22

When I look at modern computing devices from the perspective of the nerdy kid I used to be, writing BASIC on a Vic 20, I am utterly astonished. I spent a lot of time reading Sci Fi and imagining various powerful technological advancements. But I never imagined anything like what we have today. I can't even think of any books I read that portrayed the way we use the Internet now.

I am quite certain this is my own ignorance, rather than an actual lack of imagination on the part of Sci Fi creators.

I know there are a lot of examples of communication devices that are close to how we use phones, but when was the first portrayal of a device that really got it right?

By "get it right" I mean the following things:

  1. Ubiquitous wireless connections fast enough to stream video in real time
  2. Portable devices
  3. High-resolution touchscreens (or at least displays)
  4. Instant communication - meaning that people expect to be able to contact someone wherever they are

Once the mainstream public actually saw computers, I think a lot of people foresaw how we use them now (my own failure to do so notwithstanding). So I think anything later than the 1970s would not qualify.

Edit: This question is pretty similar and has some good answers: Did Science Fiction anticipate a device like a smartphone?

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    No. There basically aren't any devices combining all these aspects that early. Heinlein had "pocket phones" in the early 1950s, but they weren't touch-screen video-phones. Video phones were conceived, but they were analog TV signals, not digital streaming, and mostly not portable. Touch screens did occasionally appear, but not in the context of handheld phones.
    – DavidW
    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:02
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    Dick Tracy had wrist video phones, but no internet…
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:21
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    @Clockwork That's 1987, well after the 1960 cut-off given. If we go that far afield, Gibson has something very fondleslab-like in Count Zero (1986).
    – DavidW
    Jan 24, 2023 at 17:08
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    youtu.be/dmmxVA5xhuo 1980s touch screen art - just something that may be of interest to the readers Jan 25, 2023 at 8:02
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    @DavidW It's interesting that Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer (which takes place around 2035 according to the author) predicts the Internet (or "cyberspace") but no cell phones!
    – RobertF
    Jan 25, 2023 at 16:08

8 Answers 8

32

The Joymaker from Pohl's 1966 "Age of the Pussyfoot" comes remarkably close.

This article elaborates:

The principle of it was clear enough. It was a remote input-output station for a shared-time computer program, with certain attachments that functioned as pocket flask, first-aid kit, cosmetics bag, and so on. It looked something like a mace or a jester's scepter.

The remote-access computer transponder called the "joymaker" is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.

Essentially, it is a transponder connecting you with the central computing facilities of the city in which you reside on a shared-time, self-programming basis. "Shared-time" means that many other joymakers use the same central computer - in Shoggo, something like ten million of them. If you go to another city your joymaker will continue to serve you, but it must be reset to a new frequency and pulse-code. This will be done automatically when you travel by public transportation. However, if you use private means, or if for any reason you spend any time in the agricultural areas, you must notify the joymaker of your intentions.

Voice-mail includes a summary of messages and tactile and olfactory sensations:

"Man Forrester, the personal callers are as follows:

...Adne Bensen: female, Universalist, Arcadian-Trimmer, twenty-three declared, five feet seven inches, experiencer-homeswoman, no business stated. Her kiss follows."

Forrester did not know what to expect but was pleasantly ready for anything.

What he got was indeed a kiss. It was disconcerting. No kissing lips were visible. There was a hint of perfumed breath, then a pressure on the lips - warm and soft, moist and sweet.

Startled, he touched his mouth. "How the devil did you do that?" he shouted.

"Sensory stimulation through the tactile net, Man Forrester..."

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    Other than "pocket flask" (has nobody rectified this by producing a case that also holds a tipple?) and the "sensory stimulation" (Dear LORD, please do not let that come true!!!) this sounds pretty spot on!
    – FreeMan
    Jan 24, 2023 at 17:25
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    This is a pretty good match. It didn't imagine that there would be computing power in the portable device, but most of the features are there, with the notable exception of a video display.
    – egeorge
    Jan 24, 2023 at 18:10
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    What's also remarkable is that is actually pretty close to an actual cell phone - mobile phones and computers weren't that rare in sci-fi, but most often they worked as dedicated devices or walkie-talkies; this actually connects two callers through a (computerized, of course) switching board in a networked system rather than directly. Not surprised it comes from Pohl, though - highly advanced computer systems are pretty common in his works!
    – Luaan
    Jan 25, 2023 at 9:59
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    @egeorge In place of video display, we have touch and scent - features that still don't exist, and likely won't for long time due to lack of demand/feasibility. (If you can kiss someone through the phone, can you also punch them in the face? If you can transmit perfumed breath, can you also transmit raw sewage smell? Probably just as well if these never happen.) Jan 25, 2023 at 15:55
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    If you could punch someone in the face through the phone, telemarketing would disappear overnight.
    – egeorge
    Jan 25, 2023 at 16:01
25

