In many very popular sci-fi anime stories, there is a "space elevator", or, in other words, a giant tower which allows to transport people or objects from the surface of Earth to space. Some of these stories where they appear are Gundam (Gundam Reconguista in G (2014), Mobile Suit Gundam 00 (2007), Turn A Gundam (1999), Eureka Seven (2005) and Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 (1998), and the earliest I know is Super Dimensional Century Orguss (1983).

Now, I know this idea comes from science, since a giant tower which could reach space from the surface of Earth was theorized by scientists (though apparently a material which could have the properties to build it doesn't exist) but I wonder which was the first sci-fi story to give credit to this concept by incorporating it into a fictional story.

Which was the first story to feature space elevators?

  • 7
  • 2
    By the way, Clarke once said, "The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing." Feb 19, 2019 at 22:48
  • 5
    I was half expecting someone coming with the "Epic of Gilgamesh". It seems that a metric ton of SF stuff has already been presented in mythologies...
    – Yasskier
    Feb 20, 2019 at 8:46
  • 1
    What about the bible and the story of the tower of babel? Wouldn't the sucseasfull application of thier goal be a space elevator?
    – PCSgtL
    Feb 20, 2019 at 15:01
  • 1
    @PCSgtL that was debated in the comments in another answer and users seemed to agree than no, one of them argued "Towers are compression structures and thus not space elevators. If we allow towers, you can go back to the tower of Babel and the Bible."
    – Pablo
    Feb 20, 2019 at 15:03

7 Answers 7


The Fountains of Paradise (1979)

Jerome Pearson, President of STAR, Inc., conceived the idea of the space elevator in 1969 at the NASA Ames Research Center, and perfected the concept in the early 1970s, when he was at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio. He published his ideas in an international journal that first brought the idea to the attention of the entire world of spaceflight researchers. Sir Arthur Clarke, living in Sri Lanka, consulted with Pearson in the late 1970s in writing his novel, "The Fountains of Paradise," which brought Pearson’s idea of the space elevator to an even larger audience. Sir Arthur included in the book an appendix that credited Pearson.
- Space Elevator History - Star Tech Inc

So it seems like this was the first one.

  • 2
    That article you linked to has an excellent bibliography. It cites 1895 Tsiolkovsky writing that I mentioned in my answer as an early incomplete version of the idea, and various other sources. Might even be worth excerpting the bibliography. Feb 21, 2019 at 21:49

Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise and Charles Sheffield's The Web Between the Worlds (both published in 1979) are generally considered to be the works that introduced space elevators to the science fiction community at large.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl (1972) has an elevator that goes into space, but presented as an absurdity with no scientific explanation.

Both Wikipedia and TVTropes have extensive lists of fictional space elevators, though they're not chronological.

  • 3
    Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator didn't include a tether, the elevator just flew unsupported. I'm pretty sure that makes it a spacecraft rather than an elevator :P Feb 20, 2019 at 15:41
  • 8
    @Ruadhan2300 It's been a while since I read it, but my memory is that Wonka says the elevator is supported from above by a "skyhook", and then he changes the subject when asked what the skyhook is supported by.
    – zwol
    Feb 20, 2019 at 20:09
  • 2
    @zwol You're remembering it correctly, though the skyhook, if it exists, is apparently invisible. Also, this differs from the explanation Wonka gives in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he says that the elevator is held aloft by "[c]andy power! One million candy power!"
    – MJ713
    Feb 21, 2019 at 1:11
  • It seems likely that both explanations are equally accurate :) Personally I'm a fan of the Douglas Adams explanation... "It's held aloft by Art" Feb 21, 2019 at 9:00

In the Jan 12, 2019 issue of New Scientist magazine, an article by Kelly Oakes (on plans for real-word space elevators) mentions 2 sources for the history of the idea:

  • (probably non-fiction only) Konstantin Tsiolkovsky1 in 1895 "imagined a 'celestial castle' orbiting the earth at 36000 km (geosynchronous), attached to the Eiffel Tower in Paris by a long spindle." This was ~70 years before the first geosynchronous satellites were launched.

    http://pages.erau.edu/~andrewsa/history.html briefly summarizes the "celestial castle" idea. Tsiolkovsky did apparently write science fiction as well, but I haven't been able to find a reference to a story involving the idea.

    1: yes, the same guy the rocket equation is named for

  • Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise "popularized an elevator proper".

Clarke's story is definitely the most widely cited early fictional version in discussions I've seen of space elevators. But perhaps Clarke didn't invent the entire concept from nothing. (That's not the question, and Clarke may still have had to figure out plenty of practical details.)

The article says that we now know that a real elevator needs to stretch beyond geosynchronous / geostationary orbit altitude to bring the centre of mass up beyond that point. (Otherwise the cable falls under its own weight.) Apparently Clarke pictured the top being at around geosync altitude, too.

A large counterweight just beyond that altitude should work, but the article suggests having the cable extend to something like 100 000 km to counter the weight of loads traveling up/down the cable. That would give you a nice escape trajectory for leaving Earth orbit.

Further material:

Jerome Pearson wrote (in 1997) a paper on the history of the ideas / invention of Space Elevators. He doesn't consider Tsiolkovsky's thought experiment / concept to be detailed or practical enough to call it "inventing" the space elevator.

