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"Scanner" is a pretty commonly used term in science fiction stories. It's one of those terms, like "antigravity" or "blaster," that an author can use without any explanation. In 1977, its meaning was sufficiently well established that Philip K. Dick could spin it as wordplay in the title of A Scanner Darkly. It was also used in Star Wars without any comment.

However, it is not necessary to go back that much further, to find a time when the meaning did not seem to be so fully ingrained in the SF culture. Cordwainer Smith wrote "Scanners Live in Vain" in 1950, with a very different kind of "scanner"; the discrepancy in meaning was a bit weird when I first read the story.

So, I presume, that sometime between the 1950s and 1970s (not coincidentally, I suspect, an acme of science fiction writing), the term "scanner" came to have its now-standardized meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of "any device for scanning or systematically examining all parts of something" can be dated back to 1927, but the earliest citations are basically compositional and refer to real-world, not SF, technologies. So at what point did the meaning become basically standardized in the genre?

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  • 3
    At first I thought this was about the film Scanners and was a bit confused. Nov 5, 2017 at 22:47
  • 1
    Wait, you ask when in sci-fi "scanner" became just a piece of hardware for scanning documents or other stuff? Well, I guess when such hardware became common, but what's the point of asking this?
    – Mithoron
    Nov 5, 2017 at 23:10
  • @Mithoron actually, it's a fair question, I've wondered about this myself a few times before.
    – Mikasa
    Nov 6, 2017 at 0:50
  • @Mithoron It's just something I've been curious about.
    – Buzz
    Nov 6, 2017 at 1:04

2 Answers 2

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1940: "The Dwindling Sphere", a short story by Willard Hawkins, first published in Astounding Science-Fiction, March 1940, available at the Internet Archive.

True, once the necessary adjustments have been made, they are recorded on microfilm. Thereafter, it is only necessary to feed this film into the control box, where the electric eye automatically makes all the adjustments for which the skill of the technician was initially required. Levinson, however, proposed to reproduce natural objects in plastoscene by photographic means.

It is this process which Philip apparently has perfected. His method involves a three-dimensional "scanning" device which records the texture, shape and the exact molecular structure of the object to be reproduced. The record is made on microfilm, which then needs only to be passed through the control box to recreate the object as many times as may be required.

"Think of the saving of effort!" Philip remarked enthusiastically. "Not only can objects of the greatest intricacy be reproduced without necessity of assembling, but even natural foods can be created in all their flavor and nourishing quality. I have eaten synthetic radishes — I have even tasted synthetic chicken — that could not be told from the original which formed its matrix."

"You mean," I demanded in some alarm, "that you can reproduce life?" His face clouded. "No. That is a quality that seems to elude the scanner. But I can reproduce the animal, identical with its live prototype down to the last nerve tip and hair, exeept, that it is inert — lifeless. The radishes I spoke of will not grow in soil — they cannot reproduce themselves — but chemically and in cell structure they image the originals."

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I assert the currency date is earlier still: the early 1930s. Possibly as early as 1930 (see below) but certainly no later than 1935 which is the date given by the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction.

The SF Dictionary cites two examples; "Skylark of Valeron (part 6 of 7)" by Edward E. Smith, Astounding, January 1935:

That cabinet became instantly a manifold scanner, all its reels flashing through as one. Simultaneously there appeared in the air above the machine a three-dimensional model of all the Galaxies there listed.

and "Proxima Centauri" by Murray Leinster, Astounding, March 1935:

They had a scanner on it now and by stepping up illumination to the utmost, and magnification to the point where the image was as rough as an old-fashioned half-tone cut, they brought the strange ship to the visiplate as a six-inch miniature.

But the earliest use in SF I can find is "The Voice of the Void" by John W. Campbell, Jr. in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Summer 1930:

He had been working on the actual making of the images; he wanted to be able to keep them real without the machine; in other words, he wanted to give them actual existence; he wanted to reconstruct, atom for atom, the object under his fourth dimensional scanner.

[...]

And now out in space the great sending station was constructed. The ship to be sent was put in position before it; the scanner viewed it; and the signal for each atom and each molecule followed each other in swift flight on the train of light waves that was their wire.

This was shortly followed by J.-J. des Ormeaux' "Siva the Destroyer," Weird Tales, February-March 1931:

I stood up with a movement of surprize. "I am Captain Stanage," I said. I stepped quickly before the scanner. "Who is this?"

which uses "scanner" in a sense that would be familiar to early followers of television technology, and George McLociard's "Television Hill," Amazing Stories, February 1931 (part 1)/March 1931 (part 2):

Since no physical means can be found whereby the transmitting scanner can be made to cut off the penetrating beam, as does the scanning disc in a light-governed television machine. King had to resort to breaking the ‘secondary wave’ so as to scan distant objects.

While you’re up there, hop over to New Glarus and see what kind of a job Williams has done in the installation of the new ‘receptor scanner.’ He expects to be finished about three this afternoon.”

which imagines a kind of super-television where objects can be imaged from a considerable distance. Similarly "Invaders from the Infinite" also by John W. Campbell, Jr., Amazing Stories Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1932:

Another ray reached out, a ray of flaring light. Arcot, watching through the "eyes" of his telectroscope viewplates, saw it for but an instant, then the "eyes" were blasted, and the screen went blank.

"Trying cosmics. He won't do anything with that, but burn out eyes," muttered the Terrestrian. He pushed a small button when his instruments told him the cosmics were off. Another scanner came into action, and the viewplate was alive again.

uses "scanner" in a very modern way as a generalized detector/imager/analyzer of things.

This fluency in SF usage of the term is backed up by increasing contemporary real-world usage, such as the essay "Wonders of Sight" by Hugo Gernsback, published in Wonder Stories, October 1932, and an entry in Popular Mechanics, January 1931 which introduces a scanner capable of detecting and locating fires.

As alluded to above, early followers of radio and television technology, which can be expected to have a substantial cross-over with SF readers, would have ample exposure to the term "scanner" already by 1930, as it starts appearing in various publications in 1928 (Radio Broadcast, November 1928, Science and Invention, November 1928, Radio News, December 1928) and appears much more frequently in 1929 and following years.

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