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I know that some stories have dealt with humans or other beings that are "wiser" (I think even the concept of intelligence separate from knowledge is a fairly modern one) than normal humans. Odd John (1935) is about a vastly intelligent prodigy but he was born with this.

Flowers for Algernon (1959/1966) might be pretty early but I doubt if it is was the first and importantly, it is about a subnormal person becoming temporarily supernormal. There is the story from the 1950s in which a computer helps a subnormal (again) woman and she becomes supernormal.(I wonder if people tended to think of human intelligence divided in that way and people who were geniuses, etc. became that way due to hard work. Kind of simplistic, but maybe that was the case.)

Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) had animals presumably becoming more intelligent as they were transformed into humans but not humans becoming more intelligent humans.

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    Does it have to be part of an intentional effort to increase a human's intelligence, or can it be accidental? The sf-encyclopedia entry on intelligence mentions a 1921 story called "Slave of the Pit" in which "a dull labourer acquires something approaching genius as a result of a head injury".
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 21:49
  • @Hypnosifl I hadn't thought about increasing from sub-normal intelligence to normal intelligence; I was concentrating on people becoming super-intelligent. I wonder if you should post that as an answer.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 21:59
  • Are intentional breeding programs like in the Lensman series to be considered? If so, that would take us to 1941. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 22:20
  • 1
    Do the Morlocks in The Time Machine count? They started out as humans Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:29
  • 1
    The "über morlock" is an addition from the 2002 movie. In the original serial/novel, the morlocks were all small, simple, ape-like beings, arguably more clever than the eloi but definitely of subhuman intelligence. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 5:23

9 Answers 9

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I'm not sure if you consider this kind of cyborg to be enhanced human intelligence or just AI. It's also an example of a story about a cyborg, and a sci-fi story that mentions an actual recently-living scientist (Babbage), but you already have earlier examples in both of those categories.

1879: "The Ablest Man in the World", a short story by Edward Page Mitchell, first published in the New York Sun, May 4, 1879. Quoting from Edward F. Bleiler's review in Science-Fiction: The Early Years:

The wealthy American traveller Fisher finds himself in an interesting situation. Because a hotel functionary mistakenly addressed him as doctor, Fisher is dragged to the bedside of Baron Savitch, a Russian, who is apparently in great pain. Fisher's rough and ready assistance seems effective, until the baron collapses in agony, urging him to unscrew the top of his head. Fisher, seeing a silver plate on the baron's head, starts to remove it, but the baron's associate, Dr. Rapperschwyll, rushes in and expels him very rudely. The insult is later enlarged.

Fisher, annoyed and intrigued, investigates and discovers that the baron is really the secret mastermind who has been running the Russian empire and has produced startling reforms. ? Curiosity aroused all the more, Fisher traps the rude Rapperschwyll and extorts a story from him: Rapperschwyll confesses that he designed a small logic engine far superior to Babbage's calculating machine. This engine he inserted into the head of a congenital idiot, the result being the remarkable genius Baron Savitch.

Fisher worries about the fate of the world, since Savitch seems destined to be the new Napoleon. Fisher gets Savitch drunk on moonshine, and while he is unconscious, removes the logic machine from his head and disposes of it.

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  • Remarkable. 1879 is an interesting year with computers, lightbulbs, telephones etc. inspiring many thinkers, I suspect. The great James Clerk Maxwell would pass away and Einstein would come. The kind of overestimation of mechanical computers that would be echoed in stories written nearly a century later about electronic devices.
    – releseabe
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 12:53
  • I looked up the author -- an unknown genius. I had no idea before Einstein's birth someone would write about FTL travel and before Wells write of a time machine. Amazing!
    – releseabe
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 14:19
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If we're restricting it to human intelligence and discounting characters (like in Odd John or The Hampdenshire Wonder) who are born super-intelligent, then a bit earlier than Flowers for Algernon (1959) was Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson.

Unbeknownst to humanity, the Earth has spent the past 65 million years (since the KT event, specifically) in some kind of negative space wedgie that decreases the ability of neurons to carry signals. Over the millions of years since, all animals on Earth have evolved much more capable neurons, to the point that it is now possible for humans to be intelligent. Without warning the Earth leaves this field and the evolved neurons are suddenly much more efficient. The intelligence of anything with a brain increases several-fold; even dogs have (baseline) human-level intelligence and normal people are suddenly all supergeniuses.

