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Popular Mechanics has an article out today which claims that:

scientists [have] created the first tractor beam strong enough to manipulate macroscopic objects

Neato!

While setting the stage for this announcement, PM says:

Tractor beams have long been a staple of sci-fi

So, what's the first occurrence of a tractor beam in fiction?

For my purposes, a tractor beam is a piece of technology that can pull arbitrary macro-scale objects toward itself without touching those objects.

Some things that are not tractor beams:

  • magnets
  • telekinesis
  • magic
  • ghosts

EDIT: Just to make it clear, it does not matter whether the thing is actually named a "tractor beam," so long as it fits the functional definition. That's why I provided it.

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    Harumph. I think getting your science news from Popular Mechanics is probably not the best strategy. Optical tweezers have been around for 50 years or so. I guess it comes down to what you consider "macroscopic".
    – Ethan
    Jan 27 at 5:57
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    I have some vague memory of a beam lifting people up to the Martian collecting machines, further on in War of the Worlds (1897), but I couldn't swear to it so I won't post an answer yet. I'll dig it out on Gutenberg and see if my memory is correct.
    – Graham
    Jan 27 at 8:57
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    1896. The Richard Hornsby tractor about halfway down this page from Farmers Weekly has headlights... when lit, they would be tractor beams :-)
    – TripeHound
    Jan 27 at 14:04
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    Magnets would seem to fit part of the definition, if not excluded by OP; I guess they are not pullers of arbitrary objects as the object has to be metal. Jan 27 at 14:50
  • @Ethan there's even an attractive form of acoustic levitation though it's not as impressive as other forms
    – Chris H
    Jan 27 at 16:46

5 Answers 5

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It's not precisely "tractor beam" but "The Metal Horde" (Astounding, April 1930) by John W. Campbell Jr. has an "attractor beam."

Great liners of space were requisitioned and fitted with Dis rays, and with mighty attractor beam apparatus that would grip and hold anything short of another liner. Each of the ten-man-cruisers had a smaller attractor beam by which they could grip an adversary and hold to his tail with the tenacious grip of a bulldog and yet not weary the pilot with violent movement.

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    I knew Campbell had something like that somewhere, but could only think of the Arcot, Wade and Morey stories, which are much later than the 30's
    – bob1
    Jan 27 at 0:51
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    @bob1 Why do you say the Arcot, Wade, and Morey stories were published later than the 1930s? The first, "Piracy Preferred", was published in Amazing Stories, June 1930. isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?78162 I certainly never mistook the book printing of old pulp science fiction stories for their original publication. Jan 27 at 1:54
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    @M.A.Golding I've only ever read the books - wasn't aware that they were pulp prior to that, though I should have guessed as Campbell was active as editor in the 30s.
    – bob1
    Jan 27 at 3:01
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E.E. Smith, no later than 1931 (as a modern form)

A tractor-beam is a device with the ability to attract one object to another from a distance.[1] The concept originates in fiction: The term was coined by E. E. 'Doc' Smith (an update of his earlier "attractor-beam") in his novel Spacehounds of IPC (1931)

Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tractor_beam

I looked this up because I have recently listened to the beginning of Smith's "Lensman" series as was pretty sure I remembered hearing it. As well as the ‘space-time continuum’ which I thought was pretty cool this early into Sci-Fi.

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  • I do have a niggling feeling that there might be some in Burrough’s Barsoom stories, one of the different colors / types of light, though.
    – Kristian H
    Jan 26 at 22:33
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    The Yellow Men of Mars use magnetism (non-directional) to attract the vessels of "invaders" (in Warlord of Mars), but I don't remember any other tractor beams style things.
    – bob1
    Jan 26 at 22:58
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    I've also seen it asserted that E. E. "Doc" Smith was the first SF writer to publish a story that referred to a hand-held energy-projecting weapon as a "blaster." (But I do not know if that's strictly accurate.)
    – Lorendiac
    Jan 27 at 2:38
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    He was a chemist, not a physicist. From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._E._Smith E. E. "Doc" Smith was an American food engineer (specializing in doughnut and pastry mixes) [...] Smith completed his PhD in chemical engineering in 1918, with a food engineering focus;
    – PM 2Ring
    Jan 27 at 16:32
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    @Lorendiac His book The Imperial Stars features Blasters and Stunners as common handheld weapons. I think what strikes me about them most in that book is that they're consistently depicted as guns. Rather than any sort of romantic raygun notions. The book is an expansion by another author of his short story from the 60s. So it's only a decade prior to star wars, and the expanded novel is a year or so prior to SW as well. It's a close thing there. Jan 27 at 19:52
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Jules Verne's The Chase of the Golden Meteor was not published in his lifetime, but in 1908 his son Michel published a revised version with several added chapters that he wrote himself, one of which introduced the character of the brilliant but absent-minded French scientist and inventor Zephyrin Xirdal. He invents a device, based on fictitious principles (see the explanation starting on p. 120 of the English translation on archive.org which @fez linked to in a comment), which emits a beam that can draw distant objects towards it, planning to deflect the golden asteroid from its orbit and guide it to crash at a spot of his choosing.