He credits the invention of the space elevator as an actual engineering problem to Yuri Artsutanov (1960) and independently to himself (1975), as Artsutanov didn't publish a paper so it wasn't known in the west.

  • @user14111: I'm aware this doesn't directly answer the question. I thought it was interesting enough to post anyway. If you want to dig deeper and post your own answer, or improve this one, feel free. Feb 20, 2019 at 2:57
  • @user14111: I googled but didn't find a mention of Tsiolkovsky having written fiction about his "celestial castle" thought experiment. I expanded the answer some, but unfortunately still mostly non-fiction sources. Feb 20, 2019 at 3:34

Hothouse (1962)

Although, the Elevator in question is "natural" (a giant banyan tree), and motive force is provided by giant sticky spider-like plants, which climb the tree into space so that they get absorb more sunlight.

  • Brian Aldiss wrote a lot of really good stuff.
    – ShadoCat
    Feb 20, 2019 at 23:58

There was a science fiction program on TV, possibly from England, when I was a kid in the 1960s. The players were marionettes. They had an elevator in one scene that transported them from the surface of a planet to a ship. I remember because a monster was coming and the heroine was hoping the elevator got there in time. The progress was shown with what I now know is obvious lab equipment - a glass spiral. Dark colored liquid was in it to show the elevator's movement.

  • 1
    Do you mean thunderbirds? youtube.com/watch?v=h5zgGVv-hNc
    – Pablo
    Feb 21, 2019 at 0:28
  • 1
    you got it! thunderbirds.fandom.com/wiki/Space_Elevator
    – Pablo
    Feb 21, 2019 at 0:30
  • I couldn't be 100% sure, I was like 6 at the time, but probably it was the Thunderbirds. Doubt if there were that many marionette shows on TV for kids! Thank you!
    – Jaroslaw
    Feb 21, 2019 at 0:33
  • 2
    Please edit your answer to include the name of the show and the year. You are talking about Thunderbirds (1960) but I didnt know or remember there was a space elevator there, but after checking its wikia, as a matter of fact there is. Excellent first answer
    – Pablo
    Feb 21, 2019 at 0:34
  • 1
    @Pablo I don't recall the Space Elevator in the original 1960s show, and that wikia entry only lists appearances in the 2015 reboot. Feb 21, 2019 at 0:52

I recall once reading a story about a aging scientist/engineer who accepted a mission to ride an elevator up to a sort of tethered satellite, to do some repairs (and thereby rescue the occupants of the satellite). He had considerable difficulties getting up there, due to a combo of equipment failure and a failing heart (which later killed him). (In fact, I recall that he had an "intelligent" talking heart monitor named CORA.)

The story was that the "elevator" was a long strip of something like carbon fiber, still in the process of being manufactured on Earth (atop a mountain in India, I'm thinking). The resultant constant motion of the strip figured as a plot point.

I've no recollection of how high this elevator went, but well above the atmosphere, and supposedly high enough that centrifugal force kept the satellite aloft.

Pretty sure I read this story in high school or college, placing it in the 60s or early 70s.

Update: The final part of Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise is pretty much identical to the plot as I remember it, but I'm fairly certain the earlier parts of that book were not present in the version I read, and I'm doubtful that I would have read the story after 1979, so I suspect I read an earlier short-story version of the 1979 book.

  • books.google.co.uk/…
    – Valorum
    Feb 20, 2019 at 23:06
  • 1
    @Valorum - It's very likely that it was a Clarke story that I read, but pretty sure it was much earlier than 1979. Likely Clarke adapted his earlier story as the basis for his novel "The Fountains of Paradise". In the story I read there was very little time spent on "back story".
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 20, 2019 at 23:12
  • 2
    That should probably be asked as a story-id question of its own to confirm :)
    – Jenayah
    Feb 20, 2019 at 23:27

Vathek (1786)

One of the earliest sci-fi stories has this plot element. In the novel Vathek by William Beckford, the titular character builds something like a space elevator to do astronomy:

To better study astronomy, he builds an observation tower with 11,000 steps. 
  • 2
    That's a very interesting find since it's almost the same idea, but I believe to be considered a space elevator it would have to be over 100 or 80 kms height to be considered space. That would be like 8 and something kms.
    – Pablo
    Feb 19, 2019 at 22:01
  • 11
    Towers are compression structures and thus not space elevators. If we allow towers, you can go back to the tower of Babel and the Bible.
    – ventsyv
    Feb 19, 2019 at 22:49
  • 3
    @ventsyv Even further than that - like much of the Bible, many parts of the story of Babel are borrowed from earlier myths. The Babylonian city of Etemenanki long predates the biblical accounts and may be the original inspiration for the story of Babel. Feb 19, 2019 at 23:01
  • 2
    I see no indication in the summary that the tower was used for anything but observation - OK, human sacrifice too, but neither of those make it a space elevator. Feb 19, 2019 at 23:34
  • 4
    No, a Space Elevator is not a tower for viewing space, it is a tower for going to space. Going by the "view" definition, modern telescopes that get built on the tops of mountains to take advantage of the slightly thinner atmosphere there are "space elevators". Feb 20, 2019 at 2:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.