There are countless Sci-Fi works featuring Virtual Reality (Definition: A computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person). The Matrix, Tron, Neuromancer are great examples.

Which Sci-Fi work introduced this idea?

  • 1
    Define virtual reality. Do you strictly mean a computer-based environment or will any fake reality do?
    – Valorum
    Apr 3, 2015 at 18:42
  • @Richard Wow. Greeks were awesome.. BTW, I am talking about digital computer-based virtual reality.
    – user931
    Apr 3, 2015 at 18:45
  • 3
    I don't think SciFi managed to do this first. Apr 3, 2015 at 18:58

4 Answers 4


1930: "The City of the Living Dead" by Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt; originally published in Science Wonder Stories, May 1930 (available at the Internet Archive, click here for download options), reprinted in Startling Stories, July 1940, in Avon Fantasy Reader, No. 2, 1947 (also at the Internet Archive, click here for download options), and in The 2nd Avon Fantasy Reader. From the review by Everett F. Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years:

Short story. * Time: around A.D. 4500. Place: exact location not clear, but the people concerned seem to be Scandinavians. Their land is near the ancient country of the Anglesk, but is isolated by a new mountain that has risen, blocking entrance. * In the land of Alvrosdale, the culture is not barbaric, but mechanical civilization has died, and machines are regarded with horror and aversion. Since the land is small and overpopulation is a problem, each year, on a certain day, a number of the more adventurous young people take artificial wings and try to fly over the mountain to the fair, but deeserted lands of the Anglesk on the other side. Quite a few die along the way. * The chief elder, Hal Hallstrom, tells candidates of his experience when he was young. There were no wings then, and he climbed the nearly unpassable mountain and descended with great difficulty and peril. (He seems to have been the first to do so.) * He found a green, pleasant land with many ruins, some filled with elaborate, decayed machinery, but never a living soul. Eventually he saw a light, and, entering a building, found many corpses covered almost completely with wires. To his horror, some were alive, though almost motionless. He then encountered an ancient man, who was ambulatory, but was covered with wires. * The ancient man, applying a thought helmet to Hal, taught him the language and told him what was going on. Over the centuries, the English became more and more jaded, abandoning actual life for synthetic thrills like radio, motion pictures, and television. Thus, when a medical breakthrough provided artificial sensory organs, the next step was programmed adventures, at first realistic, but then wish-fulfillment exploits for the individual. There were enormous libraries of such artificial lives. The individual, his sensory organs removed, was hooked up to dream machines and provided with mechanical artificial sustenance. Life was thus abandoned for the illusion. It is the old man's task to care for the dreamers, who never emerge from the machines, but since the task is overwhelming, * The old man, who was not totally wired, would like to see Hal's land and showed Hal how to make artificial wings. They flew toward Alvrosdale, but the old man died along the way, and Hal returned alone with the secret of the wings, which are apparently gliders. * Pratt's writing mannerisms are sometimes annoying, but the story does hold one's attention. Manning's later treatment of the same theme in "The Man Who Awoke" is superior.


It predates computers, but the earliest technological (non-magical and non-philosophical) example I've found is ''Pygmalion's Spectacles'' by Stanley G. Weinbaum from 1935. Here is an excerpt where the protagonist, Dan, tries out the inventor's device:

"Here it is!" he gloated. "My liquid positive, the story. Hard photography—infernally hard, therefore the simplest story. A Utopia—just two characters and you, the audience. Now, put the spectacles on. Put them on and tell me what fools the Westman people are!" He decanted some of the liquid into the mask, and trailed a twisted wire to a device on the table. "A rectifier," he explained. "For the electrolysis."

"Must you use all the liquid?" asked Dan. "If you use part, do you see only part of the story? And which part?"

"Every drop has all of it, but you must fill the eye-pieces." Then as Dan slipped the device gingerly on, "So! Now what do you see?"

"Not a damn' thing. Just the windows and the lights across the street."

"Of course. But now I start the electrolysis. Now!"

There was a moment of chaos. The liquid before Dan's eyes clouded suddenly white, and formless sounds buzzed. He moved to tear the device from his head, but emerging forms in the mistiness caught his interest. Giant things were writhing there.

