Treknobabble #52: Top 10 Timeless Inventions as Seen in Star Trek

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

Okay, I admit I’m being silly and irreverent, but I really did put some thought and research into this article. We often take for granted things that are in plain sight, so I’ve taken it upon myself to give homage to these inventions that seem to be irreplaceable at least in my mind.

When you think about it, there are some things that we think we might use forever, but something may be invented to take its place. For example, the wheel doesn’t seem to be used anymore in the 23rd century. Some form of anti-gravity seems to have made the wheel obsolete.

Here are the inventions that will survive to the 23rd century and beyond!


10. Eye Shadow

As early as 10,000 BC, Egyptians used eye makeup. A dictionary credited the origin of modern eye shadow between 1925 and 1930. Admittedly, this is stupid to mention, but I wonder why someone thought that eye shadow on the actors would look good? It’s noticeable in some episodes more than others.

9. Drinking Straw and Drink Umbrella

Straws are common in nature. Rye stalks were commonly used, but their durability and cleanliness were questionable. In 1886, a Washington D.C. man named Chester Stone hand-rolled an artificial drinking straw from paraffined manila paper. A patent was awarded to him two years later for the spiral winding process to manufacture the first paper drinking straws. In 1908, a machine was invented by the Marvin C. Stone Estate to make straws. Besides avoiding mouth spillage, using a straw reduces the risk of tooth decay and cavities when imbibing drinks having acidic properties like soft drinks. (Oh, that’s soda pop to you Americans.)

The origin of the drink umbrella is debatable, but a Honolulu bartender named Harry K. Yee claims to have put a drink umbrella in a Tapa Punch in 1959. The drink faded to obscurity, but the drink umbrella survived. I have no idea how popular drink umbrellas were in the late 60s, or how popular they are even today. But it appears that their novelty hasn’t worn off by the 23rd century.

8. Mortar

Early mortars were large and heavy iron bowls used to protect castles and forts. During the American Civil War, an early transportable mortar based on an invention by Baron Menno van Coehorn was used.

Actually, to me, mortars would seem like anachronistic devices in the 23rd century, but we see Kirk using one, so maybe they would still be useful. I think mortars are useful in trench warfare or where the target is not in a direct line-of-sight. After Spock’s tricorder is rendered useless, Kirk asks a blue-shirted officer to give an estimate of the enemy’s location. And Kirk adjusts the mortar accordingly. It does seem strange that the mortars aren’t automated with their own sensors or at least take voice commands. Oh, wait, I guess with noise during a battle, it might be best to still have manual entry. One thing space mortars would have to account for is the different gravitational pull on each planet.

7. Spray Bottle

Before plastics were improved after World War II, spray bottles used a rubber bulb to siphon the fluid. In 1947, the first major commercial plastic spray bottle was used for dispensing underarm deodorant by squeezing the bottle. The next major use for spray bottles was for Windex glass cleaner for which a pump-style bottle was used.

The trigger-style actuators for spray bottles appeared in the late 1960s. These are the type of bottles that we see displayed prominently in sickbay. At the time, they probably appeared futuristic. Nowadays, every homeowner with house plants probably has one of these spray bottles. I’ve also seen cat owners use these bottles as a deterrent by spraying cats that get into places they shouldn’t!

I don’t recall anyone in Star Trek ever using one of those spray bottles. I can’t come up with a good use for them in sickbay. In an early episode, there was a scene (pictured above) in the botany section of the life sciences department. So it made sense for spray bottles to be there, but strangely, the spray bottles contained colored liquids. The botany section was only seen once and was a redress of the sickbay set. Maybe the spray bottles were just left on the sickbay set as background decoration.

6. Ladder

At least 10,000 years ago, someone drew a ladder on a rock painting in a cave in Valencia, Spain. Hebrews and Egyptians are credited with conceiving modern ladders.

I wonder how many accidents occur when people fall off the ladders between Enterprise decks. Stairs or escalators seem safer. They use up more space, but with the size of the Enterprise corridors, you would think that space wouldn’t have been a consideration. With the exception of Scotty in later years, there are no obese people in the 23rd century. Maybe the use of ladders is meant as a form of exercise.

Hmm… I can’t think of anything else to say about ladders.

5. Elevator

As early as 300 BC, elevators powered by human, animal, or water wheel power were in use. By the middle of the 19th century, steam-operated elevators made their way into industrial usage. In 1853, American inventor Elisha Otis introduced a safety device to prevent falling in case of a cable breakage. In the early 1870’s, hydraulics replaced steam-power. In 1880, German inventor Werner von Siemens built the first electric elevator.

You would think that having transporter technology would make elevators obsolete, because you could just beam yourself to anywhere. But the Enterprise used elevators.

Elevators are great places to have conversations, so for dramatic purposes, I think it was a good idea to use them.

One criticism about the Original Series was that it seemed like the only access to the bridge was from one elevator. So if something happened to the elevator, you’d either be stuck on the bridge (which apparently lacked a restroom) or wouldn’t have access to it. I guess the transporter could be used in this circumstance although intra-ship transport was frowned upon for some reason, I think.

