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Einstein proposed the theory of Special Relativity in 1905, and General Relativity in 1916. I knew that the use of Relativity as a story concept appeared in Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars” (1956), which got me wondering whether any authors had included it earlier. The earliest example I could find whilst searching is L. Ron Hubbard's 1954 story "To the Stars". I find this curious since Einstein’s theories had been around for decades by then.

Does anyone know of an earlier example? Especially if it was imagined before Einstein proposed the theories!

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    This wikipedia page has a list of scifi that mention Black Holes (a consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity, discovered first in Schwarzschild's 1916 solution of Einstein's field equations). The early works start around 1950. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_holes_in_fiction – UwF Jan 26 '14 at 12:38
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Probably far from the earliest, but Robert H. Wilson's novelette "Out Around Rigel", first published in Astounding Stories, December 1931 (available at the Internet Archive) and available in a Project Gutenberg etext, is a famous classic. It is the story of an ancient Lunarian spacefarer:

Even from afar off, I could see that it was desolate. Visible now that the water had gone down, the pillars supporting it rose gaunt and skeletal. Towers had fallen in, and the gleaming white was dimmed. It was a city of the dead, under an Earth leprous-looking with black spots where the clouds apparently had parted.

I came nearer to Nardos and the bridge, nearer to the spot where I had last seen Kelvar. Below the old water level, the columns showed a greenish stain, and half-way out the whole structure had fallen in a great gap. I reached the land terminus of the span, still glorious and almost beautiful in its ruins. Whole blocks of stone had fallen to the sand, and the adamantine pillars were cracked and crumbling with the erosion of ages.

Then I knew.

In our argument as to the possible speed of the Comet, Garth and I had both been right. In our reference frame, the vessel had put on an incredible velocity, and covered the nine-hundred-odd light-years around Rigel in six months. But from the viewpoint of the moon, it had been unable to attain a velocity greater than that of light. As the accelerating energy pressed the vessel's speed closer and closer toward that limiting velocity, the mass of the ship and of its contents had increased toward infinity. And trying to move laboriously with such vast mass, our clocks and bodies had been slowed down until to our leaden minds a year of moon time became equivalent to several hours.

The Comet had attained an average velocity of perhaps 175,000 miles per second, and the voyage that seemed to me six months had taken a thousand years. A thousand years! The words went ringing through my brain. Kelvar had been dead for a thousand years. I was alone in a world uninhabited for centuries.

I threw myself down and battered my head in the sand.


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A couple possibilities:

  • "The Tachypomp" by Edward Page Mitchell (1873) is in large part a fictional exposition of Galilean relativity (as distinct from Einstein's special or general relativity, so I'm not actually sure it counts).

  • Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland by George Gamow (1940) is about what we would see if our world was at a scale where relativity and quantum mechanics were immediately relevant.

    Mr Tompkins' adventures begin when he chooses to spend the afternoon of a day's holiday attending a lecture on the theory of relativity. The lecture proves less comprehensible than he had hoped and he drifts off to sleep and enters a dream world in which the speed of light is a mere 10 miles an hour. This becomes apparent to him through the fact that passing cyclists are subject to a noticeable Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction.

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The Skylark of Space E.E. Smith Amazing Stories 1928.

Chapter VI

"Not very much. Our figures show that with this four-hundred-pound bar"—pointing to the copper cylinder in the exact center of the inner sphere—"we could develop not only the velocity of light, but an acceleration equal to that velocity, were it not for the increase in mass at high velocities, as shown by Einstein and others. We can't go very fast near the earth, of course, as the friction of the air would melt the whole works in a few minutes. Until we get out of the atmosphere our speed will be limited by the ability of steel to withstand melting by the friction of the air to somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five thousand miles per hour, but out in space we can develop any speed we wish, up to that of light as a limit." Blockquote

[1]http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20869/20869-h/20869-h.htm#CHAPTER_VI

This is from the original 1928 version, not later revisions. It is is the first reference to Einstein I found while skimming through it.

Chapter VIII

"About three hundred and fifty million miles," he stated. "Clear out of our solar system already, and from the distance covered he must have had a constant acceleration so as to approximate the velocity of light, and he is still going with full...."

"But nothing can possibly go that fast, Mart, it's impossible. How about Einstein's theory?"

"That is a theory, this measurement of distance is a fact, as you know from our tests."

"That's right. Another good theory gone to pot. But how do you account for his distance? D'you suppose he's lost control?"

[1]http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20869/20869-h/20869-h.htm#CHAPTER_VI

The quotes are not working right.

But The Skylark of Space E.E. Smith Amazing Stories 1928 has two references to Einstein's theories (of Relativity) and there is no point in digging up later stories.

The "Black star" in a later chapter MIGHT be simply a burned out and dead star or it MIGHT be an early version of a neutron star or a black hole.

  • user14111 - thanks for fixing the quotes. – M. A. Golding Jul 2 '15 at 5:21
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The 1907 story "Wie der Teufel den Professor holte" by Kurd Lasswitz, published in English in 1953 as "When the Devil Took the Professor", revolves around the idea of a universe where 3D space is curved and finite, akin to the 2D surface of a sphere; the book SF: The Other Side of Realism has a synopsis on p. 300, available on google books here:

The first of these is the familiar bargain with the devil, who takes a professor on a tour of the universe in a vessel that exceeds the speed of light. The professor is a mathematician and suspects that the universe is curved, as it actually proves to be. So the voyagers circumnavigate the universe after a flight of several billion light-years.

This falls more into the category of anticipating an aspect of relativity rather than making use of the theory, because in 1907 Einstein hadn't yet published his general theory of relativity involving curved spacetime.

Searching for "relativity" in the reference book Science-Fiction: The Early Years on google books, earliest story I found that seemed clearly inspired by Einstein's relativity was "Not In Our Stars" (1923) by Conrad Arthur Skinner (writing under the pseudonym Michael Maurice), with the plot outlined on pages 485-486 of that reference, and said to be "a novel about free will and predestination, though told in an odd mixture of comedy of manners, murder mystery, and speculations on Einsteinian space-time." Apparently it involves a fanciful premise in which some meteors "disrupt the earth's orbit and thus affect its situation in time", causing a character to have flashes of visions of the future.

I also searched the followup reference Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years, and the first story I found that incorporated an element from relativity in a reasonably accurate way was "The Fitzgerald Contraction" by Miles Breuer, published in the January 1930 issue of Science Wonder Stories, the plot summary is on pp. 30-31 of the reference and if you want to read the full story, that issue has been scanned and put on archive.org here. The title is based on an element of relativity sometimes referred to as Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction which physicists use as a synonym for length contraction in relativity, although the story actually deals with a different element of relativity, time dilation (perhaps the author mistakenly assumed it could refer not only to the shrinking of moving rulers, but the shrinking of the elapsed time measured by a moving clock). According to the summary:

The members of the space team decided to take the ship out on a trial run around the universe, setting automatic controls to bring the ship back to the Moon. The journey took about three and a half days of their time, but when they returned to the Moon, they saw that enormous periods of time must have passed since they departed, for the Moon was dead. The visitors had overlooked the question of time in the Fitzgerald contraction.

And looking at the full text on archive.org, I see it even gives the readers the correct equations for length contraction and time dilation (in units where the speed of light is set equal to 1) on p. 695.

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