20

Personally, I never saw the smartphone coming, but maybe science-fiction did. Basically, I'm looking for the first science fiction story (if one exists) where people commonly have a device which can perform the general tasks of a smartphone today, namely:

  • Being able to communicate, both personally and to the community (define community as what you will - today the community is anyone with internet access)
  • A personal organiser
  • Access to a large database of knowledge
  • (Maybe) able to play games

(If there are any other essential functions to a smartphone you think I've neglected to mention, feel free to comment)

Note, it doesn't necessary have to have a touch screen, just so long as it is a portable, personal device which can accomplish the above listed tasks.

I'm specifically asking about when the first instance of such a technology in science fiction was and whether this predates smartphones in our world.

  • 2
    There's the tricorder from Star Trek. Access to a large database of knowledge through a portable device was possible in HG2G through the Guide. Might be difficult to find a single device that possesses all those functions but I'm sure the individual functions can b found throughout scifi. – Huey Jun 28 '15 at 0:42
  • Taking the Star Trek influence further, maybe smartphones can be thought of as combination of combadge, tricorder, PADD...and that weird putting-the-discs-in-the-chutes game that the TNG crew were addicted to? – Praxis Jun 28 '15 at 0:52
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    cnnhit.com/new/… – Valorum Jun 28 '15 at 0:54
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    Just a comm? It's a gps locator, access to the ship computer, an identifier, person to person communications. It's like a smart phone with Siri or Google now. – user16696 Jun 28 '15 at 1:03
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    If you're got a telephone, then you have access to a "large database of knowledge"; you can just call up the reference desk of a large public library. Pocket videophones have been in science fiction since 1930 if not earlier. Glue a small paper notebook or calendar to the back and you have your "personal organizer" too. (I never saw the reason for electronic organizers; I put them in the same category with electric corkscrews.) Uh, your smartphone is also a flashlight, and a paperweight, and what else? – user14111 Jun 28 '15 at 1:40

11 Answers 11

35

Seems like Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven beat Clarke by a couple of years with "The Mote in God's Eye" from 1974. In that book, people are constantly using pocket computers.

They contain large amounts of personal data, have calendars, can connect with other computers to call up even more information and are used to send messages to other people.

Usage is decribed much like a tablet, but rather than fingers they use some kind of pen/stylus.

The hardware is described as being "one big integrated circuit, if they break we don't even try to repair them."

I'm pretty sure there were earlier examples, but I just finished re-reading that book and happened to notice the publication date (1974.) I originally read it around 1990, and was surprised at how much earlier it was.


From the list linked to in the comments, "A Spaceship for the King" from 1971 (also Pournelle and Niven) would be earlier. I've read "A Spaceship for the King" in its novel form ("King David's Spaceship") and the pocket computers are the same as in "The Mote in God's Eye."
So, 1971.

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    No idea how"smart" it is, but the protagonist in Heinlein's "Space Cadet" carries a phone with him ( The book dates from 1947 ). And in a true piece of prediction, another person hears it ringing before the owner does :) – Covertwalrus Jun 29 '15 at 5:28
  • In "Space Cadet" it was just a telephone. – JRE Jun 29 '15 at 6:56
  • @Covertwalrus "Dumb" mobile phones were present in fiction long before 1947, e.g. in Donald Wandrei's "Finality Unlimited" (1936) and (as a pocket videophone) in Thomas McMorrow's "Mr. Murphy of New York" (1930). – user14111 Jun 29 '15 at 22:26
  • Niven & Pournelle revisited the idea in Oath of Fealty (1981). Set in a massive arcology, chief engineer (and resident genius) Tony Rand had a hand-held device of his own design that served as a phone, computer terminal, and control device "that he would get around to patenting some day." This book also mentions direct computer-brain interface "implants." – dwardio Oct 6 '16 at 21:52
22

As a single combined device I might suggest that the "minisec" created by Arthur C. Clarke in the 1976 novel Imperial Earth would be a good candidate for this. I remember reading this back when it first came out and thinking how amazing it would be to have a device such as was described. Fortunately we didn't have to wait 300 years for it to arrive. :-)

To your specific point. Unlike the tricorder which did not have communications capabilities or the Dick Tracy video phone/watch which could communicate but not retrieve data, the minisec was a single combined device. All other science fiction seems to have improved individual devices. The minisec was a combined device built to fit the human hand.