This answer is based on my answer to the old question What sci-fi work introduced handheld wireless communicators?. A pocket telephone from 1915 and a pocket videophone from 1930, no mention of touchscreens.

1915: a wireless pocket telephone without video.

"John Jones's Dollar", a short story by Harry Stephen Keeler; first published in the August, 1915 issue of The Black Cat, a scan of which is available at the Internet Archive; the text of the story is also available at Project Gutenberg. In the excerpt below, a professor is teaching a kind of Zoom class:

"B262H72476Male, you are late to class again. What excuse have you to offer today?"

From the hollow cylinder emanated a shrill voice, while the lips of the picture on the glass square moved in unison with the words:

"Professor, you will perceive by consulting your class book, that I have recently taken up my residence near the North Pole. For some reason, wireless communication between the Central Energy Station and all points north of 89 degrees was cut off a while ago, on account of which fact I could not appear in the Visaphone. Hence—"

"Enough, sir," roared the professor. "Always ready with an excuse, B262H72476Male. I shall immediately investigate your tale."

From his coat pocket, the professor withdrew an instrument which, although supplied with an earpiece and a mouthpiece, had no wires whatever attached. Raising it to his lips, he spoke:

"Hello. Central Energy Station, please." A pause ensued. "Central Energy Station? This is the professor of history at the University of Terra, speaking. One of my students informs me that the North Pole region was out of communication with the Visaphone System this morning. Is that statement true? I would—"

A voice, apparently from nowhere, spoke into the professor's ear. "Quite true, Professor. A train of our ether waves accidently fell into parallelism with a train of waves from the Venus Substation. By the most peculiar mischance, the two trains happened to be displaced, with reference to each other, one half of a wave length, with the unfortunate result that the negative points of one coincided with the positive points of maximum amplitude of the other. Hence the two wave trains nullified each other and communication ceased for one hundred and eighty-five seconds—until the earth had revolved far enough to throw them out of parallelism."

"Ah! Thank you," replied the professor. He dropped his instrument into his coat pocket and gazed in the direction of the glass square whose image had so aroused his ire. "I apologize, B262H72476Male, for my suspicions as to your veracity—but I had in mind several former experiences." He shook a warning forefinger. "I will now resume my talk."

1930: a wireless pocket videophone.

"Mr. Murphy of New York", a short story by Thomas McMorrow; first published in the March 22, 1930 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, available at the Internet Archive.

"Now, gentlemen, please," breathed Mr. Bligh. "Do remember that I'm a thousand miles from home and haven't had any lunch yet. Well, I shall have to call up." He took out his pocketell. "Are you there? Billy calling . . . Hello, Molly! I just called you to say that I can't possibly get home— What's that, sweetheart? . . . Oh, no, no. . . . But I say that I am not! I am in New York in a conference. . . . Yes, business. . . . Why don't I— Now, Molly, how can you ask me to be so rude? . . . Oh, very well, my dear, in a moment." He turned to us, coloring, and said, "Will you permit?" We were married men ourselves; we smiled and got to our feet and bowed to his lady when she appeared; her eyes swept us vigilantly. "I'm sorry this had to happen, gentlemen," said Mr. Bligh, blanking her. "May we proceed now with our affair?"

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  • 5
    Although good luck getting a utility company's support desk to confirm an outage today. Jan 25, 2023 at 13:59
  • Puget Sound Energy (Seattle area) gives live updates on outages, and can text you for changes. It's quite nice. pse.com/outage/outage-map Jan 25, 2023 at 17:19
  • Duke Energy will confirm they do or don't have an active outage (and accept a report in the latter case) on their "800-POWER-ON" reporting line as well. They even give "underpromise" estimates for power restoration, once they've determined the cause of the outage.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jan 27, 2023 at 15:38
19

I offer this from 1897:

There is no doubt that the day will come, maybe when you and I are forgotten, when copper wires, gutta-percha coverings, and iron sheathings will be relegated to the Museum of Antiquities.