Edit - Thanks to Ray Butterworth for finding the exact source material. On p. 426 we read:

La seule chose un peu délicate, reprit Zéphyrin Xirdal, c’est de régler la longueur d’onde du courant neutre hélicoïdal. S’il atteint l’objet que l’on désire influencer, il le repousse, au lieu de l’attirer. Il faut donc qu’il expire à une certaine distance de cet objet, mais le plus près possible, de telle sorte que l’énergie libérée rayonne dans son voisinage immédiat.

which roughly translates to

The tricky part is to adjust the length of helical neutral current waveform, said Zéphyrin Xirdal. If it reaches the object that one wishes to influence, it will be pushed away instead of being attracted. It must therefore expire at a certain distance from this object, the closest possible, so that the released energy shines in its immediate vicinity.

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    This is potentially the best answer, but "that apparently" sounds like hearsay. An explicit quotation of the original text would greatly improve it. Jan 29 at 18:51
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    "… régler la longueur d’onde du courant neutre hélicoïdal. S’il atteint l’objet que l’on désire influencer, il le repousse, au lieu de l’attirer …" might be it. — La chasse au météore p.426 Jan 29 at 19:33
  • The full book (translated into English) can be borrowed with a free account on the Internet Archive: archive.org/details/chaseofgoldenmet0000vern/page/260/mode/2up
    – fez
    Jan 30 at 10:49
  • This page mentions that the version of the story featuring Zéphyrin Xirdal comes from an edition published by Jules Verne's son, Michel Verne, which featured several new chapters, and that "Michel adds a technological element to the novel, inserting a major new character, Zéphyrin Xirdal, an erratic scientist who has invented a device that attracts the comet to Earth." Verne's original version was not published until 1986 (in French).
    – Hypnosifl
    Jan 30 at 15:45
  • (cont.) Michel's revision was published in 1908 so it still might be the first story to feature some version of a tractor beam though--I wonder if there is anything in the story to make clear if it is actually beam-like or an attractive force that extends equally in all directions, also whether it operates on principles of ordinary electromagnetism or some new type of force.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jan 30 at 15:45
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According to the Technovelgy.com website the first use of the term "tractor beam" was in E.E. Smith's Spacehounds of IPC, 1931.

Tractor Beam
A force field used to pull objects.

Read an early example of this specialized kind of force field. This is the first instance of the term "tractor beam."

"We'll carry off the pieces of that ship, too, Quince—we may be able to get a lot of pointers from it," and Brandon swung mighty tractor beams upon the severed halves of the Jovian vessel, then extended a couple of smaller rays to meet the two little figures racing across the smooth green meadow toward the Sirius.

From Spacehounds of IPC, by E.E. 'Doc' Smith.

Published by Amazing Stories in 1931

The same device is used in Triplanetary

Although Smith certainly won the naming convention, Edmond Hamilton wrote about essentially the same thing three years earlier in Crashing Suns - the attractive ray.>

http://technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=695

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?11454

This is a very early reference to what sci-fi fans have come to refer to as the "tractor beam." The term tractor beam occurs first in E.E "Doc" Smith's Spacehounds of IPC three years later.

A spark of intense white light had suddenly broken into being on the platform beneath us, a beam of blinding light that stabbed straight up toward us, bathing the cruiser in its unearthly glow. And suddenly our ship was falling!

Sarto Sen sprang to the controls wrenched around the power-lever. "That ray!" he cried. "It's attractive! - it's pulling us down!" Our ship was vibrating now to the full force of its generators, but still we were falling...

From Crashing Suns, by Edmond Hamilton.

http://technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=974

https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?78109

So other answerers will have to find use of the term "tractor beam" before 1931, or use of the device under a different name before 1928.

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    Interesting tidbit, is that the Skylark of Space series, which was written by Smith substantially earlier than either of your examples contains a sort of proto-tractor-beam concept. The Attractor and Repellor rays in that series aren't named as tractor beams but have strong elements of the idea. So perhaps Smith later perfected the concept into the do-it-all Tractor Beam. Jan 27 at 8:48
  • @Ruadhan2300 If you can dig up details about Skylark, you could post that as an answer. It sounds like it might predate other answers, so you could be sitting on a winner if it satisfies the definition.
    – Tom
    Jan 27 at 17:30
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The Skylark of Space (written between 1915 and 1920) by E.E. "Doc" Smith

A predecessor of the Tractor Beam concept used in his later books. Smith describes an "Attractor", paired with "Repellors" which operate as a kind of forcefield shield.

The Attractor fits the description of a Tractor Beam pretty solidly I think.

Here's a quote where the ship is hunting a Karlon, a massive winged predator on an alien world. The creature dives into a mudpit to hide and they use the Attractor to drag it out again and hold it in front of the ship.

Seaton brought the Skylark to a halt and stabbed downward with the full power of the attractor. The first stab brought up nothing but a pillar of muck; the second, one wing and one arm; the third, the whole animal - fighting as savagely as ever

The story was written around 1915-1920, but first serialized in Amazing Stories in 1928, and published in book form in 1946

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    Good, but since the question is asking for the earliest example, you should include the publication date in your answer: the August, 1928, issue of Amazing Stories.
    – user14111
    Jan 29 at 23:50

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