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Considering we have a 'wireless communication technology' currently in the form of mobile phones and two-way radios, and have had so for quite some time, I was wondering what is the first reference to a wireless communication technology in science fiction?

I'm looking for a technology which facilitates instant communication with anyone with a similar device , preferably over long distances, but at least facilitating communication over a distance where yelling would not work. The important aspect is that there are no wires. It does not matter if this communication technology uses video calling, voice calling, or uses a 'beeping' language to communicate (like Morse code). The essential element is that is is wireless.

Bonus question: if the first wireless communication technology in science fiction does not facilitate speech, what is the first science fiction story where there is wireless voice communications?

  • I am honestly failing to see the need for the downvote! What is wrong with this question? Please explain! – Often Right Jul 26 '15 at 8:48
  • What do you mean, "radio-like technology is also counted"? What else are you thinking of, besides radio? Heliography? Smoke signals? Carrier pigeons? – user14111 Jul 26 '15 at 9:52
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    I'm not sure I understand the point of your last comment. Anyway, since real life wireless communications started with Marconi's experiments in 1896, we're looking for stories older than than, so we're looking at proto-sf writers like Verne and Poe, right? Kipling's famous story "Wireless" was published in 1902, much too late. – user14111 Jul 26 '15 at 10:05
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    Wireless telegraphy (no voice of course) using visible light, i.e. optical telegraphy, goes way back, according to the Wikipedia article, and figured in a lot of old fiction which we would probably not call sci-fi. So the relevance to sci-fi seems questionable. – user14111 Jul 26 '15 at 10:25
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    What about acoustic communication? You ruled out "yelling" but what about the "talking drums" of Africa? – user14111 Jul 26 '15 at 10:43
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In his 1962 "Profiles of the Future" Arthur C. Clarke postulated that "Any Sufficienly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The Star Trek episode "Catspaw" used this concept to good effect.

If we flip that around a bit as has been suggested elsewhere, we could consider the supposition, "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology". Such a "crossover" magic/SF example would be "The Toxic Spell Dump" by Harry Turtledove in which the world uses "magic" but in ways which closely resemble closely how we use technology today. "Magic Inc." by Heinlein would be another.

If we accept that premise (admittedly a bit of a stretch :-) ), I might suggest that we could look at some of the more advanced "magical" devices which have been used in history as candidates to answer this question. Specifically I am thinking of the "Crystal Ball" or its close analogue the "scrying mirror". As noted on the TVTropes site such devices could be used not only for clairvoyance and distance seeing, but for long distance communication with other crystal balls/mirrors.

As such, the ealiest reference I could find to a written work using such a device was Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote in the 13th century “The Canterbury Tales”. the "The Squire's Tale". In it he had a mirror in which characters to see what was happening in faraway places and communicate with another mirror in Rome. In fact, there is even speculation by one character that the mirror was not "magic" but "an arrangement of angles and cunningly carefully constructed reflections". More of a "technology" approach than magical.

And some of them marveled about the mirror, which had been carried up into the main tower, how one could see such things in it. One answered and said that it might well work in a natural way, through arrangements of angles and of cunning carefully constructed reflections, and said there was such a one in Rome.

The characters go on to relate the mirror to ancient philosopher/scientists. As such I would submit the characters are approaching this in a way that speaks more to advanced technology (a.k.a. science fiction) than magic.

They spoke of Alhazen and Vitello and Aristotle, who wrote of curious mirrors and of perspective glasses, as they know who have heard their books.

Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Measure for Measure" contains another such example.

A more recent story--though obviously pure fantasy--from the 1900s (thus after the Marconi wireless work) is J.R.R. Tolkien who included crystal balls called “palantíri” in “The Lord of the Rings.” These crystal balls allowed the characters to see and communicate with one another from long distances.

  • Downvoted. None of those are about science fiction, as the OP asked. – motoDrizzt Oct 6 at 7:21
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This is an answer to the bonus question about wireless voice communications.

1879: "The Great Electric Diaphragm", a short story by Robert Duncan Milne, published in the May 24, 1879 issue of The Argonaut, available at the Internet Archive.

From a review by Everett F. Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Early Years:

The narrator (Milne) is intrigued by a mysterious cord or wire that ascends from the roof of a San Fransisco mansion and seems to disappear into the sky. His curiosity is satisfied when he visits the house as a guest. Baron O—, the German owner of the house and an amateur scientist, explains that the earth is surrounded by a protective layer that he calls an electric diaphragm. This layer (which presumably corresponds to the Heaviside layer) varies in height and has the unusual property of transmitting electric signals all over it. It can also handle an enormous amount of signals at the same time. It thus offers a means of communication far superior to the contemporary telephone and telegraphic systems of Edison and Bell.

During the conversation the baron receives a diaphragmatic message from his servant in Berlin, reporting an attempted assassination. The message is clear and loud.

An unusual anticipation of Heinrich Hertz.

In this excerpt the baron demonstrates his invention to the narrator by calling up his servant in Berlin:

"Now," said the Baron, making a connection between a metal disk (fixed to the glass slab, through a hole in which the wire cord ran) and the telephone instrument aforesaid, "let us see how the mechanism works to-day."

So saying he applied his mouth to the orifice, and called "Franz! Franz!"

Then turning to us, and examining his watch, remarked, "He should be on time, now."

Scarcely had he finished speaking when a voice issued from the telephone (for so I shall term it) of exceeding clearness, "Fertig, Herr Baron."

The Baron smiled and entered into a conversation with the voice in his own language.

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