Then, when a person wants to telegraph to a friend, he knows not where, he will call an electromagnetic voice, which will be heard loud by him who has the electromagnetic ear but will be silent to everyone else.

"He will call 'Where are you?' and the reply will come 'I am at the bottom of the coal-mine' or 'Crossing the Andes' or 'In the middle of the Pacific'; or perhaps no reply will come at all, and he may then conclude that his friend is dead.

Professor W. E. Ayrton speaking at a lecture at the Imperial Institute.

5
  • A lecture, is it? Not a work of fiction then?
    – user14111
    Jan 25, 2023 at 9:33
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    OP didn't explicitly say that the portrayal had to be in a work of fiction. However that's one reason why I offered two distinct answers. Jan 25, 2023 at 9:39
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    I figured by posting the question to this site he's implicitly asking about works of science fiction and fantasy. Otherwise, I think there is a stack exchange site for history of science and technology.
    – user14111
    Jan 25, 2023 at 9:47
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    @user14111 Surely to Prof. Ayrton, it was a fantasy. He just happened to speak of it rather than write a story that got published about it
    – Flats
    Jan 25, 2023 at 19:12
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    Man, imagine if every time a call (or text) went unanswered, we jumped to the conclusion that the person is dead, as opposed to how it actually is, where we only jump to that conclusion sometimes.
    – notloc
    Jan 26, 2023 at 23:51
3

As I remember, in Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future (1962) there is mention of future personal pocket computers. I think I remember Clarke describing them as connected to other computers, and performing many of the functions of Jeeves and Robby the Robot.

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    Clarke also showed us something like a kindle in ImperialEarth, but that had to be synced by wire to a computer. That was also 1975. I am sure there are things earlier.
    – egeorge
    Jan 24, 2023 at 21:31
  • Isn't the question asking about works of fiction? Are nonfiction essays even on topic here?
    – user14111
    Jan 25, 2023 at 9:31
3

I offer this from 1909:

But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

… She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people - an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something 'good enough' had long since been accepted by our race.

The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster.

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    A videophone but I doubt that it was wireless. Why would it be, when people hardly ever left their rooms? And Vashti had to roll her chair to the other side of the room to answer the phone.
    – user14111
    Jan 25, 2023 at 9:38
  • I don't recall that the book explicitly said it was tethered. I think it did, however, imply that the medical equipment which was used shortly after was tethered. My suspicion is that the intent was to emphasise how unfit and debilitated people were: her son later gauged his strength by holing out a cushion. However that's one reason why I offered two distinct answers. Jan 25, 2023 at 9:44
1

This one certainly deserves to be mentioned here. I am always amazed when I see it.

In 1947 Roger Barjavel, French journalist and writer, wrote an essay from which a short movie was produced, "La Télévision, œil de demain" ("Television, the eye of tomorrow"), predicting what the future would look like.

He extrapolated that the number of TV channels would grow exponentially to the point that each person could follow his own personal program and it would be used for the most mundane tasks. It would be be used for video calls, as a travel guide, for weather forecasts, or spy on your spouse. Mobile TVs would be used to watch the latest soap, get updates on fashion, check sports results or even do crosswords.

You can see an extract in the following clip (in French, sorry!) https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/w16H-3lpoyU . At 6:00, it shows how mobile devices would be used. At 6:30 the off-screen voice comments "Our roads would present a very strange sight indeed". I let you judge on that.

OK, it is not a mobile phone, it is not a computer, it is a TV but it predicts quite accurately how ubiquitous communication affects everyday's life.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. While interesting, this postdates several of the other answers here, so it's not really a good answer.
    – DavidW
    Jan 26, 2023 at 21:16
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    I am sorry you don't like this post. It is not the earliest mention of a mobile communication device, but certainly one that got it right.
    – Florian F
    Jan 26, 2023 at 21:24
0

And this Nikola Tesla quote from 1926 (later than some of the others here but detailed and very prescient):

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

Source

0

I think the best answer has to be @user14111 with the story from 1915.

I researched this briefly because I remembered Heinlein had pocket phones in several of his stories, and found this article:

http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=595

This article also lists that 1915 story as the first example, but does cite Heinlein imagining a pocket phone in a story published in 1941.

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