will follow. Kern specializes in maintaining life in detached human organs, and, indeed, in his laboratory maintains the living severed head of his old mentor and teacher, Professor Dowell, an English savant. The head is hooked up to a fairly elaborate support apparatus, which includes a compressed air mechanism that permits the head to speak in whispers.

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In the One Thousand and One Nights, in "The Tale of the Wazir and the Sage Duban", when the Wazir sentences Duban to death, Duban claims that he knows of magic that will permit his head to speak after being cut off -- and in some versions of the story, it does.

In any case, Duban is beheaded and posthumously tricks the Wazir into poisoning himself.

So this idea dates back to the 10th century, at the latest.

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H. P. Lovecraft, The Whis­perer in Dark­ness, sep. 1930:

"The three things were damnably clever con­struc­tions of their kind, and were fur­nished with in­ge­nious metal­lic clamps to at­tach them to or­ganic de­vel­op­ments of which I dare not form any con­jec­ture. I hope - de­voutly hope-that they were the waxen prod­ucts of a mas­ter artist, de­spite what my in­most fears tell me. Great God! That whis­perer in dark­ness with its mor­bid odour and vi­bra­tions! Sor­cerer, emis­sary, changeling, out­sider.. . that hideous re­pressed buzzing. . . and all the time in that fresh, shiny cylin­der on the shelf. . . poor devil . . . Prodi­gious sur­gi­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal, chem­i­cal, and me­chan­i­cal skill..."

Heavily implied by HP to be a brain-in-a-jar. So, at least 1930.

H. P. Lovecraft, Herbert West, Reanimator pt. VI, Jul. 1922:

"He was a men­ac­ing mil­i­tary fig­ure who talked with­out mov­ing his lips and whose voice seemed al­most ven­tril­o­quially con­nected with an im­mense black case he car­ried. His ex­pres­sion­less face was hand­some to the point of ra­di­ant beauty, but had shocked the su­per­in­ten­dent when the hall light fell on it – for it was a wax face with eyes of painted glass."

Thanks, Will F.!

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Also by Lovecraft is Herbert West–Reanimator published in 1922. A head is reanimated briefly in one of the last installments. – Will F Jun 13 '14 at 18:54
Briefly? More like permanent if I remember correctly. Though, it is carried around in a suitcase by it's body, so... – Bobby Jun 13 '14 at 19:58

If you include more mystical sources, the Oracular Head (BEWARE! TV Tropes entry!) dates back to Celtic, Norse, and Greek mythology with a common mechanical / mechanical version being the Brazen Head, which was a wholly mechanical head that could answer questions for the querent.

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E.g the talking head of Mimer, which is carried around by Wothan in old scandinavian mythology. First appeared in writing around 1300 ad, but off course predates that . – Rasmus Larsen Jun 13 '14 at 10:41

The Greek Myth of Orpheus is probably the earliest example I can think of of an autonomous talking head, and goes back to the 6th Century BC.

As you're a comics fan (invisibles), you might like to note he turns up in The Sandman too.

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If I remember correctly The Mabinogion, a collection of pre-christian stories set predominantly in Wales has the head of Bran the Blessed, king of the Isle of the Mighty, talking and entertaining its companions for seven years or more after decapitation, finally being buried, silent, in The White Hill, site of the Tower of London.

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