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As far as I'm aware, we don't have anything like a self-destruct or auto-destruct sequence in real life ships at sea or in space, so where did the idea originate? I'm thinking of a specific function designed solely to destroy the ship, not someone jury-rigging something to achieve the destruction of the ship.

I remember seeing it in the Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror" but I assume the idea must have already been decades old at that point.


I am more curious about its origin in fiction (e.g. what's the earliest example) and less what real-world stuff might have inspired it.

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    While it's not automated, deliberately destroying a ship or other military equipment is a real-world thing. An automated self-destruct sequence is just a fancy extension of this.
    – qazmlpok
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 17:57
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    Scuttling is what the deliberate destruction of one's own vessel is called. Interestingly Self Destruct seems to be fairly "modern", it's first use may have been in "Mission Impossible" 1966 - etymonline.com/word/self-destruct
    – Alith
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 18:00
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    And to add to @qazmlpok during the Bin Laden raid one of the Blackhawks was disabled, so the team blew it up before they left.
    – Peter M
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 18:01
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    @Alith, here's a cite for self-destruct in 1958. google.co.uk/books/edition/Naval_Training_Bulletin/…
    – Pete
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 18:19
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    @AnthonyX I wasn't thinking a countdown was a necessary part of a self-destruct sequence, though they're usually part of modern incarnations.
    – miken32
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 16:12

8 Answers 8

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Rockets have range safety systems, which you could also call self-destructs. They are typically pyrotechnic (explosive) devices arranged to do things like split open fuel tanks. The idea is that a rocket which goes off course can be issued a flight termination command to avoid it going somewhere it shouldn't or impacting more-or-less intact, causing more damage than if it was broken up and a reasonable portion of the propellant aerosolized before striking the ground.

Warships have been scuttled (intentionally sunk) to prevent them from being captured and used by opposing forces. It has been done or attempted on multiple occasions in both World Wars. The usual method is by flooding. Ships typically have sea chests - openings in the hull used to draw in or expel water for cooling, fresh water production, wastewater disposal, or other purposes. Either valves can be opened or specific elements of the associated plumbing damaged to cause water to fill enough areas of the ship to sink it.

In neither case is there a timer. For rockets, every second matters, so flight termination would occur as soon as the decision is made and the command issued. For ships, scuttling takes time - potentially hours. The whole idea of a self-destruct countdown seems to be a dramatic device inspired by time bombs, which have been a thing (fiction or real-world) for a very long time, and/or real-world space launch for which countdowns were (surprisingly) inspired by fiction.

Note that in "Balance of Terror", there is no countdown. The Romulan commander staggers to a control console, appears to throw a switch in an exaggerated motion, and the vessel explodes immediately.

The first depiction in Star Trek of a built-in self-destruct system with a countdown was, I believe, in the the original ("TOS") third season episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" in which Kirk gives the order as he competes with Bele for control of the Enterprise. In the scene, it served to build dramatic tension when Kirk used it to set up a "game of chicken". There was a jerry-rigged self-destruct in the TOS second season episode "The Doomsday Machine" in which Scotty improvised an engine overload on a 30-second delay aboard the Constellation. A countdown never figured into any other self-destruct scenario in TOS. I can't speak to any Trek media outside of live-action TV and movies; within those constraints, it only re-appeared in ST3:The Search for Spock and in TNG, after which it seemed to have become cemented in Trek lore.

As a spaceship counterpart to naval scuttling, it makes sense for the destruct system to operate on a timer to provide an opportunity for the crew to escape. On the other hand, a self-destruct could just as easily be designed to operate by remote control instead of a timer. Nevertheless, a ship in space being deliberately blown up isn't necessarily a good idea since the debris could become a significant hazard to other space vehicles. That's one reason why real-world satellites are decommissioned either by de-orbiting so that they burn up in Earth's atmosphere or are moved into stable "disposal" orbits, and real-world range safety systems are only used during the ascent phase.

