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What's the origin of the word "Matrix" used as either a name or a description of a virtual reality environment? The best known example is of course from the film of the same name, and it's widely reported that the name in this case was taken from Gibson's Neuromancer, but this is predated by the similarly named computer system on Gallifrey in Doctor Who (first appearing in the episode The Deadly Assassin in 1976, several years before Gibson started publishing). Are there any earlier occurrences, or is this the origin of the word?

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    I think Gibson was the first to use it because Time Lords can always steal something from the future.
    – user931
    Jul 4, 2014 at 6:42
  • One question leads to another... I was just talking about this. Boy oh boy, I like the Exchange. Jul 4, 2014 at 11:16
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    the words 'matrix code' are heard in the film Tron, in relation to the operation ofn theI I/O tower. Since the grid is a simulation of sorts, that might apply. But as the 'Solaris' answer indicates, it's not the first, and a bit of a stretch at that
    – NKCampbell
    Dec 31, 2021 at 5:21
  • Cyberpunk: The Documentary (1990) - I took liberty of linking to a timestamp that used Matrix - another William Gibson example that laid the cultural foundation for what got mainstreamed by "The Matrix (1999)". youtu.be/UdvxPlhTjDU?t=2727 Jan 3, 2022 at 3:06

4 Answers 4

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There are no earlier references given in the "matrix" entry on the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction site (an offshoot of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction), I think it's likely the researchers for the Dictionary would have turned up any if they existed. So, there's a very good chance The Deadly Assassin (1976) is the first example of "matrix" being used to mean "cyberspace or virtual reality" (though see some possible doubts about its meaning in Doctor Who in the edit below), although of course the word itself has earlier meanings (it's used in mathematics, and in biology to refer to some kind of source where something grows).

edit: On other uses of "matrix" that don't refer to virtual reality, I recently came across this example from chapter 14 of Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future from 1962, discussing the possibility of "replicators" which could duplicate most any consumer good from raw materials (basically the same idea as the replicators from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which may have inspired Gene Roddenberry's use of the term since he once said that Star Trek was strongly influenced by this book):

The advent of the Replicator would mean the end of all factories, and perhaps all transportation of raw materials and all farming. The entire structure of industry and commerce, as it is now organized, would cease to exist. Every family would produce all that it needed on the spot — as, indeed, it has had to do throughout most of human history. The present machine era of mass-production would then be seen as a brief interregnum between two far longer periods of self-sufficiency, and the only valuable item of exchange would be matrices, or recordings, which had to be inserted into the Replicator to control its creations.

I did a little searching on google books and it seems that what we would now call a computer's memory was sometimes referred to as its "storage matrices" in the early days of computing, see here and here and here for example. This usage may also be the basis for "matrix" in the quote from Solaris that the answer by @Sam referred to, since the character was accusing Hari of being a kind of mechanical reproduction from data that had been gleaned from his own brain.

This also suggests the possibility that in "The Deadly Assassin" (1976), the use of "matrix" may have referred generally to all the data stored in the computer systems of Gallifrey, not specifically to a virtual reality environment. In the transcript here, an engineer on Gallifrey describes the system as

Trillions of electrochemical cells in a continuous matrix. The cells are the repository of departed Time Lords. At the moment of death, an electrical scan is made of the brain pattern and these millions of impulses are immediately transferred to the--

The Doctor interrupts him at that point, who discusses the idea that the Master had extracted a memory from the system and implanted it in the Doctor's mind, and then there is this dialogue where the Doctor suggests "going in" to the Matrix by connecting his brain to it:

ENGIN: Doctor, I simply cannot believe that anybody could do what you're suggesting. How can one intercept a thought pattern from within the Matrix itself?

DOCTOR: By going in there and joining it.

SPANDRELL: You mean a living mind?

DOCTOR: Well, in a sense that's all a living mind is, electrochemical impulses. If I went in there, I could discover where he intercepted the circuit.

And once he is inside, at one point the Doctor says "I deny this reality. The reality is a computation matrix." So I think these lines would fit the idea that the Doctor Who writers just intended "matrix" to refer to the computational system or its data, not specifically to a virtual environment.

In Neuromancer (1984), the term more clearly refers to a virtual environment or 3D visual interface, for example there's this paragraph quoting some sort of educational program that Case is viewing:

“THE MATRIX HAS its roots in primitive arcade games,” said the voice-over, “in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.” On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spacial possibilities of logarithmic spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks and war planes. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. . . .”

If Gibson is the originator of this usage of "matrix" as a virtual reality rather than a physical computer system, note that he had also used it this way two years earlier in the novelette "Burning Chrome" (1982), originally published in the July 1982 issue of Omni. From p. 74 of that issue:

Bobby was a cowboy and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers' sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Towers and fields of it ranged in the colorless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they work behind, the walls of shadow that screen their operations from others, from industrial espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.

Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind's extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems.

