Treknobabble #59: Top 10 Inventions That Star Trek Failed to Foresee

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

Anachronism. This is a word we apply to something that doesn’t belong in a given time period. Usually, we spot anachronisms when we watch historical movies and notice something in a scene that had not been invented in the time period being recreated. In the case of creating a future world, inevitably there will be cases where either a lack of imagination or resources will result in something being shown that ultimately doesn’t belong because it will have been superseded by a more pervasive technology. I’m not sure if the word anachronism applies to the future case, but I will be directing your attention to these instances in Star Trek’s Original Series.

The prequel series Enterprise opted to design its look in accordance with all the new technology that had been developed since the time the Original Series had been produced. Because of the longer time span between the Original Series and now, we’ve had more of a chance to come up with new technology, so I won’t be dealing with the later, more contemporary series in this article.


10. Cup Holder

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Take a look at the above photo with Uhura’s coffee perched at an angle on her console. Her hand is beside the coffee cup as she converses with Captain Kirk. This is an accident waiting to happen. Take a look inside your automobile and you will notice various configurations of cup holders that could easily have been incorporated on the Enterprise bridge for the convenience of bridge personnel.

Cup holders had been around since their invention by James Guillow in 1943. There was a gradual acceptance before automobiles began incorporating them in the 1980s. The fast-paced lifestyle along with long commute times made having coffee and breakfast in the car normal by then. And the advent of drive-through coffee shops and restaurants accommodated this. Supposedly, the lawsuit involving an old lady suing McDonald’s for scalding her lap with hot coffee hastened the installation of cup holders.

By the way, I’m not expecting the new movie’s Enterprise bridge to have cup holders. To maintain the pristine look of Star Trek’s future, I would expect a “no drink and food” policy for the bridge. Have you ever tried to bring a drink into an Apple Store?

9. Seat Belt

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This is one invention that the first Star Trek movie tried to rectify by giving Captain Kirk some fold-over leg restraints that we saw Kirk use when the Enterprise accidentally triggered a wormhole. But we all saw how boring it was not being able to see people fly from their seats and tumble all over the place, so we never saw any seat belt device attempted again on Star Trek bridge sets.

We should thank Volvo for considering safety since they had the first safety belts back in 1849 and they introduced the modern three-point seat belt in 1959. So, really, it wasn’t a lack of foresight, but probably a deliberate omission by the Enterprise designers.

Should the Enterprise have seat belts? Buses don’t have seat belts. I guess you could argue that there were only a few times that the Enterprise got thrown about. I mean places like California occasionally have earthquakes, but you don?t see people there strapping themselves in for breakfast.

8. Winter Coat

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Okay, I admit that I’m being silly with these first couple of entries. The lack of budget for the television show prevented Starfleet from having much of a wardrobe. But the sight of crewmembers in their velour uniforms warming themselves around a phaser-heated rock does seem rather silly.

The absurd plot contrivance of creating jeopardy with crew on harsh weather planets doesn?t make any sense to me. The episode in which Sulu and a landing party find themselves stranded on a freezing planet because of a transporter malfunction is really stretching the suspension of disbelief. Disregarding the use of a shuttlecraft which had not been introduced, yet, surely the crew of the Enterprise could have transported down portable heaters and portable living structures since they were able to transport down other supplies. Instead, we see Sulu wrapping himself with a futuristic blanket as icicles form on his eyebrows.

7. Fiber-optics

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Look at the huge cables that were jury-rigged in the Jefferies Tube by a saboteur in the above photograph. (Not exactly discreet or covert.) To be fair, the cables and wires shown in the Original Series could have been bundled optic fibers, but for lack of better evidence, I’m going to assume they were of the copper wire variety.

Optical fiber development grew rapidly in the 1950s, but along with the development of lasers, it wasn?t until the mid-1960s that refinements started to make it be considered as a practical medium for communication. Efforts by researchers at companies like the British company Standard Telephones and Cables, and American glass maker Corning Glass Works made it possible for the first commercial fiber-optic communication system to be produced by the late 1970s. Because signals can transmit with lower attenuation and interference in optical fibers, fiber-optics has been gradually replacing copper wire as costs have dropped.

6. Membrane Switch

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Enterprise control panels and equipment including computers used flip switches, toggle switches, and large protruding push buttons. Many of the type shown in Star Trek have virtually disappeared to be replaced by membrane switches. (The rotary knob hasn’t been done away with, yet.) Membrane switches came to public attention through television remote controls, microwave oven panels and air conditioner control panels.

5. Touch Screen

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The clunky arm pad buttons, text labels, and bulb indicator lights on Captain Kirk’s command chair seem particularly antiquated when compared with Apple’s Touch interface. And the communicator’s three button control pad seems lacking when held up against Apple’s iPhone.

Early touch screen devices were developed in the 1970s and became familiar to us through bank machine kiosks. Recently, self-serve cashiers have used this technology. Touch screens were used by early PDAs, but required a stylus. Many improvements have been made since their first introduction, but the multi-touch capability provided by Apple’s iPhone may be the impetus that makes the touch screen ubiquitous.