To your other point. The minisec did NOT have touchscreen capabilities. But, otherwise, served almost the exact same function as a smartphone today. Right down to the protagonist not able to imagine life without one.

Per Wiki:

"Clarke describes in great detail throughout the book a personal communications device called a 'minisec' combining mobile video phone and PDA with global data connectivity. He also describes a larger desk 'comsole' or communications console giving similar access to global information services."

Other Functions listed on Technovelgy included:

The 'Sec was the standard size of all such units, determined by what can fit comfortably in the human hand. At a quick glance, it did not differ greatly from one of the small electronic calculators that had started coming into general use at the end of the twentieth century. It was, however, infinitely more versatile, and Duncan could not imagine what life would be like without it.

Because of the finite size of clumsy human fingers, it had no more controls than that of its ancestor of three hundred years earlier. There were fifty neat little studs; each, however, had an unlimited number of functions, according to the mode of operation - for the character visible on each stud changed according to the mode.

I remember the friend of the protagonist in the story storing sound recordings and music as well as other data. You mentioned games. His friend also used it to help determine how to use it in a geometric shape game.

Finally, like the smartphones today:

The device also had a dictionary function and could hold large amounts of data. It could also communicate with desktop console computers.

6

There's a 1966 SF story called The Age of the Pussyfoot by Frederik Pohl, first published as a serial in Galaxy Science Fiction in three parts, starting in October 1966, later as a novel in 1969, which has a device called a "Joymaker" which — though audio only as far as I can remember — seems to fit the bill.

Here's a snippet from the wikipedia entry for the book:

Charles Dalgleish Forrester is revived from cryopreservation in the year 2527, having been killed in a fire 500 years earlier. Thanks to his insurance, after the expenses of his revival are paid he has a quarter of a million dollars, a fortune in his eyes. He can afford the luxuries of 26th century life, such as a Joymaker, a scepter-like portable computer terminal with some extra features like a drug dispenser.

After a heavy night partying, with some distant memory of an argument with somebody, he wakes in his new apartment, and over a 20th-century breakfast, checks in with his Joymaker. The Joymaker communicates by voice, and addresses him always as "Man Forrester". He is informed that he has a message from a woman whose name he doesn't recognize, and that someone called Heinzlichen Jura de Syrtis Major has taken out a hunting license on him.

Sounds like a smartphone with Siri style helper to me.

  • Yes! Reading the question, this is the first thing that came to mind. This should be the accepted answer, as Pohl beat Pournelle and Niven by eight years. – SQB Jan 30 '17 at 12:16
4

I remember the "Dick Tracy" newspaper comic. They had futuristic devices. First the "wrist radio" and then later the "wrist TV".

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4

The "computer book" that Penny carries in the Inspector Gadget cartoons seems to be a pretty good anticipation of the way smart phones are used today. It even came with a smart watch (you can just see it on her left arm).

She used to book and watch for communication and information access.

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4

Edit: OK, I found it. It's a short story by John T. Sladek, the title is "Answers". It was really hard to find a copy on the Web, but here it is, in English:
Answers, by John Sladek, on Google Books

And here is a Spanish translation:
Respuestas, by John Sladek

If you read it, let me know if you think the "Captain Blip" device could be seen as an smartphone device.

My original answer:

There was a short sci-fi story for which, of course, I cannot recall its title nor its author, about a guy who bought a pocket calculator. It seems it was a very popular pocket calculator, because everyone was buying it at the time. The guy's wife noticed that her husband was increasilngly being absorbed by the new gadget. And not only her husband, but everyone using the device was just walking on the streets while staring at the screen. At some point, the wife decides to take a look at the screen of her husband's pocket calculator (while he was using it) and she sees nothing but weird, incomprehensible symbols on it. As if her husband (and everyone else using this pocket device) was being hypnotized and/or controlled by whatever was happening on the screen.

I read it like 15 years ago, previously to the smartphone era we are living in. Sometime ago, while watching people on the streets or on public transportation continuously staring at their smartphone screens, I made the connection between that sci-fi story and our current reality.

As said, I can't recall author nor title. I can only remember reading it on a sci-fi anthology written in Spanish language that I borrowed from a friend.

