Was technology's future written in 1960s TV shows?

Before TV broadcasts consisted mostly of fake “reality” shows, humiliation festivals and unrealistic cop shows, many of them looked forward and outward, either in terms of time or technology. The 1960s, in particular, let fly with shows featuring James Bond-inspired high-tech gadgets or the space-race-inspired trappings of the final frontier.

How visionary were they? A lot of the tech in these shows was borrowed from earlier Buck Rodgers adventures, but in some cases they hit on real possibilities. Which of those shows had ideas that have since taken shape in real devices or technologies? The focus here isn’t sci-fi, but tech-fi.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, on Feb. 20, we take a look back at those ’60s programs, at least some of which were inspired by the space race, to see which had the best idea of how technology might evolve.

For the sake of space and expedience, we’re going to avoid some of the shows that had sci-fi trappings but really didn’t deal with anything we’d recognize today. In “The Time Tunnel,” for instance, two guys walked into a striped tube more likely to hypnotize them than anything, then spent the rest of the series bouncing through history in, like, turtlenecks. We’ll also leave out “The Jetsons,” since it was a cartoon with flying cars and a talking dog. Teenage Judy’s “digital diary” was somewhat prescient, except for the fact that she kept it private. Now, people keep their diaries on Facebook and Twitter.

On to the shows.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” 1964-68
Tech visionary: Irwin Allen

Flying Sub. The show’s USOS Seaview was a futuristic, big-windowed, roomy nuclear submarine, but it was still a nuclear sub, several of which were in existence. However, the show had a fanciful notion with its Flying Sub, a 36-foot craft that could travel under water and fly in the air — at supersonic speeds, no less. In the real world, combining submarine and airborne capabilities would seem a pretty big challenge. Even so, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is trying to accomplish it, albeit from the other direction. In 2008, DARPA began research into an aircraft that could fly low over the water and then dip below the surface before returning to the air. More like a cormorant than a flying fish, but at least it travels in both environments.

Verdict: Decent idea, but had the wrong starting point.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, 1964-68
Tech visionaries: Sam Rolfe, Ian Fleming

Satellite communicator. It wasn’t the idea of communicating via satellite but miniaturization of the receivers that was forward-looking. Agents Solo and Kuryakin had devices that looked like cigarette cases or pens. Satellite phones aren’t there yet today, but they are getting smaller than the shoeboxes they used to be.

Otherwise, this James Bond-inspired show seemed to stick to what was possible at the time, presumably to lend an air of realism. The computers were vacuum-tube mainframes with lots of lights, Napoleon Solo’s infrared camera looked like a small Polaroid, and they used slide projectors during briefings at headquarters. The producers seemed to put most of their prop money into weapons.

Verdict: A show of its time, but not of the future.

Get Smart,” 1965-70
Tech visionaries: Mel Brooks, Buck Henry

Shoe phone. This mobile, wireless communications device presaged cell phones to a degree. On the downside, it was in his shoe, had a rotary dial and somehow managed to work without cell towers or access points.

Cone of silence. The metaphorical precursor of the virtual private network, providing secure two-way communications, maybe, but otherwise it was just good for laughs. If it has a parallel to today, it’s this: They only ever used the Cone of Silence because Maxwell Smart insisted on following agency security protocol to the letter. And agency security protocol was a pain in the neck, just like today.

Alcohol absorbing pill. In one episode, Max had an undercover assignment that required him to stay alert while drinking, so he held an alcohol-absorbing wafer under his tongue. Worked great until a back-slap made him swallow it. Just a gag, sure, but scientists now say they are developing a “stay sober” pill that reduces the effect of alcohol on the brain.

Hymie the Robot. Hymie was a humanoid robot stronger and faster than any human. And he was something of a walking test lab, able to swallow poisons and report on their contents. But cognitively, he was over-literal in his interpretation of language. There are no robots physically like Hymie around today, but researchers are getting closer to human-like physical movements, and natural-language processing of the type used in IBM’s Watson has already surpassed Hymie’s capabilities.

Verdict: Missed it by that much.

My Mother the Car,” 1965-66
Tech visionary: None

It’s hard to ascribe the term “visionary” to a show that was basically a rip-off of “Mr. Ed,” (People like that show with a talking horse, so let’s have a talking …um, a talking car!), and we’re not going to do it here. This was an anthropomorphic car, not one made of technology. But it was a talking car, so we though it deserved a mention. A decade and a half later, Knight Rider would come a lot closer to the GPS-enabled, computerized personal mobile assistants we’re staring to see today.

Verdict: In 2002, TV Guide rated “My Mother the Car” the second-worst show of all time. In 2010, “O’Reilly Factor” viewers moved it up to the very top of the worst list. Verdict has been passed.

Star Trek,” 1966-1969
Tech visionary: Gene Roddenberry,

This is the Big Kahuna of 1960’s tech-fi, but let’s get a couple things out of the way first.

Warp speed. No. People or space ships traveling faster than the speed of light is still out of the question, and the recent discovery that neutrinos apparently can arrive at a point picoseconds sooner than light probably doesn’t change that. The Enterprise isn’t a neutrino.