One innovation used in Star Trek hasn’t found its way to current usage and that is voice prompting. We currently have the technology to implement this, but I have no idea why it’s not used. The technology isn’t that expensive. For years, I’ve had a voice activated remote control for controlling my home entertainment electronics. On Star Trek, it seemed that the elevator would respond to voice command after grabbing a handle. This seems reasonable. It would be cool if you could tell an elevator where you wanted to go and it would take you to the appropriate floor. This would save people the hassle of looking at a building directory when they entered a building for the first time.

One stupid thing about all elevators I’ve been in is that you can’t prevent a floor from being stopped at once a floor button has been pressed. Can someone tell me why this is the way it is? Why can’t you press a floor button to deactivate it?

4. Mirror

No matter how evolution affects our physical form, I’m guessing vanity is one behavior that humans will be unable to shake. Even if we become incorporeal as some of the aliens we’ve seen in Star Trek, I think we will still need to “look” at mirrors in order to see how sparkly we appear to species that still use the visible spectrum to get around.

The first mirror was probably a pool of water that a hominid looked into as it bent over to get a drink of water. Now the question of when man first became “conscious” enough to be self-conscious raises a huge debate, but we can guess that a hominid saw a creature in the water that was harmless and eventually realized that the creature was itself.

There have been tests with animals, and some eventually realize that the creature in the mirror is itself. In the ape family, orangutans get it, but gorillas don’t. Even in the same species like chimpanzees, some get it and others don’t. It’s interesting to note that many animals including monkeys, pigeons, parrots, chicken and fish can’t recognize themselves in mirrors, yet they can use mirrors to find hidden objects or to solve puzzles.

Here’s a test that you can try on your pet. (I think the SPCA is fine with this test.) While your pet is asleep, put a mark on its face that it won’t be able to see unless it looks in a mirror. Not sure what you can use that won’t wake up your pet. (Researchers have the advantage of being able to anaesthetize their animals.) Anyway, after your pet wakes up (or you can try nudging it on the shoulder), get your pet to look at itself in a mirror. If your pet touches the mark on its face, then congratulations, you’re the owner of a self-conscious pet!

From 6200 B.C.E. and found in Turkey, the earliest man-made artificial mirrors may possibly have been polished obsidian. Or from 4500 B.C.E. in Egypt, there is a slab of selenite with traces of wood that were possibly a frame, or a reflective piece of mica pierced with a hole that was possibly used to hang it.

For those of you who like to read about mirrors, I highly recommend the book Mirror | Mirror – A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection by Mark Pendergrast. I got all the historical information from this book.

3. Chair

The first chair was probably a rock. Chairs can be found in the histories of all ancient cultures. I suppose the most common chairs are of the four-legged and pedestal varieties.

There is a variation of a chair where a person’s weight is supported by the knees rather than the back in order to prevent back pain that is common from sitting too long with bad posture. But these don’t appear to have caught on.

The chairs on Star Trek didn’t seem to have lumbar support. Only the captain had the luxury of armrests.

As long as humans remain bipedal, I think we’ll always be using chairs. And the person with the most authority will always have the best chair.

2. Paper

Ever since humans learned to draw, they have required a writing surface of some kind. Drawing in the dirt was somewhat impermanent. Cave drawing was a longer lasting solution, but not portable. The next step was probably the use of stone tablets, but still not very portable.

About 5,000 years ago, Egyptians pounded together flat sheets from the plant papyrus, from which the word “paper” is derived. Over harvesting of papyrus nearly caused the extinction of the papyrus plant. Around 104 AD, a Chinese man named Ts’ai Lun created a writable surface by pouring a mixture of bark and bamboo fibers over a coarsely woven cloth that was allowed to dry. He is credited with inventing paper.

In the west, paper refinement and use didn’t become popular until Gutenberg introduced the mass production of books. Parchment made from animal skins was the preferred writing surface until then.

Some people thought that the introduction of computers would create a paperless society, but I suppose the reliability of a hard copy will make some form of paper required. There has been talk about paper from wood products being replaced by electronic paper that can be reused instantly. Perhaps it is electronic paper we are seeing used in the above photo since Kirk appears to be using a stylus that is normally used on a tablet.

As long as we use paper and coin currency, I think we’ll need paper for receipts as well.

1. Book

Admittedly, a book is pretty close to paper and it’s probably the next logical step to give a bundle of papers bound together a name. But the importance of the book as a means for the spiritual and intellectual development of humans makes it important enough to deserve its own heading as well as the number one spot in my list. As Arthur C. Clarke has stated, “Compact, portable, capable of storing tens of thousands of words, with random access and requiring no power, the book is an information tool of the future as well as the past.”

Sumerians developed baked clay tablets, but the Egyptian papyrus scroll probably represents the earliest stage of a book. Ancient Romans arguably created the first modern form of books called codices by tying together parchment paper between two wooden slabs. In 900 AD, the Chinese printed the first non-handwritten book with engraved wooden blocks. It wasn’t until the 15th century when German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced the means for the mass production of books that the book became popular. Many improvements have taken place since then to the point where the mechanical reproduction of books has been replaced in our computerized digital age.

