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  • Writer's pictureSven Piper

How Star Trek influences our lives

Updated: 7 days ago

NBC press photo from 1968
NBC press photo from 1968 (Copyright NBC)

In this special, we want to show you how this TV series has influenced all of our lives, whether you like Star Trek or not, and which technological achievements were invented here. Believe it or not, both the cellphone and the PDA are inventions inspired by Star Trek.

It has been almost 60 years since the Enterprise first appeared on American television, and without this series, our world would certainly look very different today. No other television series has so profoundly influenced the engineers, doctors, and inventors of this world. The Discovery Channel therefore dedicated a two-part special, 'How William Shatner Changed the World,' to the Star Trek inventions, interviewing developers of devices without which today's communication society would not be possible. You will be surprised how many technical developments and sociological upheavals can be traced back to Star Trek. [1]

Star Trek has influenced generations of people, and both the original series and its sequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), have shown us a future worth striving for. However, when Gene Roddenberry pitched his idea to NBC in 1964, network executives were initially very skeptical. The first pilot, 'The Cage,' was not very well received, particularly due to its casting choices, including a woman as the first officer and a 'satanic' character, Spock, which some found 'sacrilegious'. As a result, the pilot was not broadcast.

Several roles were rewritten, new actors were cast for the most part, and a new pilot was shot. But, in addition to the technological revolution of the series, there was also a sociological upheaval. Having a woman of color on the bridge who was familiar with technology and had a leadership role, and who kissed a white man for the first time on television in the episode 'Plato's Stepchildren,' was sometimes too much for the 1960s US audience. This episode was banned in some US states. But even a Japanese bridge member and, from the second season, a Russian crew member (at the height of the Cold War) were quite spectacular. Star Trek only became successful through numerous reruns in the 1970s, when the moon landings sent the world into a kind of 'space fever'.

But even more spectacular were the items used by the crew members. There was the fold-out communicator, portable tricorders, a medical station that could carry out invasive examinations and, of course, the transporter and warp drive, as well as computers everywhere, even though many people in the 1970s were of the opinion that these “bread boxes” would not catch on.

One of the first home computers was the Altair 8800, introduced in 1974. Why was it called ALTAIR? Correct, the answer has something to do with Star Trek and refers to the brightest star of the constellation Eagle and since this solar system also appeared in a Star Trek episode and the developers were big fans of the series, they named their computer (kit) ALTAIR.

It is also noteworthy that well-known personalities owned such a computer. In addition to Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen (1953-2018), Apple founder Steve Jobs (1955-2011) also had such a computer and Paul Allen is none other than the man who founded the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle and founded a company with the not entirely Star Trek-atypical name “Vulcan” Inc. and he financially backed the first private spaceship, SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004.

Because of the great success of this, there was also the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition from 2011 to 2017. Unfortunately no team met all the requirements and we still haven't a fully functional Tricorder today, but it is only a matter of time. [2]

In addition, another tech company is also closely linked to Star Trek, Apple. Did you know that the software 'Quicktime' was inspired by Star Trek? Probably not, but according to the developer Steven Perlman, it was a scene in which the android Data listened to different pieces of music at the same time that prompted the development of the software. Also the iPad has clearly a resemblance to the Personal Access Display Device (PADD) from Star Trek. Furthermore, Virtual assistants (like Siri and Alexa) are very likely also inspired by Star Trek.

But the Star Trek experiences of Martin Cooper [3], a not insignificant engineer at Motorolla, were even more far-reaching. He developed the first mobile telephone in 1973 and used it to make phone calls with Joel Engel from Bell Labs. He came up with the idea for such a phone from where? Hint: It starts with 'S,' consists of two words, and ends with 'rek.'

Rob Haitani, a designer at Palm One, was also impressed by the technical devices from Star Trek and even though the first PDAs were developed by Apple, Palm is still synonymous with the personal digital assistant (PDA) today, which is why Star Trek also played a decisive role here with its portable tricorders.

But it's not just the engineers and tinkerers from Silicon Valley who love Star Trek; NASA is also home to its fair share of Trekkies. And one of these “freaks” is Dr. Marc D. Rayman, chief engineer at NASA's JPL [4] and responsible for missions such as the Deep Space 1 probe, which was the first probe ever to be equipped with an ion engine. Marc D. Rayman first heard of such an engine on Star Trek, specifically in the episode 'Spock's Brain'. Even though the actual functional principle of such an engine had already been described by Hermann Oberth in his book “Wege zur Raumschifffahrt” in 1929, the term only became known to a wider audience through Star Trek. Since Hermann Oberth was an inspiration for Star Trek, there are also Oberth-class spaceships in the fictional science fiction world.

And the authors of Star Trek proved their skill more than once when it came to the correct term, as the physicist Lawrence M. Krauss points out in his very successful book “The Physics of Star Trek”, because even before the physicist John Archibald Wheeler from Princeton University coined the term “black holes” in the fall of 1967, this phenomenon had already been referred to as “black stars” in Star Trek shortly before.

However, Star Trek may have had the greatest benefit for us all in the field of medicine, because in the past, doctors had to cut open a patient to see if there was a tumor and where it was located, but today this is much more patient-friendly, because the physician Prof. Dr. John Adler from the Standford University Medical Center developed the “cyber knife”, a laser that can precisely attack and destroy tumors without having to cut the patient open and, according to his own statement, Pille's infirmary was the pioneer for this.

Other medical developments that we have to thank Star Trek for, or at least that first became known to a large audience, are the VISOR [5] and the hypospray [6].

We have not yet touched on one, admittedly fictional, but one day quite realistic point: what if humanity one day makes contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? And according to Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI project, Star Trek has also done pioneering work here, because without series like Star Trek, such contact would cause a huge shock to large parts of society, but since “aliens” have long been commonplace in today's pop culture (and “Spock” and “Worf” are among the most popular characters), people today are more prepared for such a thing.

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