When Star Trek: the Original Series first premiered on 8 September 1966, it was ahead of its time in many respects, optimistically forecasting a future with people of all races (eh, most races) cooperating towards a shared goal: to explore the vast wonders of the universe we inhabit together.
It posited that, following a third world war, humanity would come together to form a single world government, make huge advancements in human rights and develop technologies that would allow us to traverse the stars at lightspeed.
We haven’t quite got there yet (and hopefully we can do it without the war part, although it’s not looking too promising) but Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s most famous work has gone on to inspire the creation of some of the technologies that we take for granted today – and, in some cases, even rely on to function on an everyday basis.
This is perhaps one of the most obvious examples of technology that seemed completely farfetched back in Rodenberry’s day but that many of us would struggle to survive without in the modern world. Star Trek’s communicators – not the badges of later series but the original flip phone style ones of the Kirk era – were clear precursors for the modern mobile phone.
Martin Cooper, the man often credited with the invention of the first viable mobile phone, has publicly stated that he was inspired by Star Trek’s communicators and phone developers went on to create flip phones that looked very much like those used by the crew of the Enterprise.
This technology actually predates Star Trek. In the real world, we call hyposprays – a form of hypodermic injection of medication used to deliver inoculations and other medicines – jet injectors. Originally designed for mass vaccinations, jet injectors are safer and faster than standard needles in administering vaccines.
They work by subcutaneously injecting a liquid vaccine, using high air pressure to shoot it deep enough under the skin that no needle in required. They’re similar in appearance to the kind of paint guns we use on cars and use a larger container for the vaccine, allowing doctors and other medical personnel to quickly inoculate large numbers of people.
Beam me up, Scotty! Kirk never actually said this famous line in the television show but the iconic transporter beams featured in just about every episode, reportedly because Roddenberry didn’t have a large enough budget to build a shuttlecraft set but needed a way to quicker transport characters from one place to another.
While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to move a human being from one place to another in this way – essentially by disassembling a person on the atomic level at one end and reassembling them in the same order at the other – we have technically achieved teleportation of photons (light particles) and atoms. However, the particles don’t actually disappear and reappear – an exact copy appears at the destination, while the original is destroyed. Human beings consist of around 15 trillion cells so it’s unlikely that this method is going to work for human teleportation – and we’d still have to destroy the original, which seems impractical at best and unethical at worst.
The ability to tow an entire starship (if we ever manage to invent such a thing outside of science-fiction) using a tractor beam still sounds out-of-this-world impossible but two New York University professors are working on it nonetheless, using a light beam to control tiny microscopic particles. These are basically optical tweezers aka small lasers focused into beams capable of manipulating molecules and moving them with precision, suspending them in an optical trap.
And in 2015, a team of UK-based engineers announced to the world that they’d invented a way to use soundwaves to move tiny objects of up to 5mm in size without physically touching them. They believe such technology in its current form has a lot of potential for medical usage, and expect that further study will lead to the development of larger, more powerful tractor beams that can move heavier objects in the future.