4. Flat Panel Display

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The monitors shown in crew quarters and in sickbay resembled monitors based on tube technology. Although the rudimentary technology for plasma televisions and LCD displays gained momentum in the 1960s, no one apparently imagined that monitor screens could one day become thin. Since the images on the Star Trek monitors were an optical effect anyway, having the physical displays be an inch or two thick would not have added to the budget.

Laptops in the mid-1980s used LCD flat panels, and stand-alone LCD flat panels for desktop computers would be available in the mid-1990s.

It should be said that at least the monitors on Star Trek appeared to be flat screen monitors although the small monitor on the tricorder was not. It would not be until 1981 when Zenith would file a patent for a flat CRT and construct a working one in 1984.

3. Miniaturization (Integrated Circuits)

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On the few occasions where we saw Kirk, Spock or Uhura working inside the bridge consoles, we would see boards with resistors and other discrete electrical components now made obsolete by integrated circuits. I think it would have been easy enough to fake complicated circuitry without showing actual electrical components even given the low budget. (To see how small the set budget was, take a look at the engineering wall displays that used sliding boards behind boards with circular holes to fake the look of an updating display!)

Early development in integrated circuits began in the 1950s. The space program boosted the development of small scale integration in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, medium scale integration was resulting in hundreds of transistors on a chip. This development process has been growing exponentially over the years. It seems like a major oversight for Star Trek not to take this into account.

2. Digital Display (LED and LCD)

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If there’s one thing that instantly dates Star Trek, it’s the non-existence of digital displays. I grant that technology in the 1960s would have made this hard to fake, but I suppose they could have animated the displays. There weren?t that many instances where a number display was shown, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable from a budget standpoint to animate a digital display.

Light emitting diode (LED) research advanced rapidly in the 1960s, so the research institutes that Roddenberry consulted should have been aware of possible applications for this technology. However, it wasn’t until after the Original Series had ended that LEDs were used for electronics test equipment, and later became ubiquitous in household appliances like alarm clock radios.

Liquid crystal research also advanced rapidly in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1972 that the first liquid crystal display (LCD) was produced. I became aware of LCD technology as I’m sure most of you born before the 1970s did when the technology was soon used for math calculator displays.

One of the things that made the original Star Trek look futuristic was all the blinking lights. Having numerical or character displays composed of lights would have added to the prescient nature of Star Trek.

1. ?

I admit that I was stumped in coming up with a tenth entry in this list. Rather than burst a blood vessel in my brain, I thought I would invite you to help me out. Does anyone have any suggestions for a technology that we use today that has rendered something we saw in Star Trek as obsolete?

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None of the movies has managed to introduce new inventions. Even the television series after the Original Series demonstrated a lack of imagination with only a few innovations. The Next Generation introduced the holodeck and nanotechnology. Voyager introduced bio-neural gel packs.

When we watch the Original Series nowadays, we immediately notice the crudeness of the visual effects and the cheapness that pervades the sets and planetary landscapes. The new Star Trek movie will no doubt rectify these problems. As well, it will most likely be updating the technology without introducing anything that is not commonplace now. But since we will be seeing mini-skirts in the new movie, maybe the new movie will retain other retro-futuristic touches.

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  • rus in chicago

    end it already

  • ProjectGenesis

    Ouch rus in chicago. I suggest a nice Spring walk to the Billy Goat for a double, some chips and a beer.

    I gotta say Reed, this is a very nuanced, detailed list. I probably couldn’t come up with something unless I really went back and watched TOS episodes with this trope in mind.

    Star Trek, for me, is enjoyed for the broad humanistic philosophies, Uhura’s ass and “He’s dead, Jim”.

  • rus in chicago, you have thrown down a gauntlet, so I’ll need to come up with another invention list. How about “Top 10 Inventions That Haven’t Been Invented, Yet, That Will Be Featured in the Next Star Trek Television Series”? Actually, I’d like to read that one. When I sent this Treknobabble off to Sean, I mentioned to him that people were probably bored with my invention lists. So thx for confirming my suspicion.

    Project Genesis, people have warned me about not getting into Star Trek minutiae. I guess I should stick to broader aspects like Uhura’s ass.

  • Lynne

    I’m not a Trekkie, and I’ve never really watched Star Trek (blasphemy, I’m sure!), but I find these lists fascinating.

    Just thought you should know. :)

  • Lynne, you made my day. Thx for taking the time to comment.

    It took me much effort to write these invention lists, and I’m not really satisfied. Much of my research relied on Wikipedia, so I hope people don’t start quoting the information in my lists! I would have liked to thoroughly research and ponder each entry in my lists, but I did the best with the time I had.

  • This is hilarious. I coined the term “Treknobabble” in the 1980s. It’s neat to see that the term has become semi-common parlance — common enough to use in a blog title, anyway. :)

    As for new technology introduced by movies, the Genesis Device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, I believe, the first case of nanotechnology being used in a movie. It is not described as “nanotechnology” in the film, because that term had not yet been coined, but the in-movie description of the technology behind Genesis is clearly nanotech.