Phasers. Not quite. A phaser could be set to kill, but so can a bow and arrow (even if it doesn’t make the target disappear into nothingness, which is unlikely anyway). What distinguished the phaser was that it could be set to stun, knocking people out, even at a considerable distance. The closest we’ve come is the Taser, which gives people an electrical jolt and can incapacitate them, but has no where near the elegance, or the range, of a phaser.

Transporter beam. Unfortunately, no. Rush-hour commutes will always be with us.

But Star Trek did have some pretty practical, forward-looking ideas.

Communicators. An obvious example of satellite/cellular communications. The communicators even were similar in size and design to flip-top cell phones (Nokia even toyed with a cell phone that looks and beeps like a Star Trek communicator). And Kirk communicating by touching the logo on his uniform in some episodes could parallel hands-free devices.

The ship’s computer. This was the ’60s, so it was a mainframe with the usual flashing lights everywhere, but the ship’s computer could communicate verbally and could search every database on the ship, analyze the data, incorporate sensor readings in real time, draw conclusions and do it all pretty quickly. It was Big Data, ahead of its time.

Hypospray. When Bones gave an injection to a patient, nobody had to roll up their sleeves. He could deliver medicine through clothing with a pfffft of air-injected hypospray. Star Trek was actually a little behind the curve on this one. The jet injector, which looked like a nail gun and used a narrow, high-pressure liquid stream instead of a needle, was being used for mass vaccinations several years before “Star Trek” premiered. But it couldn’t inject through clothing and was eventually abandoned over concerns about infections.

Tricorder. The Tricorder, a seemingly magical device that could non-invasively diagnose what ails a patient, is still pretty much out of reach. But the X-Prize Foundation thinks something similar is possible, offering a $10 million prize for a portable device that can make a quick assessment of a patient’s condition by testing their breath, blood or urine. So there’s hope yet.

Verdict: Whenever real life starts imitating fiction, you know you’re on to something.

Lost in Space,” 1965-68
Tech visionary: Irwin Allen

Robot B-9. Officially the General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9, had a lot of the tools that are in today’s military robots, or at least seem possible. It wasn’t humanoid, but moved with tractor-like propulsion. It was strong on speech recognition. It could perform air and soil tests, detect threats via its scanner, emit a defensive smoke screen and zap people with electrical charges. It wasn’t dead-on — for one thing, it was a little top heavy to be practical in rough terrain — but working B-9 wouldn’t be a surprise today.

Jet pack. The idea for this goes back to the 1920s, and by the ‘60s jet packs were being developed for use in space missions. So “Lost in Space” wasn’t being original, but at least jet packs are around today for thrill-seekers, if not for everyday transportation.

The Space Family Robinson had other tools and gadgets, but they seemed to grow out of existing technology or popular fantasy rather than a technological look forward. For one thing, their space ship was a flying saucer. They got around the planet in the Chariot, a six-seat track vehicle with clear walls — and curtains! — that was essentially a fancy van. They communicated with transceivers that weren’t much more than walkie-talkies. And they used reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Verdict: A lot of its technology was kid stuff, but it scores big points for the robot.

Final verdict: “Star Trek” in a walk, of course. It had some technologies we recognize today, others that researchers are trying to develop and, more than any other show, the stuff we really wish we had. And who knows, if there’s something to that neutrino discovery, we might see it yet.

Reader Comments

Tue, Feb 21, 2012

Don't forget tablets in the original Star Trek: I don't think that was a standard clipboard that Yeoman Rand would bring to Kirk on the bridge. Blue-tooth would be the earpiece Lt. Uhuru wore at the comm station.

Tue, Feb 21, 2012 NOYB

Interesting perspective: Star Trek touching-the-emblem must have been a bluetooth controller. The phaser set to stun, on the other hand, is a reality. They're not small enough for hand-held because they're meant to subdue crowds, but DOD has "direct-energy" weapons that can be mounted on a HMMWV, including light, sonic and infrared units that can impart stunning pain or other incapacitation, i.e., stun, without touching the target, at significant distance, and without permanent injury. Just a thought.

Mon, Feb 20, 2012 Derek

Wow, whoever wrote this failed on research. Kirk never touched the logo on his uniform to communicate -- that was a ST:TNG innovation of combining the communicator with the emblem badge. You say the communicators even resembled flip-top cell phones -- I suppose it never occurred to you that Motorola specifically designed (and named) the Star Tac to resemble the Star Trek communicator?

How about auto-opening doors? Voice control of computers? Complex database queries and computer-stored video and imagery? Wireless earpieces?

It would have been nice if your reporters had done some basic research (like reading "The Making of Star Trek") before writing this article.

Fri, Feb 17, 2012 N5SK

Lost in Space was one of the all-time worst shows on TV. Its producers were so clueless that they passed over their chance to do Star Trek instead.

Fri, Feb 17, 2012 N5SK

Robot B-9 in "Lost in Space" is just "Robbie the Robot" recycled from the 1956 movie "Forbidden Planet" - but I guess the author of this article is too young to know that.

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