“Star Wars” introduced the world to the Death Star — an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. “The Force Awakens” takes military technology a step further with Starkiller Base — a militarized planet capable of destroying entire star systems by harnessing energy from its system’s star into a destructive interstellar beam.
Weapons physicist and science fiction author David Langford conceived similar technology as a remote future plausibility in his 1979 nonfiction book “War in 2080,” which envisioned planet-killing weapons deploying militarized asteroids, suns and black holes. While such weapons fortunately remain science fiction, the following are a few prophetic SF ideas that did come true:
The Big Bang
In his 1848 prose poem “Eureka,” SF pioneer Edgar Allan Poe proposed astronomical ideas that anticipated the Big Bang theory. Drawing deductions from philosophical assumptions and contemporary astronomers, Poe envisioned God willing the universe into existence out of nothing by creating a primordial particle and causing it to irradiate spherically outwards in all directions to immeasurable distances. Poe also considered the possibility of cosmic collapse and asserted the existence of stars that were invisible to the eye but known through their gravitational effects.
While “Eureka” was dismissed by Poe’s contemporaries, astronomer Alberto Cappi has argued that Poe should be credited as the first person to conceive of the Big Bang theory as well as the anthropic principle and a solution to Olber’s paradox. Poe’s metaphysical theories were problematic. He made some scientific mistakes, and he did not express his ideas in the same formal mathematics used later by relativity theory. Despite this, it remains accurate to say that Poe intuitively foresaw what science later discovered.
In his 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon” and its 1870 sequel “Around the Moon,” Jules Verne envisioned using a space cannon to launch three passengers into orbit around the moon. Verne used engineering principles to calculate the science of his imaginary moon voyage.
While he made some mistakes, he also made strikingly accurate predictions of the Apollo 8 and 11 missions, according to Encyclopedia Astronautica. Verne correctly predicted the optimal location for the future Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the mass of the first circumlunar spacecraft, the use of aluminum to achieve this weight, the number of passengers and the splashdown of the craft in the Pacific Ocean. National Geographic also credits Verne with anticipating solar sails.
In 1913, H.G. Wells predicted atomic bombs and nuclear war in the serialized novel “The World Set Free,” which was later called “The Last War.” Wells envisioned the nuclear near-destruction of civilization that terrifies the nations of the world into joining a united world government to preserve peace.
Wells drew from real science, dedicating his book to Frederick Soddy, a radiochemist who partnered with Ernest Rutherford to explain radioactive decay. Wells mistakenly imagined atomic bombs as uranium-based hand grenades that would trigger perpetual radiation explosions over the half-life of uranium, rather than envisioning the chain reaction that triggers nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, he correctly foresaw that atomic bombs could be dropped from planes, that they would leave targets radioactive and uninhabitable and that fear of the bomb would motivate the formation of the United Nations. He also directly influenced the development of the first atomic bomb. After physicist Leo Szilard read Wells’ book in 1932, he conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction. Szilard then made Wells’ idea a reality by helping Albert Einstein write the letter to President Roosevelt that initiated the Manhattan Project.
In 1931, the year before Szilard invented nuclear chain reactions, cartoonist Chester Gould invented Dick Tracy, a police detective who uses forensic science and advanced gadgets to fight crime. Dick Tracy’s most famous gadget is his two-way wrist radio, which was introduced in 1946. In 1964, Dick Tracy’s wrist radio got upgraded to a two-way wrist TV.
Considered a futuristic gadget at that time, today, Dick Tracy’s gadgets look like crude versions of wearables, such as the Samsung Gear S2 smartwatch. Historian Erin Blakemore, writing for Smithsonian.com, argues that Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio is the forerunner of the Apple Watch.