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I read that This Island Earth had a computer-controlled plane, and this sounds extremely sophisticated for 1955, not just because computers were huge things in those days but also because it seems to me that computers were thought of as devices which performed mathematical calculations, not interacting with real-world objects.

Was there an earlier portrayal of computer control? I also do not mean a robot, which of course predates this film and is arguably itself a vehicle and/or could have controlled a vehicle — my interest is in writing prescient enough to imagine a room-sized computer perhaps scaled down to actually be embedded in a vehicle or controlling one remotely.

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  • I assume you're not interested in computer-controlled two-legged walking vehicles, aka robots?
    – Spencer
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 0:00
  • Does it have to be described as a computer? Would configurable analog controls count? Clockwork?
    – DavidW
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 0:06
  • ,@DavidW yes, a digital computer. autopilots does not count -- it is the idea of using huge machines to control a vehicle or machines which had been huge made small enough to be in the vehicle.
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 0:23
  • Do you count the mechanical workers/assistants in Hephaestus' workshop, or the mechanical guard (Talos) he made to circle Crete and protect it? (those tales were written down circa 700bc, based on verbal tales up to 1500 years older)
    – PcMan
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 18:50
  • @relseabe I added to my answer on Dec. 7, 2021, with the exact source which the creators of the movie had for a computer controlled airplane, as well as with some additional examples of computer controlled vehicles in stories of various dates. Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 20:55

4 Answers 4

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Copying from my answer to the question When was the first driverless car story written?:

1930: Paradise and Iron, a novel by Miles J. Breuer, M.D., originally published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Summer 1930, available at the Internet Archive. The narrator has been taken by an automated ship to a mysterious island where everything is automated. He goes for a ride in an automatic car:

"I'll get out Sappho for you first," Miss Kaspar cried to her grandfather; and the affectionate glow that lighted up her sunny face, as she glanced at him, caused a pang within me for being left out of things. I had to remind myself that last night's rescue did not necessarily give me any special rights nor privileges; and that I ought to be thankful for the kindness that had been bestowed on me last night. She hurried out of the back door; and "Sappho" turned out to be a greenish-black roadster, with wheels four feet high, an extraordinarily large radiator appropriate to hot climates, headlights set in the top of the hood—and no steering wheel! The machine fascinated me so that I stood about it curiously instead of mixing with the group of young people.

In fact, I was a little nettled at the people. They seemed to take no particular nor unusual interest in me. Upon introduction they were very gracious; but they immediately took me for granted as one of them. No one asked me where I came from, nor what my country was like, nor how I liked it here. Like a group of frolicking children, they seemed intent on the interests of the moment, and accepted everything as it came. So, I decided to ride with Kaspar in his Sappho.

I waited some minuted for Kaspar to appear. Then I walked all around the curious vehicle, and I finally decided to get into the car and wait there for Kaspar. So I climbed in and sat down, with a queer feeling at the complete absence of the steering wheel and gear-shift levers. However, on the dashboard were a great many dials; and something was ticking quietly somewhere inside the machine.

Then there was a "clickety-click" and a whirr of the motor, and the car moved gently away from the curb. It swerved out into the street, gathered speed, and then turned to the right around a corner. It slowed down for two women crossing the street, and avoided a truck coming toward us. It gave me an eerie feeling to sit in the thing and have it carry me around automatically.

Then it suddenly dawned on me, that here I was alone in the thing, on an unknown street, in an unknown city, racing along at too high a speed to jump out, and rapidly getting farther away from places with which I was familiar. How could the machine be controlled? Already I was completely lost in the city. How and why had the thing started? I had been exceptionally careful not to touch anything, and was sure that no act of mine had set it off. But I was rather proud that I did not lose my head; I leaned back to think. This was not my first emergency.

The car was carrying me rapidly through a beautiful residence section of the city. I could not help looking about me. It was a veritable Garden of Eden, and all the more beautiful for the added touch of human art. The lawns were smooth and soft, with half-disclosed statuary among the shrubbery, or fountains at the end of vistas. Homes spread over the ground or soared into the air like realized dreams, without regard to expense or material limitations. But, every few minutes my mind came back with a jerk to my own anomalous position.

