Early Predictions of the Internet Date Back to 19th Century Sci-Fi

Image: Leaving the opera in the year 2000, lithograph by Albert Robida (late 19th century)
FirstsFirstsThis week we're taking a look at first things, early things, and—for better or worse—things that are #1.

Science fiction writers are professional future-dreamers, imagining worlds far beyond their own. With technology advancing at astronomical rates, real life feels more and more like sci-fi every day (for better or worse). So it’s fun to look back at those writers who, decades and even centuries ago, imagined what life would be like now—and some of their predictions were surprisingly accurate.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly who was the first to predict the internet, because the further back we go the more abstract these predictions become. However, these three authors are the best contenders for the title—within the very limited confines of Western European fiction—and you can decide which one of them was truly the first to predict the internet as it works today.

Edward Mitchell — The Senator’s Daughter (1879)

Edward Page Mitchell is far from a household name. Yet he was a foundational figure for modern sci-fi, dreaming up faster-than-light travel, cyborgs, teleportation, mutants, and time travel long before HG Wells and other more well-known writers developed these ideas. Despite being born in 1852, Mitchell’s short stories were amazingly prescient, and The Senator’s Daughter features a fascinating machine that parallels social media newsfeeds.

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Written in 1879 but set in 1937, The Senator’s Daughter imagines the future of world politics, as a poignant, star-crossed romance plays out. Our young lovers are divided by politics and race, and Mitchell’s social commentary makes this story well worth a read. Although the focus is largely socio-political, Mitchell uses fantastic technology to place the events in the future—and that’s where we find our internet prediction. Here’s an excerpt:

[Mr. Wanlee] went to one side of the room, where an endless strip of printed paper, about three feet wide, was slowly issuing from between noiseless rollers and falling in neat folds into a willow basket placed on the floor to receive it. Mr. Wanlee bent his head over the broad strip of paper and began to read attentively.

“You take the Contemporaneous News, I suppose,” said the other.

“No, I prefer the Interminable Intelligencer,” replied Mr. Wanlee.

This unnamed contraption provides a constant stream of news from multiple different publications, reporting on live events around the world. It may seem small, but it’s quite amazing that Mitchell dreamed this machine up, considering that electronic printers were far from being invented. The immediacy of the reports, the breadth of publications, and the fact that this is all available in Mr Wanlee’s own home is reminiscent of social media newsfeeds, RSS feeds, and even Google News.

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As Mitchell was primarily a journalist, it’s fitting that he predicted news culture in the internet age. However, although this story was chronologically published before the others on this list, Mitchell’s news machine is maybe a little too specific to be considered an all-encompassing prediction of the internet. But he wasn’t the only one to imagine live reports from around the world…

Mark Twain — From The London Times in 1904 (1898)

Mark Twain might be known for his sardonic depictions of quaint American life, but he occasionally branched out into other genres with his short stories. The 1898 story From The London Times In 1904 introduces a machine called the Telectroscope, described as a “limitless-distance” telephone that allows the user to view events all around the world in real-time, as well as interact with the people there. This provides comfort to one Mr Clayton, a man awaiting his execution after being accused of murder.

…day by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people, and realized that by grace of this marvelous instrument he was almost as free as the birds of the air, although a prisoner under locks and bars.

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In Twain’s story, the Telectroscope reveals that the man Clayton supposedly killed is still alive. Clayton is released, but the courts rule that his execution must still be carried out. Despite the evidence, Clayton is executed at the end of the story. In our current culture of defiance in the face of apparently indisputable evidence (say, of a crowd gathering to see a president elected), Twain’s scathing tale of obstinate blindness to the truth certainly resonates.

Unsurprisingly, Twain is frequently credited with being the first to predict smartphones and social media, as the Telectroscope is similar to the livestreams and video chats we use today. However, there is another author who arguably got much closer to a comprehensive view of how the internet works…

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E.M. Forster — The Machine Stops (1909)

Between two of his most famous works, A Room With A View and Howard’s End, E.M. Forster took a break from writing about class hypocrisy to pen a futurist novella that doesn’t just predict many of the functions of the internet, but also its effect on society. The Machine Stops is set in a post-apocalyptic future wherein humanity has retreated underground to live in pods. Their society is managed, maintained, and controlled by the Machine, an automatic entity that is revered by all. The Machine provides every material comfort for the population, as well as allowing them to access a vast archive of information, and communicate with each other visually and aurally.

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. [...] There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

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Although radio and telephones were becoming more widespread when Forster was writing, such a vast, automatic network was unheard of in 1909. The Machine parallels the internet in dozens of ways, from co-ordinating the practicalities of this society (much like how traffic lights are run automatically today), to archives of information and film, to instant communication.

This apparently comfortable society is not without its problems, however. People are wary of touching one another, and dare not question the Machine. In fact, we could even argue that Forster predicted the social media bubble, wherein people regurgitate ideas to those in their little internet community — at one point in The Machine Stops, a university professor warns people to “beware of new ideas!”

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Although The Machine Stops was predated by Twain and Mitchell’s stories, Forster’s predictions are far more all-encompassing, with the Machine paralleling the internet beyond mere elements of social media. There will always be debate over who predicted the internet first, but Forster’s foresight is eerily similar to modern day. Ultimately, the Machine breaks down and with it, so does this civilization. We’ll just have to hope that this particular prediction doesn’t come true.

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About the author

Eleanor Tremeer

I talk about Star Trek a lot. Sometimes I'm paid for it.