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    "American rockets often have a Range Safety destruct system since the early launch attempts conducted from Cape Canaveral in 1950. As of 2021, a total of 33 US orbital launch attempts have ended in an RSO destruct, the first being Vanguard TV-3BU in 1958 and the most recent being FLTA001 DREAM in 2021.[2]"
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 23:58
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    The timer on Trek self destruct sequences might be to give the warp core time to overload and explode. It appears that the core is designed so that even in the event of a catastrophic failure it takes some time for it to explode, allowing it to be ejected if necessary. Quite a feat considering it's full of anti-matter. Anyway, it may be that there is simply no way to instantly detonate it for safety reasons, necessitating a minimum count-down that can be optionally extended.
    – user
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 20:14
  • In addition to @user's good idea, on a manned ship the timer would give the crew time to evacuate safely, something you don't have to worry about with unmanned missiles.
    – David K
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 15:29
  • At least since WWII, crews of aircrafts were instructed to destroy certain pieces of sensitive equipment (bomb sights, radar) to avoid them falling in enemy hands if the airplane was shot down. IIRC some of that equipment had explosive charges prepared to that effect.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 17:56
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    If you want a timer for scuttling a ship, you can just have a lit fuse going down the powder magazine of a ship in the Age of Sail. I find it likely that over hundreds of years it happened at least once. Lighting the fuse in order to give the crew time to abandon the ship via rowboats, instead of throwing in the torch yourself, essentially committing suicide.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 5:11
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Automated self destructs are a real world thing, apparently. According to this technical manual I found on google, the idea of a self-destruct sequence, including a big red button, dates back to at least 1971.

2.1. Self-destruction Devices.

a. The self-destruction device is a superior method for the destruction of classified equipment.

2.10. Self-destruction Devices.

The actuation devices for self-destruction systems are always displayed in a prominent location, usually a button marked in red, and protected by a shield to eliminate the possibility of accidental actuation. Refer to paragraph 2-1 above.

It's possible that this has been revised and doesn't date to 1971, but I think this is enough to show that it's not a strictly sci-fi affair.

Additionally, the idea of manual destruction of equipment is ancient; Wikipedia has several examples under Scuttling, the term for the intentional destruction of a ship for any reason, including to prevent capture or other enemy use.

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    I've seen examples on Google Books that date back to the 1940s, relating to torpedoes and rockets
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 18:21
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    @Valorum I would consider that a separate thing; the idea being that if a torpedo or AA artillery shell misses, it should detonate regardless to try to do some damage even without a direct hit, and thus increase overall reliability. Star Trek's self destruct was typically in the vein of "keep this equipment out of hostile hands", the same rationale for scuttling a warship or plane.
    – qazmlpok
    Commented Oct 1, 2022 at 18:29
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    1971? They definitely got this from Star Trek then. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 11:29
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A closer look at the film reveals that the lever which blows up the castle is not designed for that purpose. It appears that the lever is just part of the machinery that they used to give the Bride life. (h/t user3153372 for finding a clip; I also tracked down some plot summaries, and none of them suggest otherwise -- Wikipedia's is representative.)

So, I think this does not satisfy OP's criteria.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Apparently the castle has a self-destruct device.

I got this one from TV Tropes while trying to track down details about Forbidden Planet. So, I can't say that I've seen this one myself.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that Bride of Frankenstein was not written by Mary Shelley, but is rather a spin-off invented by Hollywood after the success of the first film.

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    youtu.be/o1Izq-E3o7Y?t=90 "Get away from that lever! You'll blow us all to atoms!" Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 8:25
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    But is it a "sequence"? It looks like you just pull the lever and BOOM!
    – Spencer
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 12:41
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    The idea of Frankenstein constructing a female companion for The Monster is present in the original book, though. IIRC, The Monster agrees to leave Frankenstein alone if he creates a companion, but Frankenstein destroys her just as she is awakening.
    – chepner
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 14:41
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    @user3153372 - "Can't help it. I'm a born lever-puller."
    – Lesser son
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 17:22
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    Based on what I've learned, I think I should delete this answer. I intend to leave it up for a couple days so that OP can see my update.
    – Tom
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 17:37
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Tom's memory of The Forbidden Planet (1956) is a little vague. The self desctruct mechanism, which is hard to activate accidentially, destroys the entire planet Altair IV.

Son...

...turn that disc.

The switch, throw it.

In 24 hours...

...you must be

...a hundred million miles out in space...

The Krell furnaces, chain reaction...

...they cannot be reversed.

https://www.scripts.com/script.php?id=forbidden_planet_8419&p=28

I can't help wondering why the Krell built it. Especially in a lab where the intelligence of Krell children was tested. Couldn't Krell engineeers imagine that a momentarily unsupervised child might have accidentially performed the exact sequence of actions necessary to activate the self destruct. Were Krell children more reliable and careful than Human adults?

This may be the first science fiction film where there is a timed destruciton sequence, probably due to the time for the power levels to build up to the explosion.

In The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) the monster pulls a lever that almost instantly sets off a chain of explosions wich destroy the tower. So that might be the first science fiction/fantasy/horror movie example of a self destruct device, installed for reasons which don't seem obvious to me, that causes instant destruction.

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    The novel Phantom of the Opera (1910), there was a mechanism attached to the figure of a grasshopper which, according to the Phantom, was designed to blow up the opera house. The mechanism wasn't triggered, and the novel didn't really make clear why it was built in the first place, but there was also a mechanism attached IIRC to the figure of a scorpion which flooded the rooms full of gunpowder that would have been set off by the first mechanism.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 21:10
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As various people have mentioned, the concept of scuttling a vessel goes back centuries.