According to Gibson's introduction to story collection of the same name, "Burning Chrome" was written in early 1981, and it was also where he first coined the term "cyberspace" (albeit only a brief reference in the first paragraph to a piece of hardware known as the "Cyberspace Seven"). In Neuromancer it's sort of unclear to me if "cyberspace" and "matrix" are synonyms or if there is a slight difference in meaning--maybe "cyberspace" refers more to the type of virtual space one encounters when jacking into the matrix, whereas "matrix" refers to the entire virtual space and all the structure within it. In the book Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction edited by Larry McCaffery (1991), there's an interview where Gibson talks about the inspiration for cyberspace (p. 272):

I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver's version of "The Strip," and I looked into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids' eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected. Everyone I know who works with computers seems to develop a belief that there's some kind of actual space behind the screen, someplace you can't see but you know is there.

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  • What about Solaris?
    – AncientSwordRage
    Dec 26, 2021 at 16:54
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    @AncientSwordRage The English translation of the book Solaris just has one use of "matrix" on p. 121, where they talk about a type of giant structure that appears on the planet which they call a "symmetriad", they say "the outer covering of the symmetriad conceals the colossal inner matrix where creation is unceasing". Here I think they are using "matrix" in the biological sense of the definition here, "an environment or structure in which something originates or develops".
    – Hypnosifl
    Dec 27, 2021 at 0:35
  • On the movie, I used google translate to find the Russian versions of "Solaris" and "matrix" and googled them, found this page which has quotes from the movie in Russian, one is "Хари нет! Она умерла! А вы... вы только ее повторение! Механическое повторение! Копия! Матрица!", which google translates as "Hari is gone! She died! And you ... you are just her repetition! Mechanical repetition! Copy! Matrix!" This page says Матрица is used in a biological way too.
    – Hypnosifl
    Dec 27, 2021 at 0:51
  • Maybe someone fluent in both Russian and English could comment on the uses of that word Матрица, whether its various meanings are pretty much the same as those of the English "Matrix"?
    – Hypnosifl
    Dec 27, 2021 at 0:53
  • After my last edit about "storage matrices" I tried translating the phrase into Russian to see if they used it the same way, "storage matrix" translated as "матрица хранения" and "storage matrices" translated as "матрицы хранения", both phrases did get some hits on google books when I restricted the dates to 1950-1970, and when I ran some of the surrounding phrases through google translate they did seem to be technical works relating to computation.
    – Hypnosifl
    Dec 31, 2021 at 20:14
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Having just watched the 1972 science fiction film Solaris, I was surprised to hear this dialog.

There is no Hari. She's dead. You're just a reproduction, a mechanical reproduction. A copy. A matrix.

Later in the film this applies to more than a "person" but actually entire virtual environments. Not quite identical to "The Matrix", but some similarities.

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    Hello and welcome to SFF! This is a nice first answer! If you have a moment don't forget to take the tour.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Apr 18, 2018 at 10:37
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    I think that's more an analogy to the meaning of matrix in biology - the manifestations in Solaris start as simple copies before complex personalities/traits grow on them. After all the manifestations are physically created by the Solaris entity, they are not "virtual" in the sense that they merely exist in peoples minds. Apr 18, 2018 at 11:22
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    Since this originally a Russian-language film, you'd have to verify what the relevant passage said in Russian, or Lem's original Polish text. Or at least verify when the translation was made.
    – Spencer
    Dec 26, 2021 at 21:15
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    This answer should not be awarded bounty for the reasons mentioned in the above comments and Eike's comment on the other answer - it's a single reference originating in biology, and which depends entirely on the translation of the word, from a Russian film which doesn't contain any sort of virtual reality.
    – Prometheus
    Dec 27, 2021 at 2:27
  • @Prometheus "translation of the word": It's basically the same word in Russian with the same etymology, going back to French and Latin. "any sort of virtual reality". That's not the case, it is definitely a "sort of virtual reality". The explanation and the back-story is different between the films, but the results, at the end of the movie, could be seen as similar.
    – Sam
    Dec 27, 2021 at 13:55
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It may have to do with the original Latin meaning of the word matrix, which is womb:

matrix word origins

If you're inside a virtual world then, you are inside a type of figurative "womb" that you eventually should want to exit to continue your life!

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    Highly underrated answer given it's relevance to the synthetic wombs that the machines use to grow humans in The Matrix universe.
    – Prometheus
    Aug 24, 2020 at 20:05
  • @Prometheus but completely detached from all other uses, especially considering many predate The Matrix film
    – AncientSwordRage
    Dec 26, 2021 at 16:31
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1961, Solaris — Stanisław Lem

The book which Sam's Answer was based on does have a potential reference:

excerpt from the book referencing a 'colossal inner matrix'

It's not certain however if this is a valid use of the word for the question.

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    This sure seems like a usage of the type the questioner is looking for.
    – releseabe
    Dec 26, 2021 at 16:44
  • @releseabe but is it a virtual reality?
    – AncientSwordRage
    Dec 26, 2021 at 16:45
  • Isn't that sort of what Solaris produces?
    – releseabe
    Dec 26, 2021 at 16:52
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    @EikePierstorff Yet, this still might be the germ of the idea.
    – Spencer
    Dec 26, 2021 at 21:19
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    @Spencer, how so? Lem used the idea of simulated reality in any number of stories (without calling it a matrix, but the idea was not particularly original), but Solaris is not one of them. The most sophisticated computer in Solaris is probably the flight computer of the shuttle that brings the pilot to the stations. A story that does not feature virtual reality can by definition not be the first one to refer to virtual reality as "matrix". Dec 26, 2021 at 21:32

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