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The Prime Directive was first referenced in the 1967 episode Return of the Archons of TOS. It was then defined in the episode Bread and Circuses as follows:

No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.

Most attribute the creation of the ST Prime Directive to Gene Coon (Some credit Theodore Sturgeon). However, what I'd like to know is what was the first science fiction writer to come up with the concept of non-interference in a developing culture?

Note: This is not a duplicate of this question, as that is asking about the creation of the in universe prime directive.

2 Answers 2

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TV Tropes dates it back as least as early as Olaf Stapledon's novel Star Maker in 1937.

Star Maker, a 1937 novel by Olaf Stapledon (who inspired many of the "golden age" sci-fi writers) has the Symbiont race, Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who keep their existence hidden from "pre-utopian", pre-spacefaring races, revealing themselves only after a race achieves both of those so the fledgling races don't lose their "independence of mind" (pretty similar to the Vulcans that came after.

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  • Quite. My first encounter with something very like the Prime Directive came around 1965 and was written earlier - after Stapledon but clearly before Star Trek. I remember neither author nor title, not anything else about the story except that possibly it included the Hegemony of Malice. Still, the main point was that with the best will in the galaxy, the friendly aliens refused to save humanity simply by handing over technology the poor, benighted Earthlings could not have developed for themselves Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 0:16
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    @Robbie Goodwin I believe that in James Blish's MIssion to the Heart Stars, a sequel to The Star Dwellers, the galaxy was basically reuled by the Hegemon of Malis. Commented Jun 28, 2022 at 21:04
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    @M.A.Golding You could be entirely correct but nothing there matches my memory. Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 20:12
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I don't know when a noninterference rule first appeared in science fiction. I just located a quotation mentioning such a rule from a 1897 novel.

My post number 46 at: https://www.trekbbs.com/threads/prime-directive-influenced-by-marvel-comics-the-watcher.311653/page-3

lists several pre Star Trek examples.

Mike Scott's answer says that TV Tropes dates it to Olaf Stapledon's The Star Maker, (1937), which is a great classic of science fiction.

But the online science Fiction Encyclopedia is less certain who was first.

In tales involving Forerunners and their relationship to the species they may have Uplifted, something like a Prime Directive may be evoked, usually to justify the secrecy of their role. Though their secret status is finally divulged to a select few, the Arisians in E E Smith's Lensman sequence (see his entry for dates) do not reveal their true selves, nor the Godgame they are playing with the species they have created, so as not to impose a fatal inferiority complex upon their descendants. Not called so as such, the general principle of noninterference also makes an earlier appearance in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937), in which "pre-utopian" worlds are "left to work out their own destiny. [...] Great care was taken by the Symbiotic race to keep its existence hidden from the primitives, lest they should lose their independence of mind." [DRL]

If a non interference rule was mentioned by Smith in his Lensman series as early as the magazine appearance of Galactic Patrol in Astounding Stories September 1937 to February 1938, and if that was before the publication date in 1937 of The Star Maker, Smith might possibly have been earlier in print with the concept.

The Technovelgy.com article on Prime Directive says:

As far as the concept of the Prime Directive is concerned, the reader may wish to compare this entry to the Noninterference With Other Worlds from In the Deep of Time (1879) by George Parsons Lathrop, Relations with Extraterrestrial Life from Ogre (1944) by Clifford Simak, to the Law of Contact from Orphans of the Void (1952) by Orville Shaara and the Alien Self-Government from Co-Operate or Else (1942) by A.E. van Vogt.

http://technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=2988

“I would have found a way to come,” he said easily, yet with a strange accent; somewhat as though his words were snowflake crystals, cold at first but melting as they fell. “We had not thought it worth while; but you have made so much advance lately that it seemed best to help you. We Kurols move by will-power. It is said many of our people have come to you secretly before. We know a great deal about your life. But until just now it was against the law for our people to visit earth; it lowered them, and always did you harm, and caused wars among you, much against our will and desire. Even now, I fear my coming will make disturbance.”

In the Deep of Time by George Parson Lathrop, 1897.

Here is a link to a question with an answer mentioning a story from 1960 with a "prime directive".

Story about a lone planetary explorer with a robotic assistant

I tis far from the earliest one, but it also predates Star Trek (1966-1969).

http://technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=3477

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    I suggest your post number 46 is not relevant. How am I wrong? How is post number 46 is relevant? Commented Jun 29, 2022 at 20:16
  • I'd ask -- how is it not relevant? It lists, or links to, several different older stories where there is a 'prime directive".
    – Basya
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 12:29

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