I examined the dials on the instrument-board closely. There were ten of them, and they had knobs like the dials on a safe-door, or like the tuning dials on a radio receiving set. Some of them had letters around the periphery and others had figure. I looked for something that said "stop" or "start", but there was nothing of the sort, nor even any words of any kind. There were a number of meters, but a speedometer was the only one whose use I recognized. The whole proposition looked about as impossible to me as a Chinese puzzle.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that my only hope was to try manipulating the dials. That was the only way to learn something about managing the car. I did so: I twirled a knob at random and waited expectantly. Nothing happened. At least, not immediately. After a few moments, however, the car stopped, turned around, and started off in the opposite direction. I should have gotten out of it while it stood still for an instant; but for the moment my curiosity was whetted, and I wanted to try the dials again to see what would happen. Anyway, before I recollected myself, the car was speeding in the opposite direction at too rapid a rate to permit my getting off.

If I had hoped to get back to Kaspar's this way, I was disappointed at the first corner, where the car turned to the right, drove around a block and was soon spinning along in its original direction.

"You're a stubborn jade, Sappho," I grumbled aloud. "We'll have to see what we can do with you."

I now perceived where I had made my mistake: I had not noted which dial I had turned nor how I had turned it, when I had reversed the car, and I was unable to repeat the movement. So, the next time, I carefully turned the first dial to the letter "A". There was no effect at all. I moved the second dial to "A". A curious fluty whistling followed; it proceeded from the hood, and varied up and down several octaves of the musical scale, with a remote resemblance to rhythm and melody. Before it died down, I sank back and gave up. A little reflection showed me that with ten dials and twenty-five letters or figures to a dial, there were several million combinations. It was hopeless.

From an explanation by the creator of the machines:

“It is really very simple,” Kaspar went on, with a patient smile. "You know of many machines in your world that think: a calculating machine or a bookkeeping machine; an automatic telephone exchange; an automatic lathe, and many others. They think, but only on the basis of the present moment. Add to their method experience, that is, retained past perceptions, and you have what we understand ordinarily as thinking.

"Mechanical memory, an association of previously collected perceptions, was what we needed; and when we found them, our machines were able to reason better than ourselves."

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  • No, to me the important idea is the conceptual shift from computers that has been used for accounting or inventory systems being used to control things like planes. Automated devices are nothing new in fiction. The word "computer" is not used in your example. (And that would have been amazing in 1930 had it been.) Maybe it seems like a niggling detail but few people could have conceived of a glorified adding machine controlling a car or plane whereas clockwork devices had existed for centuries.
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 4:05
  • 1
    Your question, your call. Quoting from the editorial blurb to the story: "Even now there are calculating machines that quickly solve mathematical problems that would otherwise take eminent mathematicians and skilled computators months to solve. And constant improvements are being made on these mechanical “robot” mathematicians." But you are welcome to draw your line between the calculating machines in an office and the mechanical brains that run the machinery on the island in Breuer's story.
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 4:38
  • 1
    From the story: "You know of many machines in your world that think: a calculating machine or a bookkeeping machine; an automatic telephone exchange; an automatic lathe, and many others. They think, but only on the basis of the present moment. Add to their method experience, that is, retained past perceptions, and you have what we understand ordinarily as thinking. Mechanical memory, an association of previously collected perceptions, was what we needed; and when we found them, our machines were able to reason better than ourselves."
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 4:51
  • Hmm. this may be what I was looking for: someone who somehow foresaw that machines used for calculations could somehow interact in the real world. I think that represents a huge conceptual leap. I think the above excerpt shows this was exactly what i was looking for.
    – releseabe
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 22:05
  • I've edited that comment into my answer.
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 22:59
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In the 1909 story "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster the "air-ships" are controlled by the world-controlling Machine. They start crashing at the end when the Machine fails.

I am not sure the Machine is exactly a computer as we think of it today, but it seems to perform the same type of functions.

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  • @Buzz wow, it's older than I thought. Thanks for the edit. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 21:55
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A quick bit of research turns up "Iron Mike," an airplane autopilot from The Plane Without a Pilot (1930) by Eustace L. Adams.

From a review on Goodreads:

In this new story Andy Lane and his gallant crew of air adventurers begin a long test flight in an amazing new Apex plane. Driven by the newest type of Diesel engine and steered by Iron Mike, a gyroscopic control, this great air yacht is able to steer herself through the skies with no human hands on the controls.

