Technological Miracles or Science Fiction?

Mid-November 1977

photo courtesy Royal Jordanian Airlines

I had grabbed a copy of the International Herald Tribune as I boarded the short ALIA (Royal Jordanian Airlines) flight to Amman.

The simple pleasure of reading a newspaper at thirty-some thousand plus feet up can not be overstated.

>feature photo Arthur C. Clarke by

I sipped on a cup of coffee served by a cute stewardess. By the way, ALIA was going near the top of my “best airline” list that I was compiling (Thai International and Lufthansa occupied the numbers one and two spots thus far).

photo by

On page two of the Herald a familiar photo of a mushroom cloud introduced a short article about France performing another nuclear test at Mururoa Atoll. Instead of detonating the bomb in the desert or the North Pole the French had annihilated a beautiful tropical atoll (the U.S. had done the same thing in the Bikini Islands).

The photo told it all. The U.S. and Russia kept stock piling nuclear bombs and other nations were getting into the act. Where would the insanity end?

Commodore PET home/personal computer by

In the back pages of the Herald they featured a special “technology” section. The Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) highlighted the electronic products. The PET was a line of home/personal computers that just went on the market. There was something fantastic yet limited about a “personal computer.”

I wondered what people would use it for? Compute their math problems? Do their taxes? It would be great for writers. They could print out their own work. The other uses I had heard about seemed farfetched. For example, connecting people worldwide through their telephones into a computer mail system? That sounded Orwellian to me.

One of the crypto techs named Marconi told me in the future that radio, telephone, and crypto would all be “computerized.” I wasn’t sure about that one. I’m from Missouri (born on the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau) so you have to “show me.”

On the road, when I wasn’t reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee crime novels I read science fiction books such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1972) and Islands in the Sky (1956). During my recent trip to Cairo I picked up Clarke’s obscure Profiles of the Future (1962) at a book kiosk in the Nile Hilton Hotel. In Clarke’s rare non-fiction book he stated his laws about “technology,” which would probably become a household word before long. In his second law Clarke made an incredible statement: “There would one day exist a book-sized object capable of holding the contents of an entire library.”
book cover photo by

I enjoyed reading Clarke’s book, but for me it was just science fiction. A book sized object that held all the works in a library? A worldwide personal network? Clarke had an idea of building a space elevator so high that it reached into outer space (he was currently writing a book about it).

People taking an elevator up into outer space? It scared me (I suffered from the effects of claustrophobia and acrophobia) just thinking about that one (What if the elevator broke down at several miles up?).

I had seen the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), many times. It was an enjoyable, thought provoking fantasy. But, if technology did reach that level and computers controlled so much, it could lead to a lot of problems.

One thing I had observed was that if people were given enough time and saw that others accepted an idea or hypothesis then they would accept it too. That was a pretty scary thought.

T.E.R.P | Terminal Equipment Replacement Program

The crypto tech Marconi (one of the nicest guys I would ever meet) had told me that all the HW-28 Teletype machines would stop clattering in a few years (except in remote, low-key posts handling limited telegraphic traffic). They would be replaced by TERP, a computer-based terminal. It featured a quiet operation (would the CRO’s then all discover that they had hearing problems?).

Although I had not seen TERP, Marconi had shown me a picture. It had a large video monitor (like a TV), a silent keyboard, and what they called “disk drives.” Marconi said the telegraphic traffic would be stored on removable 5¼-inch round disks. The electronics of it was hidden behind black panels displayed by multicolored light indicators (sort of like HAL the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey). I could think of consequences…

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… The camera zooms in on the TERP’s video screen and a computerized voice (speaking like computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey) states, “Dave are you sure you want to send that SECRET NIACT IMMEDIATE message to SECSTATE? There is a thirty-percent likelihood that the result of your action would cause an international incident.”

The ALIA stewardess returned my smile as the drink cart pulled up. She said, “Would you like something to drink?”

“Ginger Ale with ice, please.”

While I munched on peanuts I remembered what Marconi had said: “TERP will be installed in a room-sized box, isolated from the outside world. No RF radio waves will be able to penetrate the box. Even the grounding is isolated. The box features a solenoid controlled door that will only open with cypher code.”

It sounded like something out of Arthur C. Clarke’s world all right. Would the box, remote from the contaminated atmosphere that inhabited the rest of the world, embellish Clarke’s “third law” in Profiles of the Future? It stated that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

As the crew turned on the “Fasten Seatbelt” lights in preparation for landing in Amman I realized I didn’t want to face the fact that my world was rapidly changing. I folded up my precious International Herald Tribune and emptied the coffee cup made more delicious by the rarified atmosphere.

The voice echoed in the cabin, “Ladies and gentlemen…”

But I didn’t have time to worry about fact versus science fiction. The Russian leader Brezhnev had his finger on the big red button, terrorism was increasing at an alarming rate, Am Embassy Amman needed my “immediate assistance,” and I hadn’t had a date in months…

3 Comments Add yours

  1. 53old says:

    It seems that often times science fiction writers aren’t forward thinking enough.


    1. Hi 53old
      I don’t think your comment applies to AC Clarke. Do you have an example?


      1. 53old says:

        You are absolutely right. Clarke was the least likely to have “under guessed” the future. His death was a great loss to the world.


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