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Science-fiction writers are often credited with "inventing the future" with some of their ideas. For example, the idea of geostationary satellites is often attributed to Arthur C. Clarke.

What novel was the first to mention or predict a personal handheld computer that anyone could use?

Jerry Pournelle, in several TWiT podcasts, claims that he and co-writer Larry Niven came up with the idea in The Mote in God's Eye published in 1974, however, I'm sure an idea like it came along well before that.

  • I wouldn't be that sure there's anything much earlier. Remember that the personal computer was only introduced in the 70's and the general thought was that powerful == large, so most early sci-fi computers are huge (because they are so powerful). Given that Pournelle is/was a technology journalist, he would probably be in a good position to (a) be first, and (b) know if he was. – Tony Meyer Feb 11 '11 at 4:37
  • @Tony good point, I just assumed that someone would have thought of it earlier than the 70's. It seems right. – Brenton Taylor Feb 11 '11 at 14:10
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    What about tricorders in Star Trek, they certainly fit the bill of pocket computers. – Raskolnikov Feb 11 '11 at 19:58
  • @Raskolnikov - i always thought the tricorder was primarily a portable sensor device. It's unclear (to me) whether the device had analysis capabilities built in, requiring serious compute power, or if it was just a dumb device that displayed various readings, that a trained user could then use to make the same kinds of assessments. – JustJeff Feb 11 '11 at 21:40
  • @JustJeff: the wikipedia page claims it does data analysis as well, but we shouldn't take their word for it. – Raskolnikov Feb 11 '11 at 22:45
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Isaac Asimov's 1958 short story "The Feeling of Power" posits a population completely dependent on their "pocket computer" for doing basic arithmetic. However, they are not described in use for anything other than arithmetic (which is, after all what the big boxes did in 1958), so I don't know if it counts or not.

The way the characters use the things in the Niven/Pournelle reference more closely resemble the things we think of as PDAs/smartphones/netbooks.

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    An excellent answer, except for the fact that the question specifically (and rather bizarrely if you ask me) asked for the first novel with a handheld computer. And yet the OP accepted your answer. Is it possible that today's readers have forgotten that science fiction used to come in the form of short stories? – user14111 Aug 30 '13 at 4:42
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It looks like Asimov has him beat, but Arthur C. Clarke mentioned an electronic news pad in his 2001: A Space Odyssey. And in 1980, Allen MacNeill predicted that by 2010, we would have handheld computers (that would be connected to a mainframe).

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    In a sense, we do have handheld computers (smart phones) connected to a mainframe (the internet). :) – Martha Feb 15 '11 at 2:02
  • Like I said, I have reservations about The Feeling of Power because they are shown to us as what we would call calculators despite being called pocket computers. – dmckee Feb 15 '11 at 3:05
  • @Martha, I was thinking the same thing, especially now that we're moving back to computing in the "cloud". – Teknophilia Feb 16 '11 at 22:56
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In his novel The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966/1969), Frederik Pohl describes a device called a "joymaker"; a scepter-like device that is connected to a central network and functions as a voice-operated computer.

‡: The Age of the Pussyfoot was first published as a novel in 1969, but before that it was published as a serial in Galaxy Science Fiction starting in 1966.

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In computer science, Alan Kay's Dynabook was first described by him in 1968. It was a pad style computer with a keyboard and LCD screen, similar to, but smaller then, the Kindle. I don't recall any science fiction stories using a hand-held computer prior to that.

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In Larry Niven's short story, "The Soft Weapon," 1967, the device had multiple modes. It was hand-held, and in one mode was intelligent, and interacted with Humans and Kzinti.

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John Brunner's novel, The Shockwave Rider (1967), had protagonist Nicky Haflinger hacking the "datanet" from a folding pocket videophone (which required a wire connection to the telephone system to operate).

Though one could argue that it, and even the home data terminals almost everyone had, weren't primarily computing devices in their own right, none the less they gave anyone with appropriate skills (in the case of the pocket veephone, the ability to program in phone code groups) nearly unlimited (given the ubiquity of phone connection points) access to nearly unlimited computing power.

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A. E. van Vogt's fixup novel The Mixed Men (1952) has the following passage:

There was no whine of sirens, so it was not a battle alert. He put down his book, slipped into his coat, and headed for astrogation and instrument room. Several officers, including the ship's executive astrogational officer, were already there when he arrived. They nodded to him, rather curtly, but that was usual. He sat down at his desk, and took out of his pocket the tool of his trade: a slide rule with a radio attachment which connected it with the nearest--in this case the ship's--mechanical brain.

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