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  • Gyroscopic autopilot was available since 1912. It is not computer controlled, but corrected angular deviations in the aircraft's straight and level course. The initial ones utilized pneumatic hydraulic servos, before moving to electro-hydraulic servos. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 3:18
  • A system to maintain level flight and heading is not the same as one that can be given a destination, take off and fly there. Obviously the terminology used was what was available; would you quibble about a work written in 1923 not having a robot in it because it didn't use that word?
    – DavidW
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 5:29
  • Computers compute. Pneumatic and electro-servers don’t compute anything, they mechanically compensated for change of state; there was no computation involved at all. It’s not a matter of terminology. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 12:41
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Short Answer:

The creators of the movie This Island Earth, 1955, got the idea for a computer controlled vehicle from Raymond F. Jones, author of the stories and novel the film was loosely based on.

See "The Alien Machine", Thrilling Wonder Stories June, 1949.

https://archive.org/details/Thrilling_Wonder_Stories_v34n02_1949-06/page/n87/mode/2up

And "The Shroud of Secrecy" Thrilling Wonder Stories December, 1949.

https://archive.org/details/Thrilling_Wonder_Stories_v35n02_1949-12

Where did Jones get the idea for a computer controlled vehicle? A number of answers have suggested stories with various dates. And I suspect that there might not be anyone alive today who has read or knows about the earliest story with a computer controlled and piloted vehicle.

I have just remembered an early story, perhaps the earliest story with a machine controlled vehicle that I personally read, "A Matter of Size" by Harry Bates, Astounding Stories, April 1934:

A glance at a dial half as large as his ship showed a negligible amount of air outside, so he advanced thirty feet to hover like a humming bird in front of a green button with a large 3 on its face, and, feeling a lit­tle sentimental, reached out and pushed it in. Farther on he pushed in another, which would give him the ship’s maximum acceleration. Then he glided to a landing on the immense flat top of the chart table and sat down. The rest was up to the ship’s automatic navigator.

It was equal to the job. Its ultra-sensitive receivers picked up and identified every major planetary body in the solar system and sent the information through an over­lapping labyrinth of seventy-two circuits where every navigation fac­tor of location, spacial relation, planetary gravital pulls, ship’s speed and acceleration and deceleration, planetary speeds and orbits, ship’s destination, and so forth, were sec­ond by second electrically arranged and coordinated into the necessary resultant course; and it put the ship on that course, and corrected in­finitesimal strayings, and would without attention start deceleration at the proper time, and bring the ship gently to ground in a place re­served for it in Earth’s great space port at New York. All that Allison had to do, therefore, was set the buttons for destination and accelera­tion.

https://www.prosperosisle.org/spip.php?article862

I admit the text might have been changed for the anthology Famous Science-Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time and Space, 1946, but I suspect that the automatically piloted spaceship had to be in the original story.

Long Answer:

The creators of the film got the idea for a computer controlled airplane from the original stories and novel the film is based on. And if the machine controlled airplane had not been in their source, they should have been able to think of such a thing, remembering it from other science fiction stories and novels.

I would suggest that a computer controlled vehicle would not be such a totally and completely unexpected concept in the 1950s.

There is Isaac Asimov's famous story "The Feeling of Power", If: Worlds of Science Fiction, February, 1958.

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?41408

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Feeling_of_Power

In "The Feeling of Power" humans have long forgotten how to do math, even the simplist arithmatic, because they have computers to do math for them. Then, one man discovers how to math on paper, which he calls "graphitics".

At the time, Earth is in an interstellar war with Deneb, and guided missiles are used.

A general tells how replacing the control computers of those missiles with expendable humans trained in "graphitics" would make them more likely to penetrate Denebian defenses.

The general drove on. "At the present time our chief bottleneck is the fact that missiles are limited in intelligence. The computer controlling them can only be so large, and for that reason they can meet the changing nature of anti-missile defenses in an unsatisfactory way. Few missiles, if any, accomplish their goal, and missile warfare is coming to a dead end, for the enemy, fortunately, as well as for ourselves.

"On the other hand, a missile with a man or two within, controlling flight by graphitics, would be lighter, more mobile, more intelligent. It would give us a lead that might well mean the margin of victory.

Re-manning drones

And here is a link to an online copy of "The Feeling of Power":

https://urbigenous.net/library/power.html

So there are only about 3 or 4 years between the writing of the movie This Island Earth (1955), based partially on the 1952 novel by Raymond F. Jones which was originally published as 3 stories in 1949-1950, and the story "The Feeling of Power" (1958).

And it is quite possible that the scriptwriters of the movie, Franklin Coen & Edward G. O'Callohan, got the idea of a computer ontrolled vehicle from Jone's novel. And it is possible that they might have got the idea from the same sources that Isaac Asimov later used to imagine the computer controlled missiles in "A Feeling of Power".