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    i do not think Brain Wave was the earliest but i bet it was the very first where everyone gets smarter and all at once. i do not think insects are mentioned, but a wasp being 5 times as smart (that there is a multiplier that works the same way on everyone and everything sounds simplistic to me) sure is scary.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 21:31
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1931: Seeds of Life, a novel by John Taine (pseudonym of mathematician Eric Temple Bell); first published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, Fall 1931, available at the Internet Archive; the text is also available at Faded Page.

From a review by Groff Conklin in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1951, available at the Internet Archive:

The story tells of the effects (imagined) of certain short-wave radiations on biological life. At "low" voltages the unicellular life on the skin of the operator begins racing frantically through the stages of evolution on the unicellular level; it gives him the itch. At higher powers, the same speeding-up of life processes happens to some black widow spiders, a frog, and a chicken; and at still higher powers to man.

The horror of the whole concept—and the book is essentially a horror story—is that Taine conceives of evolution as a circular process, ending near where it began, with the reptiles. This happens with the eggs that Bertha the hen mothered, and also with a man-child.

One human being is actually transmuted into the Man of the Future, rather than to a reptilian predecessor, and it is around this incredible genius, Miguel de Soto, that the plot revolves.

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  • Nice. I noticed this one on the SF Encyclopedia page for Intelligence but didn't have time to come back and replace my answer. You did a better job of it anyway; I couldn't find a copy at IA and was looking at the Luminist copy which isn't as useful to link to.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 23:25
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    The ISFDB page for a magazine issue often includes an Internet Archive link, as it does in this case. isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?56164+c
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 23:56
  • The first think I thought of when I saw the question was the X19 waves in Fredric Brown's "The Star Mouse" but those were not used on human beings.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 0:48
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I'm going to go a lot earlier. It depends somewhat on how you define "intelligence."

Briefly, Orpheus was supposedly born a human (this is contradicted by versions of the story, but let's assume that) but met the god Apollo who gave him gifts of music and poetry, and he was also associated with the Muses. Using these gifts he aided the Argonauts on the quest of the Golden Fleece and even attempted to rescue his wife from death.

To discuss this in the light of Science Fiction and Fantasy is difficult because the story is ancient and has no authoritative author, nor does it have a clear and consistent story-line without deviations. But the basic element is there: a person whose "intelligence" is increased by means other than his own, if you include music and poetry as "intelligence." One could argue that this basic idea is the source of "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau" without straining the brain very hard. I am not saying that those novels are derivative, because they stand on their own, but that the concept itself is much older. N. B. I think that other ancient cultures have similar myths.

I recommend "Orpheus: The Song of Life" by Ann Wroe for a good read on how the story of Orpheus has had an influence on Western culture, including science fiction.

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    This seems to fall on the wrong side of the OP's specification of knowledge vs intelligence. Otherwise Adam and Eve are a much more obvious "mythological" entry Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 17:26
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    Any kind of criticism of this answer is OK with me. I only suggest that the trope is very old. I wouldn't say that the "knowledge of good and evil" is the same as intelligence. I think that the OP makes that distinction as well. I disagree with him that it's a modern idea.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 18:02
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I'm not 100% sure it was an improvement of intelligence (it was rather an improvement of awareness and empathy), but I think H.G. Wells's In the days of the Comet (1906) could be a match.
In this book, the gases emitted by a comet change for the better the minds of human beings, who thereafter build a more righteous and efficient society.

From Wikipedia

[...] a comet with an "unprecedented band in the green" in its spectroscopy looms gradually larger in the sky, eventually becoming brighter than the Moon. Just as Leadford is about to kill his rivals, the green comet enters the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrates, causing a soporific green fog.

Book II opens with Leadford's awakening, in which he is acutely aware of the beauty in the world and his attitude toward others is one of generous fellow-feeling. The same effects occur in every human being, who accordingly re-organize human society.

EDIT

A later work, but which is a better match is Olaf Stapledon's Last and first men (1930).
At a point in the story, the fourth humanity is created by the third humanity, and they feature a strongly enhanced intelligence (they are basically giant brains).

From Wikipedia:

Fourth Men. (Chapter 11) Giant brains bred by one faction of the Third Men. For a long time they help govern their creators, but eventually their rule becomes oppressive and the Third Men rebel. The Fourth Men prevail by recruiting as servants a subspecies of Third Men prone to hypnotic suggestion (the ultimate product of the effort to breed a mediumistic subspecies). The docile subspecies of the Third Men exterminate the original subspecies, save for a few individuals to be used as lab specimens. After the war, the Fourth Men eventually reach the limits of their scientific abilities and discover that emotions and body are also necessary for complete understanding of the cosmos.