  • bblackmoor, Sean chose the name “Treknobabble” for this blog column. I have seen the term used on the Internet to describe the pseudo-scientific dialog that the later Star Trek series were prone to use. This dialog annoyed many people. So I thought it was a good name choice for my column. :-)

    I have never thought of the Genesis Device as being based on nanotech. Thx for that info.

  • Ken Williams

    Digital storage. Remember all those computer “tapes” lying around and being inserted? The main thing they failed to envision was digital storage.

  • What about the chairs not being secured to the floor of the bridge? It seems that every time the Enterprise would shake the chairs and occupants would go flying across the bridge.

  • Worfy

    Hi!

    How about a “Computer presentation” (PowerPoint, etc.) that would be a lot better then the Flip chart that is used in Star Trek VI to brief the president?

    Seen here
    http://www.schnittberichte.com/www/SBs/2466/008.jpg

  • Ken Williams, those computer “tapes” didn’t look like they had moving parts, so I would guess they were using some sort of digital storage.

    Grady Christie, I did mention seat belts, but I guess the next step would have been to secure the chairs; otherwise, it would have been funny to see the characters strapped in their chairs tumbling about.

    Worfy, you’re right. The display graphics tended to be crappy although actual cutting edge technology was used for the Genesis report in Wrath of Khan. I think the Federation in Star Trek VI was facing budget cuts. :-)

  • Stephen

    In regards to your digital display comments the recently remastered Star Trek: TOS episodes have now fixed this.

  • Stephen, I didn’t realize that the remastered episodes had changed the number displays. I guess that makes sense to have done. I’ll have to pay closer attention. Thx for commenting!

  • Norm M

    I think what it is, is that liquid display would have broken whenever the ship shook, so they had to revert to more sturdy clocks.
    I think we can use our imaginations and make up ways that the original star trek was the way it was because it may be the best way to run a vehicle in space. I also think the displays that Uhura looked at or Spock have ‘privacy screens’ integrated in them so you can only see the text and numbers when sitting in the chair :) and that why to us, the look only like solid blocks of color because of the privacy screen.
    Of course, you will see the resister boards integrated inside spocks and Uhura’s console so when they contact lesser technologies, they can connect or accomodate some type of connection to the other species!
    They don’t need cup holders since star fleet personnel are so darn coordinated and the consoles are completely protected against liquid damage unlike our stupid keyboards on our desk today (we think we’re so advanced and we’re not) :)
    I agree with number 8, why don’t they have coats when they go to cold planets? I cannot explain this on since on “The Cage” they did have nice gray jackets on the planet scene.

    I guess there’s no reason to have seat belts on chairs that simply fall over, so that explains that :)
    For Fiber Optics, that is so ‘yesterday’ in Captain Kirk’s time so whatever he’s pulling on is way super advanced and has not been invented yet. :)
    Captain Kirk has big push buttons and labels on his chair because in an emergency, he doesn’t have time to flip through 25 Ipod menues….. that’s the best way I can think of to explain that.
    I’m now too tired to think of why Captain’s quarters has a square tv-like monitor instead of a flat screen unless it’s because there’s a compartment in the back where they all keep an oxygen masks for emergencies.

    I hate ‘remastered effects’ only because I like to study how the original special effects were put together and what was trying to be shown or what was trying to be left to the individual’s imagination. I think that TOS has a ‘retro’ look to it which makes it a classic and new special effects ruin it. It’s not that important really to have up to date effects, the show was more about stories and drama than fancy special effects.

  • @Norm M: I really enjoyed reading your comments, Norm. I completely agree in trying to rationalize what we see, because it exercises the brain.

    As for “remastered effects,” I love them. It gives me an incentive to re-watch episodes, and fall back in love with them.

  • Carl

    Circuit Breakers.
    How often did consoles blow up on the Bridge or in some other space because of enemy fire? How often is that necessary? Every single injury sustained that way would have been avoided by having good circuit breakers (or even a fuse box, fer gossake!) installed!

  • Jim Boepple

    On number 8 Winter Coat. The Enemy Within episode where Sulu and landing party were freezing on planet, they could not beam down supplies because the transporters were inoperable. They were broke down for a full week then everything was duplicated until they got them synchronized right. :)Star Trek s my favorite show! :)

  • Heather Taylor-Nicholson

    You mention Apple products quite a bit throughout the article. Maybe part of the problem with the lack of proper kit on the TOS Enterprise would be that they were Microsoft Windows users…;-)

    Ok, bad joke!

  • @Carl: I totally forgot about mentioning the lack of circuit breakers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comedy routine try to exploit this. Of course, having circuit breakers (as well as seat-belts) would have made the show less exciting.

    @Jim Boepple: I thought the transporter problem only applied to live specimens. Or do you think that trying to transport a winter coat would have resulted in winter coats being split into fall and spring jackets? :)

    @Heather: It will be interesting to see how the J.J. Abrams’ Apple Star Trek movie technology looks in 20 years time. Maybe a starship engine room will look like a brewery. :)