What could have inspired the computer controlled missiles, which we could call "IPBMs" for interplanetary ballistic missiles or "ISBMs" for interstellar ballistic missiles, in Asimov's story? Maybe the real ICBMs or Intercontinental ballistic missiles which the USA and the USSR were developing to carry fission and fusion bombs over intercontinental distances, and which were used to launch some of the first satellites and space probes in that era.

Were the 1950s ICBMs computer controlled?

Contemporary ICBMs are:

Strategic missile systems are thought to use custom integrated circuits designed to calculate navigational differential equations thousands to millions of FLOPS in order to reduce navigational errors caused by calculation alone. These circuits are usually a network of binary addition circuits that continually recalculate the missile's position. The inputs to the navigation circuit are set by a general-purpose computer according to a navigational input schedule loaded into the missile before launch.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intercontinental_ballistic_missile

What about the German V-1 and V-2 rockests in WWII? Do their autopilots count as computers for the purpose of the question?

Murray Leinster's "The Wabbler", Astounding Science Fiction, October, 1942, featured a robotic bomb. It was dropped from an airplane into the sea near the enemy country, sank to the bottom, and slowly wiggled toward shore, making its way into a harbor and underneath an enemy warship where it exploded. Obviously its control system must have been far more sophisticated than a simple autopilot.

http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=1126

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?46584

And I am sure that there will be other early examples of computer controled vehicles in science fiction in addition to ones mentioned in the other answers.

Added Dec. 7 2021

If I remember corecctly, in one of E.E. Smith's Lensman novels, probably the book version of Children of the Lens, 1954, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction November 1947 to February 1948, there is a battle between vast space fleets, where the ships in the dangerous vanguard of the fleet of "Civilization" are unmanned, controlled by robots or computers, so that no lives will be lost when they are destroyed. The narrator speculates whether the similarly dangerous ships in the Boskone fleet would have been similarly unmanned.

And I don't know if this detail was in the original late 1940s version or was added for the 1950s book version. Anyway, one or more of the creators of the film This Island Earth, 1955, could possibly have read either or both versions.

Isaac Asimov's novel The Stars Like Dust was published in Galaxy magazine with the title Tyrann in January to March 1951, and published as a book in February 1951. In it, a secret ability of the Tyranni space warships is their ability to be programmed with complicated courses through hyperspace and thus to perform strategic and tactical maneuvers with or without anyone on board.

And one or more of the creators of This Island Earth, 1955 could have read The Stars Like Dust and got the idea from it.

And course, the creators of This Island Earth, 1955, could have got the idea for a computer controlled vehicle from the novel This Island Earth. My memory of the novel is not very clear, but the synopsis in Wikipedia says:

When he turns the completed interociter on he confronts a man who invites him to join a group called Peace Engineers. Knowing that he would not refuse, the group sends a pilotless airplane to pick him up and take him to a small village/factory complex in a valley north of Phoenix, Arizona.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Island_Earth_(novel)

This Island Earth was originally published as three separate stories in Thrilling Wonder Stories from June 1949 to February 1950, and was first published as a book in 1952.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Island_Earth_(novel)

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pe.cgi?24321

According to the synopsis of "The Alien Machine", Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1949:

Meacham gives notice at Ryberg the next morning, boards the pilot-less plane when it arrives, and as it lifts off to take him to the Peace Engineers at a mysterious destination the first novelette ends.

https://thepulp.net/yellowedperils/2015/12/08/exploring-this-island-earth/

See "The Alien Machine", Thrilling Wonder Stories June, 1949.

https://archive.org/details/Thrilling_Wonder_Stories_v34n02_1949-06/page/n87/mode/2up

And "The Shroud of Secrecy" Thrilling Wonder Stories December, 1949.

https://archive.org/details/Thrilling_Wonder_Stories_v35n02_1949-12/page/n63/mode/2up

So the creators of the movie This Island Earth, 1955, definately got the idea from the stories and novel by Raymond F. Jones.

As for the first appearance of computer controlled vehicles in science fiction, I suspect that there may be a number of examples earlier than the earliest which have been suggested so far in variou answers.

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    I'm really not sure the value of posting an answer with stories that are decades later than the ones in earlier (and hence better) answers.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 18:13
  • The unmanned ships at the leading edge of the fleet are in First Lensman (1950) the last written of the 6 novels in the Lensman series. (See isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?1198). How they are controlled is not described in any detail. Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 21:37

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