Which Came First, The Invention Or The Sci-Fi Prediction?

Which Came First, The Invention Or The Sci-Fi Prediction?

There was an interesting infographic making the rounds yesterday tracking the number of years it took for different sci-fi dreams to become reality. It looks beautiful, but unfortunately there are quite a few problems with it. Anytime you’re dealing with claims to “first!” — whether in fiction or reality — you’re just asking for a spirited nerd debate.

But one part of the graphic in particular got me thinking about how we define invention. According to the infographic, Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 first envisioned the in-ear headphone. And it wasn’t until 51 years later that Apple released in-ear headphones to the world.

The problem with this idea is that there are a number of different examples of actual in-ear headphones that predate Fahrenheit 451. But, of course, none of them became popular due to their low quality.

For example, take the in-ear headphones above from 1926, which I scanned from an old tech magazine. Now, I’m not aware of any earbud-style headphones that predate this 1926 invention. But it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some. And taking it one step further, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some obscure sci-fi story or illustration showing in-ear headphones, that came even before that. But I really don’t know!

What do you think comes first most often? The sci-fi prediction for some new technology or the technology itself? I’m inclined to believe predictions almost always come first, but it’s going to take a lot more study. What do you think?

Picture: Scanned from the May 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine