What was the first work that had the concept of using captive human brains as computers?


But I'm pretty sure the human brain = computer analogy far precedes these works; which one expressed the idea first?

To clarify, I don't want:

  • Biological neural networks, where it's pretty much regular humans only with their minds connected with each other
  • Where the human is completely aware and willing, for example by training themselves like the mentats in
  • 13
    Not really using brain for its computational power, but the general premise of the thought experiment goes back to Rene Descartes' Evil demon.
    – Pouya
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 15:43
  • This question prompted me to ask a related question on Philosophy.SE that you might also be interested in.
    – dimo414
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 15:06

10 Answers 10


Earlier than the 1932 novelette is the 1931 story: The Cerebral Library by David Keller. Described in this article (where I first heard of the story):

Thousands of desperate, out-of-work bachelors of arts applied; five hundred were hired (“they were mainly plodders, good men, but not brilliant”). They went to work for a mysterious ... millionaire who was devising “a new plan of universal knowledge.” In a remote manor in Pennsylvania, each man read three hundred books a year, after which the books were burned to heat the manor. At the end of five years, the men, having collectively read three-quarters of a million books, were each to receive fifty thousand dollars. But when, one by one, they went to an office in New York City to pick up their paychecks, they would encounter a surgeon ready to remove their brains, stick them in glass jars, and ship them to that spooky manor in Pennsylvania. There, in what had once been the library, the millionaire mad scientist had worked out a plan to wire the jars together and connect the jumble of wires to an electrical apparatus, a radio, and a typewriter. This contraption was called the Cerebral Library.

“Now, suppose I want to know all there is to know about toadstools?” he said, demonstrating his invention. “I spell out the word on this little typewriter in the middle of the table,” and then, abracadabra, the radio croaks out “a thousand word synopsis of the knowledge of the world on toadstools.”

  • Made a quick change to improve the topical reference. Will improve further when I return from a trip.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 22 at 10:50

I nominate the 1932 novelette "The Affair of the Brains" by "Anthony Gilmore" (Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall), #2 in the Hawk Carse series. Originally published in Astounding Stories, March 1932 (which is available at the Internet Archive), the story is available as a Project Gutenberg etext, and it was incorporated into the 1952 fix-up novel Space Hawk. The following review is from Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years by Everett F. Bleiler.

Sequel to #496, "Hawk Carse."
Place: mostly in the asteroid belt.

Hawk and Friday (now sometimes called Eclipse) fly away in the captured pirate ship to keep Judd's rendezvous with Ku Sui. They reach the appointed place and wait. Nothing happens, but suddenly Ku Sui and his myrmidons appear in Carse's ship and capture the two men. Ku Sui then takes them to his headquarters, an asteroid off Jupiter, where he taunts and gloats in Oriental courtesy.

Finally Ku Sui reveals his purpose. The Hawk must tell where Master Scientist Eliot Leithgow is hiding. Placed in a hypnotic machine, the Hawk breaks and gives Ku Sui the information he wants.

Ku Sui's reasons for wanting to find Leithgow: He has built a mental battery of the six greatest brains in civilization. Detached from their bodies, wired up, they act as a brain trust and have enabled him to make his greatest scientific advances. But the brain group is not perfect; it would function even better if Leithgow's brain occupied the key position.

It looks as if Ku Sui has won, for he has captured Leithgow, and the Hawk will soon be tortured to death. Ku Sui makes initial preparations for the operation, which is televised into the Hawk's cell. Bitter at having betrayed his friend, the Hawk and Friday make a death dash at their guards (who are zombie-like men whose brains Ku Sui has altered)—and win through.

There is enough commotion and confusion that the Hawk is able to rescue Leithgow. Following the instructions of the brain panel, the three men escape in Ku Sui's advanced self-propelled space suits. Behind them Ku Sui's establishment blows up, (perhaps) killing the brains (who received Hawk's promise to release them from their horrible half-life) and Ku Sui.

Ku Sui's great secret is now revealed: His home asteroid has been rendered invisible by superscience generated by the brain panel.

For a sequel see #497, "The Bluff of the Hawk."

This may be off the topic of answering the question, but I want to quote Wikipedia's summary of critical opinion of the Hawk Carse stories:

Boucher and McComas described the 1952 collection as "strongly commended to all connoisseurs of prose so outrageously bad as to reach its own kind of greatness." P. Schuyler Miller described the stories as "space opera of the old, raw, gloves-off school [including] every cliche of the period," concluding "Hawk Carse was so bad that he was almost good." Everett F. Bleiler characterized the series as "traditional pulp Western stories transplanted into space, with the addition of an Oriental villain in the mode of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu-Manchu."