The scene steadied; the whiteness was dissipating like mist in summer. Unbelieving, still gripping the arms of that unseen chair, he was staring at a forest. But what a forest! Incredible, unearthly, beautiful! Smooth boles ascended inconceivably toward a brightening sky, trees bizarre as the forests of the Carboniferous age. Infinitely overhead swayed misty fronds, and the verdure showed brown and green in the heights. And there were birds—at least, curiously lovely pipings and twitterings were all about him though he saw no creatures—thin elfin whistlings like fairy bugles sounded softly.

He sat frozen, entranced. A louder fragment of melody drifted down to him, mounting in exquisite, ecstatic bursts, now clear as sounding metal, now soft as remembered music. For a moment he forgot the chair whose arms he gripped, the miserable hotel room invisibly about him, old Ludwig, his aching head. He imagined himself alone in the midst of that lovely glade. "Eden!" he muttered, and the swelling music of unseen voices answered.

Some measure of reason returned. "Illusion!" he told himself. Clever optical devices, not reality. He groped for the chair's arm, found it, and clung to it; he scraped his feet and found again an inconsistency. To his eyes the ground was mossy verdure; to his touch it was merely a thin hotel carpet.

  • If possible, attach a quote from the book showing Virtual Reality..
    – user931
    Apr 3, 2015 at 19:13

As you're specifically asking for "digital computer-based virtual reality" stories, the oldest I know of fitting that exact bill is the 1964 book by Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (also published as Counterfeit World).

This formed the basis for the 1973 German TV movie "Welt am Draht" or "World on a Wire". While other films and books have explored the notion of alternate/parallel realities, this is one of the earliest I've come across that explores the concept of a computer generated reality and predates the seminal Neuromancer by twenty years.

  • Do you think the thinking machines in Clarke's 1949 story were supposed to be analog computers? On what basis?
    – user14111
    Apr 4, 2015 at 22:22
  • I know of it but I've never read so I can't comment on the technology he envisioned, although I think the actual technology is of secondary importance to the OP's question of computer-based virtual worlds stories. If The Lion of Comarre fits this bill then it's another fifteen years ahead of Simulacron-3 (good old Arthur beats everyone to it again!). World on a Wire is definitely worth hunting down though if you get the chance, and possibly one of the first examples of the genre to hit TV... Apr 4, 2015 at 23:05

1949: Arthur C. Clarke's novella "The Lion of Comarre" was first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1949 (available at the Internet Archive, click here for download options); not as early as some other works that have been mentioned, but at least the machines controlling the virtual realities are electronic computers:

The First Electronic Age, Peyton knew, had begun in 1908, more than eleven centuries before, with De Forest's invention of the triode. The same fabulous century that had seen the coming of the World State, the aeroplane, the space-ship and atomic power had witnessed the invention of all the fundamental thermionic devices that made possible the civilization he knew.

The Second Electronic Age had come five hundred years later. It had been started not by the physicists but by the doctors and psychologists. For nearly five centuries they had been recording the electric currents that flow in the brain during the processes of thought. The analysis had been appallingly complex, but it had been completed after generations of toil. When it was finished the way lay open for the first machines that could read the human mind.

But this was only the beginning. Once man had discovered the mechanism of his own brain he could go further. He could reproduce it, using vacuum tubes and circuit networks instead of living cells.

Towards the end of the twenty-fifth century, the first thinking machines were built. They were very crude, a hundred square yards of equipment being required to do the work of a cubic centimeter of human brain. But once the first step had been taken it was not long before the mechanical brain was perfected and brought into general use.

{. . .]

The human mind was a delicate sheltered thing, having no direct contact with the world and gathering all its knowledge and experience through the body's senses. It was possible to record and store thoughts and emotions as earlier men had once recorded sound on miles of wire.

If those thoughts were projected into another mind, when the body was unconscious and all its senses numbed, that brain would think it was experiencing reality. There was no way in which it could detect the deception, any more than one can distinguish a perfectly recorded symphony from the original performance.

All this had been known for centuries, but the builders of Comarre had used the knowledge as no one in the world had ever done before. Somewhere in the city there must be machines that could analyze every thought and desire of those who entered. Elsewhere the city's makers must have stored every sensation and experience a human mind could know. From this raw material all possible futures could be constructed.

No wonder that everything he had ever longed for had been his in that already half-forgotten paradise. And no wonder that through the ages so many had sought the peace only Comarre could bring!


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