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  • I wonder if this should be two separate answers?
    – Basya
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 11:56
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The Arabian Nights contains a cycle of stories involving the "Queen of Serpents".

In one of them (night 535, translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons) a character drinks a serum obtained from the Queen of Serpents' dead body. The effects are described as thus:

[...] he drank, and God then flooded his heart with springs of wisdom, opening up for him the fountainhead of knowledge, so that he was filled with joy and delight. [...] Looking up, he could see the seven heavens and all they contained as far as the lote tree at the furthest point of Paradise; he could see how the celestial sphere revolved, as God revealed all this for him; he saw the fixed stars and the orbits of the planets, and he saw the shape of both land and sea. From this he deduced the sciences of geometry, astrology, astronomy and the lore of the celestial sphere, as well as arithmetic and everything connected with it. He understood the ordering of the eclipses of the sun and the moon and other such matters. The he looked down at the ground, noting stones, plants and trees and grasping all their characteristics and their uses. From this he deduced the science of medicine, natural magic and chemstry, as well as the art of manufacturing gold and silver.

The story doesn't do much with it, however.

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  • Since the question is asking for the earliest example, it would be helpful if you could provide the publication date.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 22:29
  • @user14111 ... first English-language edition: 1706
    – GEdgar
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 22:36
  • @user14111 The history of the "Arabian Nights" is a bit tangled. This paper brill.com/display/book/9789004340541/B9789004340541_005.xml mentions that "The cycle [of the Queen of Serpents] was probably never part of an ‘original’ version of the Nights, if it ever existed, but was presumably added in the eighteenth-century versions."
    – danidiaz
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 22:47
  • as i suggested, i think knowledge and intelligence were not separately understood until fairly recently -- potential was perhaps something of little importance if not actually used.
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 22:50
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I don't know that this is exactly gain of intelligence as the protagonists are extremely intelligent in the first place, but the "Arcot, Morey and Wade" series by John W Campbell Jr. involves the three protagonists travelling to a range of exotic locations and learning alien technologies, as well as innovating their own technologies to defeat their enemies. In addition they are given a bunch of knowledge (intelligence??) through mind transference from a superior race to aid in destruction of a threat from another galaxy.

They use this innovation and additional knowledge leads to defeat of the invading race and the protagonists enemy(ies) on Earth.

The first of these, "Piracy Preferred" along with "The Black Star Passes" and "Solarite" were published in 1930 in an Amazing Stories, and eventually became "The Black Star Passes" as a novel including the three stories.

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Since no one has mentioned it: Huxley's "Brave New World" was published in 1931 and has super-intelligent "alpha plus plus" genetically designed humans.

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  • how are alpha plus plus created?
    – releseabe
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 16:06
  • Genetically designed (note that this predates the discovery of DNA).
    – user108131
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 6:00
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The various chronicles and legends surrounding Solomon would certainly provide at least a decent historical boundary. His reign is placed somewhere around 9xx BC.

From Wikipedia:

Solomon was the biblical king most famous for his wisdom. In 1 Kings he sacrificed to God, and God later appeared to him in a dream,[26] asking what Solomon wanted from God. Solomon asked for wisdom in order to better rule and guide his people. Pleased, God personally answered Solomon's prayer, promising him great wisdom because he did not ask for self-serving rewards like long life or the death of his enemies.

Perhaps the best known story of his wisdom is the Judgment of Solomon; two women each lay claim to being the mother of the same child. Solomon easily resolved the dispute by commanding the child to be cut in half and shared between the two. One woman promptly renounced her claim, proving that she would rather give the child up than see it killed. Solomon declared the woman who showed compassion to be the true mother, entitled to the whole child.

Solomon was traditionally considered the author of several biblical books, "including not only the collections of Proverbs, but also of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon and the later apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon."

Though come to think of it Gilgamesh has reference to uplifting as well.

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    It's a reasonable catch, but I should warn you that this forum has a general rule about not mentioning stories from religious texts, because it implies that those religious texts are works of fiction.
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 22:14
  • @Graham ah yea that makes sense. Though I would note in this instance, within the various religions with references to Solomon, there are also associated fictional folktales along with aspects deemed by the cultures as historical. For instance 1001 Arabian Nights mentions Solomon as do several Jewish folktales. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 23:46
  • Personally I think the rule is a bit problematic when the original idea for something genuinely could be a biblical story. But it stops arguments which tended to derail discussions, especially with groups like Mormons, Scientologists and creationists.
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 8:43

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