  • This answer is interesting but borderline; it's not clear from the review whether the "brain battery" is acting as a computer, or is simply linked minds. The age of this novelette makes this difficult to distinguish, pre-dating the invention of computers. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 11:07
  • 7
    It's normal for the earliest example of something to be kinda borderline. I think computers were invented by Charles Babbage in the 19th century, but I'm not sure Harry Bates would have known that when he was writing the Hawk Carse stories. I guess you're thinking of the computer age starting with ENIAC, so you're looking for post-1946 stories?
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 12:02
  • 14
    Before electronic computers, "computer" was a job title for someone who would be given computations and calculations to complete by a scientist, research team or similar - which sounds quite a lot like how this "brain bank" is being used. Like both human and electronic computers, these brains appear to have no choice in what tasks they are given. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 13:40
  • Another ex. could be "Enslaved Brains" by Eando Binder, serialized in the July, August and September 1934 issues of Wonder Stories. The plot summary in the book Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years says "Much of the production work is handled by central automation controlled by human brains detached from their bodies and kept alive artificially. This is possible legally, since under Unidom law corpses are state property. Some scientific study has shown that such brains are conscious and suffer torments, but the hierarchy has suppressed the report and exiled the scientists who prepared it."
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 3:28
  • @Hypnosifl I haven't read that one, but the three issues of Wonder Stories with that serial are available at archive.org. If that's a better example of "captive brains as computers" you should make it an answer. archive.org/search.php?query=wonder%20stories%201934
    – user14111
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 4:16

This may not be the first, although it may be one of the first instances on television:

'Spock's Brain' - S03E01 from Star Trek: The Original Series

In this episode, Spock's brain is taken to power a computer.

Here is the Memory Alpha page on the episode.

  • 3
    The OP said human.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 9:04
  • 12
    @MrLister Spock is half human 😉 Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 9:43
  • 2
    @MrLister LOL. It doesn't really matter.
    – user931
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 9:57
  • 9
    @N_Soong +½ then. :-p Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 13:35
  • 1
    @user568458: Quick, make a feature suggestion for that on meta! :-)
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 21:00

Some parts of this concept go back at least as far as "The Jameson Satellite" by Neil R. Jones, Amazing Stories, July 1931. It is possible that the complete concept of Human brains enslaved and used as computers or computer components goes back to Pohl and Kornbluth's Wolfbane, serialized in Galaxy October & November, 1957, as suggested in Tobias's answer or Walter M. Miller's "I, Dreamer" Amazing stories June-July, 1953, as suggested by Mike Stone.

In the Star Trek episode "Miri" October 27, 1966, Doctor McCoy ordered a "biocomputer" sent down from the ship to help him study the disease. Presumably it was a computer programmed to do biological research calculations and simulations, etc.

MCCOY: A veritable zoo of bacteria. Beam down a biocomputer and a portable electronic microscope. If I'm dealing with viruses, I'll need better equipment than I have here.

In James Blish's adaptation of "Miri" in Star Trek, January 1967, he described the "biocomputer" as a biological computer using a cat's brain for processing data. Which is not exactly "captive human brains" but similar. This was published before "Spock's Brain" was broadcast on September 20, 1968.

In the Lost in Space episode "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension", November 3, 1965, aliens take Will Robinson to use his brain to control their space/time vehicle.

In Larry Niven's "Becalmed in Hell" Fantasy & Science Fiction July 1965, the narrator "Howie" travels to Venus with Eric Donovan, a cyborg spaceship (only the brain is left of Dononvan's body, with the spaceship itself being his new body). They quarrel, and later Donovan sends Howie a note of reconciliation, signed "Donovan's brain". This is not "captive human brains used for computers" but close.

Niven may have been inspired by Anne McCaffrey's "Ship Who Sang" series, with starships and other operations controlled by the thoughts of disabled persons - selected soon after birth - encapsulated within them. The first story "the Ship Who Sang" was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1961. McCaffrey said her inspiration was an earlier story about a woman searching for her son's brain which was being used as the automated pilot of an ore ship. Disabled rights activists have called the "brainship" arrangement in the stories a form of slavery for persons with disabilities.[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ship_Who_Sang

Niven's mention of "Donovan's Brain" is a joke about Kurt Siodmak's 1942 novel Donovan's Brain where the brain of millionaire W.H. Donovan is kept alive in a jar and seeks to enslave others. It was adapted into three movies" The Lady and the monster (1944), Donovan's brain (1953), and The Brain (1962).

Captain Future, who first appeared in Captain Future magazine in 1940, had several assistants including the brain of the brilliant scientist Simon Wright encased in a floating case.

L. Sprague DeCamp's Science Fiction Handbook (1953) mentioned an early science fiction story whose title I forget where someone traveled into the far future and found that the last descendants of humanity were giant brains who did nothing but sit around and think and killed them all in disgust. According to user14111 the story is "Alas, All Thinking" by Harry Bates, Astounding, June, 1935.

"The lotus Eaters" by Stanly G. Weinbaum Astounding Stories April 1935 involved the discovery of intelligent plants on Venus who were far more intelligent than humans but had no will power or emotions or desires and so were very much like living computers. I have often thought that it would make sense for the humans to cultivate those plants and use them as computers.

in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness", Weird Tales August 1931, the Mi-go aliens from Yuggoth (possibly Pluto) and other worlds can put the brain of a willing or unwilling human in a brain cylinder with life support and interfaces with the outside world. The plot suggests that in some cases it is a form of captivity. This is before the Hawk Carse story "The Affair of the Brains" by Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, Astounding, March 1932, mentioned in user14111's answer.