  • Viable as an answer, although it would be better if you could specify the title so that we don't wonder whether you just made it up. :) – FuzzyBoots Oct 10 '16 at 14:49
  • @FuzzyBoots, I wish I could provide more info. And I swear I didn't make it up. I've been looking for it (by googling and even posting at /r/tipofmytongue) since a few years ago, but I haven't had any luck yet. – Julián Landerreche Oct 10 '16 at 19:00
  • @FuzzyBoots I've updated my answer as I've finally found the short story where a device named "Captain Blip" could be seen as an anticipation of smartphones. – Julián Landerreche May 7 '17 at 1:58
3

@JRE Arthur C Clarke had predicted the tablet in his 1968 novel, "2001: A Space Odyssey".

In Chapter 9, he describes a device called NewsPad which is remarkably similar to a tablet.

When [Floyd] had tired of official reports, memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one, he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers. He knew the codes of the more important ones by heart and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference. When he punched that, a postage-sized rectangle would expand till it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he finished he could flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

2

While numerous stories have anticipated such device, I want to make a note that, in some broad sense, you're asking about the commercially successful product and its function, and not of a technology. And it also seems that 60's videophones are pretty far from the commercial products of these days, so here's a lot of bias to the question.

Smartphone is a:

  • computer
  • with a telephony/radio interface allowing it to communicate with network of base stations
  • powered by a LiPo-based energy source.

Was there a story that involved both general-purpose computers (add Linux, Windows, whatever), a prebuilt set of communication towers and a lot of enthusiatic people making, say, applications or nowaday's mesh networks with VoiP - aka, software? Spellbinder (TV) comes to mind, but it was filmed already at the early age of handheld devices.

The videophones are identified as:

  • analog components
  • no computing function, no applications
  • plugged into telephone line or using some central point of radio signal (like a TV)
  • no internal power source.
0

The most accurate anticipation of the smartphone is Ernst Jünger's Phonophor. In his 1949 novel Heliopolis he describes the phonophor as a shiny rectangular device with video chat, gps, ID, credit card, surveillance and polling functionalities. It also serves to indicate a person's social status, depending on the model. He even describes how the devices are use for something like social analytics.

A quote from the book:

In this context, the phonophor appeared as the ideal agent of planetary democracy, the means of linking everyone to everyone. The presence of the ancient assembly of the people, the market, the forum, extended across the entire planet, and beyond. Above all, the phonophor was a leveller beyond compare. From the time it found its perfect form, voting and polling the people no longer posed any technical difficulty; the will, the opinion of the immense masses were known and were measured immediately [...]. The Point Office housed one of these machines, which completed strange calculations. The yes, the no, the indecision of crowds were totalized as magnetic waves, and were readable that very instant.

As a matter of fact, continued Serner, the right of consultation remained restricted to a few men. Yes, all could listen and provide responses, but the articulation of the questions remained the privilege of a few. There reigned a passive equality combined with large differences of function. The old fiction of the right to vote was repeated in the style of automata.

Heliopolis, 337-338, 1949 (My translation from French. Not yet translated into English)

-1

There was a sci fi show on TV a few years ago in which all the characters carried a "global." This device looked like a 3/4 inch copper scroll, but when held, a screen would pop out that would be a bit larger than the largest of today's smartphones. Once opened, the global was used much like today's smartphones. When finished, a touch of a button would retract the screen and back it would go into a pocket. That's the phone I'm waiting for. The problem is I can't remember the name of the show. It concluded with the hero and heroine leaving Earth for a better life on the alien planet.

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    This reads like you're trying to ask a question; if you post this separately, I'm sure our expert story-identifiers will be able to find the show for you – Jason Baker Aug 14 '15 at 1:01
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    It was "Earth:Final Conflict", by the way. – Jon B Apr 27 '16 at 23:24
-2

I'd say a videophone was anticipated in countless science-fiction books and movies before it was technically feasible. It's an extremely obvious generalization of the telephone and television. I noticed it used in Aliens recently but there are dozens of earlier examples, like 2001 (1968). Even now it's fiddly to Skype or get real time streaming from a phone but I expect it will become absolutely standard in 20-30 years to have video in a phonecall.

  • 3
    A videophone like in 2001, or in the 1955 film This Island Earth, can't be likened to a Smartphone. They were not exactly portable. – Chenmunka Oct 6 '16 at 13:42
  • I would not regard portability as the defining characteristic of a smartphone. There were portable phones at least 20 years before smartphones and before that walkie-talkie communication devices. – TheMathemagician Oct 6 '16 at 13:59

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