The earliest fictional example I can immediately think of comes from EE Doc Smith's Lensman series. Specifically, the Galactic Patrol novel, which was published in 1937.

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

In brief, the Galactic Patrol is embroiled in an arms race with the Boskonian empire; and Kimball Kinnison (the main hero of the series) is tasked with capturing one of the enemy ships to steal the secret of their superior space drive; his efforts are successful, but his ship is then englobed by enemy vessels, seeking to destroy him before he can return home with said data.

To escape, Kimball and his crew take to their lifeboats, after first setting up an autopilot set to randomly change direction, and also rigging a self destruct mechanism, which blows the ship up when it detects that it's been captured.

Admittedly, this is a jury-rigged self-destruct, and it wouldn't surprise me to discover that there's earlier examples from the golden age of pulp sci-fi - or even in more classical literature.

But it's certainly interesting to see the parallels between Smith's "arms race" stories, and the actual historical efforts which have been made to maintain technological superiority against an enemy (e.g. Germany's Enigma machine, or the cold war arms race between the USA and Russia, which involved everything from tanks, aeroplanes, submarines and nuclear weapons!).

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Forbidden Planet (1956)

The live-action film Forbidden Planet has a self-destruct device that destroys the entire alien facility.

I don't recall if we see any kind of timer, in case that matters.

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    @Giacomo1968: On “the earliest/original example of X”-type questions, it’s helpful to have separate examples put in separate answers (regardless of who’s posting them), so that they can be up- or down-voted independently according to their date and whether voters judge they’re close enough to count as an example.
    – PLL
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 8:31
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Between Planets (1951)

I found a reference to a dedicated self-destruct mechanism in Robert Heinlein's 1951 novel. Not a "sequence" of events, but a dead man's switch that is assigned to a crew member to ensure the destruction of the ship if needed.

    Don’s battle station was a saddle amidships, back of the pilots’ chairs – the “dead man’s” seat. Here he guarded a springloaded demolition switch, a type of switch known through the centuries as a “dead-man” switch for the contrary reason that it operated only if its operator were dead.
    At first drill Conrad got the others squared away, then came back to Don’s station. “You savvy what you are to do, Don?”
    “Sure. I throw this switch to arm the bomb, then I hang onto the dead-man switch.”
    “No, no! Grab the dead-man switch first – then close the arming switch!”
    “Yes, sure. I just said it backwards.”
    “Be sure you don’t do it backwards! Just remember this, Lieutenant: if you let go, everything does.”
    “Okay. Say, Rog, this thing triggers an A-bomb – right?”
    “Wrong. We should waste so much money! But the load of H.E. [high explosives?] in there is plenty for a little can like this, I assure you. So, anxious as we are to blow up this packet rather than let it be captured, don’t let go of that switch otherwise. If you feel a need to scratch, rise above it.”
    Captain Rhodes came aft and with a motion of his head sent Conrad forward. He spoke to Don in a low voice, such that his words did not reach the others. “Harvey, are you satisfied with this assignment? You don’t mind it?”
    “No, I don’t mind,” Don answered. “I know the others all have more technical training than I have. This is my speed.”
    “That’s not what I mean,” the Captain corrected. “You could fill any of the other seats, except mine and Dr. Conrad’s. I want to be sure you can do this job.”
    “I don’t see why not. Grab onto this switch, and then close that one-and hang on for dear life. It sure doesn’t take any higher mathematics to do that.”
    “That’s still not what I mean. I don’t know you, Harvey. I understand you have had combat experience. These others haven’t – which is why you have this job. Those who do know you think you can do it. I’m not worried that you might forget to hang on; what I want to know is this: if it becomes necessary to let go of that switch, can you do it?”
    Don answered almost at once – but not before there had been time for him to think of several things – Dr. Jefferson, who had almost certainly suicided, not simply died – Old Charlie with his mouth quivering but his cleaver hand steady and sure – and an undying voice ringing through the fog, “Venus and Freedom!”.
    “Guess I can if I have to.”
    “Good. I’m by no means sure that I could. I’m depending on you, sir, if worse comes to worst, not to let my ship be captured.”

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There may have been self destruct mechanisms in the old space opera series of Interstellar Patrol stories by Edmund "World Wrecker" Hamilton from 1928 to 1930. Most of the enemies lived on just one planet or other type of world, and their worlds usually had master controls for powerful machinery, which would destroy those planets if used the wrong way. And in some of of those stories a hero of the Interstellar Patrol saved the day by throwing the switch which destroyed the enemy world.

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