"The Jameson satellite" by Neil R. Jones, the first in a long series, was published in Amazing stories July 1931. Friendly cyborg aliens revive the brain of the dead professor Jameson and put it in a robot body like theirs and he joins their band of space explorers.

J.D. Bernal, in the non fiction The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1929) suggested many futuristic concepts including disembodied brains which have since been common in science fiction and maybe in some cases in real life.

In H.G. Well's The War of the Worlds (1898) scientific progress has rendered the Martians' bodies unnecessary and their bodies have atrophied to giant brains with tentacles and a few other minor organs attached. In his The First Men in the Moon (1901) The Grand Lunar has become even more like an emotionless living computer and might be considered to be the slave of his subjects.

So these are the examples I could remember and look up. None are exactly

using captive human brains as computers

but some come quite close and every part of that concept is found in combination with some other parts of it several times.

The first use of the complete concept of enslaved human brains used a computers may be in Pohl and Kornbluth's Wolfbane Galaxy October, 1957, as suggested by Tobias, or Walter M. Miller's "I, Dreamer" Amazing stories June-July, 1953, as suggested by Mike Stone.

  • The story whose title you forgot is "Alas, All Thinking!" by Harry Bates.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 7:29
  • A computer using a cat's brain is going to be in sleep mode 20 hours a day! :-)
    – 1252748
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 1:26

1965 Plague of Demons (doesn't beat 1932, but still pretty early).

Aliens take brains of human soldiers to use to control war machines.

  • I only recently re-read that, sad that I forgot to mention it!
    – LAK
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 18:03

My vote goes to "Wolfbane", 1957, by Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth. "Captive human brains as computers", indeed. (Plot summary here.)

  • Do you have any reason to believe this is a more correct answer than the 1932 story already provided? If so you should include that information in your answer.
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 3:32
  • Yes, I agree with congusbongus above: "it's not clear from the review [on The Affair of the Brains, 1932] whether the 'brain battery' is acting as a computer, or is simply linked minds. The age of this novelette makes this difficult to distinguish, pre-dating the invention of computers."
    – tobias
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 3:42
  • I believe that Wikipedia summary pertains to the 1959 novel, which is an expanded version of the 1957 magazine serial. Since the question asks for the earliest example, the original magazine version is more relevant; it appeared in the October 1957 and November 1957 issues of Galaxy, which are available at the Internet Archive.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 4:11

Glen Cook's Passage at Arms from 1985 includes mention that the enemy alien empire is using enslaved cyborg human brains to predict human strategy.

An earlier book in the same series, Shadowline (1982), contains this quote:

Human brains were in demand in an exploding cryocyborgic data-processing industry. Personality-scrubbed and inplugged to computation and data-storage systems, a few kilos of human nervous system could replace tons of specialized control and volitional systems.

I think this is a better example of 'captive human brains as computers' than some of the other examples, as they're being used for processing, rather than 'cyborg' in the more usual sense of a human brain controlling a robotic or vehicular body.

  • If I can find the book when I get home tonight, I'll provide a quote.
    – LAK
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 15:05
  • Other answers already given long precede this one though. I can probably come up with several others earlier than 1985. Doctor Who Cybermen anyone? 1932 is still the number to beat though. Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 16:33

There is the Dune series. The original Dune was released in 1965 and Herbert laid about alot of infomation with respect to the universe. Two key aspects

Butlerian Jihad re. Orange catholic church This however was associated with not making a machine in the likeness of a human

Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind

I mention this because the rise of the machines was due to the cymeks. This was all prepwork in the Dune universe but was given specific details within the Dune prequals "legends of Dune" in 2002

  • 1
    As best I can recall, the exact history of the Butlerian Jihad was never explained in the original Dune series; cymeks were never mentioned prior to Brian Herbert's involvement. (Some details were given in the Dune Encyclopedia, but that was never considered canonical even when it was published, and is explicitly in conflict with the published prequels.)
    – user41830
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 20:16
  • 3
    That sounds like a directive not to make an AI, not to not enslave a human brain.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 1:53
  • I would take this to be 2002. The references in the 1965 Dune are so vague that I took 'humans enslaved by machines' to mean 'machines doing all of the work, humans becoming weak/lazy/hedonistic', since that fits with the 'strength through hardship' theme (Fremen on Dune, Sardaukar on Salusa Secundus, spice agony, gom jabbar, etc.); yet it's the exact opposite of what the prequels say.
    – Warbo
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 14:02

Not earliest, I know, but: This motif did occur in one episode of the television show 'Wild, Wild West'.

  • 1
    This really needs more detail. Do you know the title of the episode? If not, you may be able to figure it out by looking at a list of episode summaries.
    – recognizer
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 18:40

Not the first one, but Walter M Miller did something like this in I Dreamer (Amazing Stories 1953) in which a pilotless space warship is controlled by a human brain (taken from a baby), which had an electrode implanted in a pain centre to punish disobedience. In the end one of these, now grown to twelve-year-old level, "mutinies" and does a suicide dive onto the dictator's HQ.

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