There have been electronic devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader meant to replace the purchase and disposal of books and other paper products. So far, these haven’t really caught on, yet, but the Kindle’s wireless connectivity is making these types of products more attractive to use.

* * *

There you have it: the top 10 timeless inventions as seen in Star Trek. The runners-up include table, suitcase, bed, and cutlery. I’m probably missing some other possible candidates. Oh, like clothes and footwear! Maybe I should write a sequel article. Nah!

I’m going to give an honorable mention to the “bed.” Oh, here’s the provocative photo I would have used if I had included “bed” in my list.

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  • Wow, great post. I would say the mirror is never going away, or at least some tech that will let us look at ourselves.

  • I must say this is probably the best Treknobabble thus far. I’m sure you’ll be disappointed to hear that considering you think top ten lists are a waste of time.

  • rus in chicago

    Newer elevators will allow you to deactivate a floor request made in error by pressing said button several times quickly. Using logic, you would have realized in the field, 1 or 2 additional activations of the button would simply be read by the computer as additional requests for that floor. I’m really shocked you did not come up with this on your own, yet you are not self-conscious monkey so maybe I shouldn’t be shocked.

  • I think the chair should be #1..think about it: you could beam an entire book into your brain in seconds ala The Matrix; but you’re still gonna need a chair to do so.

    So you think beds are gonna be replaced by insta-rest shots or something?

  • I just thought “where are people gonna fuck?”

    This answer instantly launches beds into the slot for #1 most timeless invention.

  • rus in chicago, I didn’t understand your comment. Were you serious about pressing a button several times quickly to deactivate a floor request? I’ll need Jay to translate for me.

    To be honest, Ryan M, I didn’t think too hard about the numbering. As for The Matrix, I think the vat has replaced the chair. As for the bed question, I think sleeping weightless in air would be the most comfortable. Procreation in weightlessness is probably awesome as well.

  • “Procreation in weightlessness is probably awesome as well.”

    No way man, how would you slam?

  • Henrik is right. It would be much harder to slam.

  • rus in chicago

    Yes Reed, you can deactivate an elevator button by pressing it like I stated. But be careful, I really shouldn’t be releasing this info., if you don’t do the proper sequence and have the right number and length of pauses between button pushes YOU WILL CAUSE THE ENTIRE BUILDING TO BLOW UP!!!

  • Mason

    “Procreation in weightlessness” is the only reason to watch the movie “Supernova”, starring Robin Tunney.

  • Movie Man

    I’m not going to knock Star Trek, but i didnt like it, i kinda liked the previews for this movie comin out thought, looks pretty cool

  • Your honesty is appreciated, Movie Man. I have to admit that the readers of Film Junk are rather civilized when it comes to respecting my enjoyment of Star Trek. After over a year and a half of writing these Treknobabbles, I can’t recall anyone commenting negatively about my obsession with Star Trek (except for Film Junk’s Greg, but I think he’s doing it for comedic effect).

    I think “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (the one with the whales) has shown that the general public can be entertained by a Star Trek film without embracing Star Trek the way Trekkies like myself do. That’s fine by me. I enjoyed “The Ten Commandments,” but I still haven’t completely read The Bible and I still don’t go to church. :-)

  • Oh, I remembered that I actually wanted to add some info to this post for the mirror entry. I was reading Shatner’s Star Trek novel, “Spectre,” and it describes a holographic mirror. This is actually a cool idea because you can get a 360 degree view of yourself without craning your neck to look behind you as you would do with a regular mirror. So the mirror as a shiny surface might not be so timeless after all.

  • yashasvi

    this is superb

  • I love reading and I really love my Kindle. It is so incredibly thin and sleek, and it holds a huge stack of books! It is very easy to use and perfectly readable in sunlight. The adjustable font size is a huge advantage.

    The e-ink, without a backlight, is much easier on my eyes than reading from a computer or phone screen for longer reading sessions, and the screen is a nice size. The kindle can be taken anywhere you would take a book (put in in a ziploc bag for beach or poolside use).

    The Amazon books really do appear in less than a minute – quite amazing. The selection of kindle books is very good, and LOTS of out of copyright books (great classics) can be had for free (through amazon or other internet sites).

    If you have an iPhone, you will find that the iPhone kindle application is a perfect companion to your kindle. Books can be transferred back and forth between kindle and iPhone and it knows how far you have read in the book. Really cool for when you get stuck waiting somewhere and you don’t have your kindle.

  • Nunuv Yerbiznezz

    What are you going to do when your Kindle crashes and all the books stored on it are lost? How do you prove that you’re entitled to replacement downloads without sacrificing your privacy? Can you jot down notes in the margin of a Kindle page? When an authority figure demands your Kindle to find out what you’ved been reading, will you be able to erase it in time? If I lose one book, that’s not the end of the world, but what if my entire library is on a lost Kindle? Most of the books I can’t already get from a library are too rare/old/esoteric to ever appear on a kindle anyway.