The SciFi Timeline: Part 1

Despite always looking to the future, SciFi has a long and detailed past.  While not comprehensive, I’ve tried to compile a list of the most important and influential works of SciFi since before it began.  This is just phase one... More to come.  Think I’ve missed one?  Let me know in the comments.

Primordial Alien Ooze (1608-1817) 

1608 Johannes Kepler writes Somnium (The Dream) though not published until 1634.  Possibly the first SciFi story, the astronomer’s treatise looks at how people might view the Earth’s movements from the Moon but also includes descriptions of life forms on other worlds.

1666 The Blazing World by English noblewoman Margaret Cavendish, a gothic novel often described as an early forerunner of science fiction that includes a number of fanciful technological advances like a submarine that transports the Empress’ armies from the Blazing World, a mysterious “fire stone” that combusts when brought into contact with water, and a wind cannon powered ship.

1726 Jonathan Swift publishes Gulliver's Travels, a journey into a number of hidden worlds introducing the lead character to utopian and dystopian societies with their own political systems and a variety of scientific fantasies, technology that was a mere creation of the author’s mind.

Echoes from the Future (1818-1894)

1818/1826 The genre’s first full-fledged author, Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein and The Last Man (an apocalyptic tale of a world ravaged by a plague). In the first, she lays the foundation for both the horror and the science fiction novel, and creates a character that captures the most human side of man’s quest to conquer science, as well as one of the most enduring.  In the second, she proves she’s not a one trick pony by imagining the first ever completely post-apocalyptic Earth.  Pretty bleak for a woman married to a guy who wrote poetry all day about how pretty a certain vase is.

1827 Jane Webb Loudon publishes The Mummy! which concerns an Egyptian mummy named Cheops who is brought back to life in the year 2126, a future filled with advanced technology.  Again showing how close the horror and science fiction genre are in their inception.    

1829-49 Edgar Allan Poe authors a number of poems and stories with SciFi themes or moods including "Al Aaraaf" with its focus on Astronomy and the apparent destruction of the planet Earth, "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," in which the narrator employs mesmeric assistance (i.e. Hypnosis) to gain access through a portal into what seems to be a vividly delineated Parallel World, and “Eureka,” a treatise on Cosmology that anticipates concepts such as black holes.  Poe, another founder of horror, was fascinated with science and especially the powers of the human body.

1864 Jules Verne publishes Voyage au centre de la Terre, or A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, about a German professor who enters volcanic tubes in Iceland, encountering many adventures, including prehistoric animals and natural hazards, a work inspired by his readings of scientific texts.  Of course, like many science fiction authors, as his work ages, actual science disproves much of his writing.  However, his adventurer’s spirit, to boldly go where no man has gone before will always be a tenet of the genre.  Other Verne works include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and From the Earth to the Moon.

1886 Robert Louis Stevenson publishes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde about a London lawyer named Gabriel John Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the evil Edward Hyde, and the scientific research he is doing to split his personalities.  There are 123 film versions of this work alone. This is another novel that could be argued as both horror and science fiction, although the format and keen interest in medical factuality lend itself more to SciFi.

1889 Mark Twain publishes A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Though on surface the only thing SciFi about it is the time travel, the book features a great deal of social commentary, a typical tenet of the genre.

Our Cosmic Forefathers (1895-1927)

1895 H. G. Wells publishes The Time Machine.  In the book, the Time Traveler speaks of the future world, with its two races, one living above ground and the other below the Earth, as having evolved from “the gradual widening of the present (19th century) merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer ... Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people ... is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.”  The first prolific father of science fiction, Wells is responsible for countless stories that have defined the boundaries of what science fiction can be. The Time Machine was followed quickly on by The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901), A Modern Utopia (1905), In the Days of the Comet (1906), and The War in the Air (1908).

1895 Also in 1895, The Lumière Brothers show the first motion films on their ‘cinematograph.’ Each film is 17 meters long, which, when hand cranked through a projector, runs approximately 50 seconds.  As the new century dawned, science fiction began a steady change into science fact.  Electricity, the telegraph, and new forms of powered transportation, took their place in society and people began to dream of the impossible becoming possible. 

1902 Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon becomes the first science fiction film.  The film follows a group of astronomers who travel to the Moon in a cannon-propelled capsule, explore the Moon's surface, escape from an underground group of Selenites (lunar inhabitants), and return with a splashdown to Earth with a captive Selenite.

1910 Thomas Edison's film company produces the first film adaptation of Frankenstein. The production was deliberately designed to de-emphasize the horrific aspects of the story and focus "...upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale."

1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs publishes Under the Moons of Mars, the first of his three-decade-long series of Barsoom stories and novels, situated on Mars and featuring John Carter as the hero.  100 years later, Disney totally botches the release of first film version by renaming it something that makes it sound like a Denzel Washington film about the health care system.

1915 Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity, the cornerstone of modern physics. The most important contribution his theory had for science fiction was the understanding that an intense gravitational field can cause a bending of light and space time, used in countless films to help travel long distances and to actually go back in time.  More importantly, science became a revered profession. Buildings were constructed with the names of a few famous scientists carved into the stone. Science, still young and mysterious, hoped to dive into the few corners still left unexplored and unconquered.

1920 The New York Times publishes a report on the work on Robert H. Goddard and his ideas about photographing the Moon and planets from rocket-powered fly-by probes, sending messages to distant civilizations on inscribed metal plates, the use of solar energy in space, and the idea of high-velocity ion propulsion.  The next day his ideas were eviscerated in editorials across the press (The Times included).  His response is very SciFi: “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace.” Forty-nine years after its editorial mocking Goddard, on July 17, 1969 — the day after the launch of Apollo 11 — The New York Times published a short item under the headline "A Correction."

1921 The word "robot" is used for the first time in the Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek. It is derived from the Czech word robota which means "statute labour.”  By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages.  The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), out of synthetic organic matter, who join the workforce.  They seem happy to work for humans at first, but that changes, and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race.  As they are want to do...

1926 Hugo Gernsback founds Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction.  He called it “Scientifiction.”  Writers whose first story was published in the magazine include Isaac Asimov, Howard Fast, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roger Zelazny.  The magazine continued publication non-stop until 1995.  Director Steven Spielberg licensed the title ‘Amazing Stories’ for use on an American television show called that ran from 1985 to 1987 and featured the early work of Brad Bird, Mick Garris, and Bob Balaban.

1927 Fritz Lang releases his ground-breaking classic Metropolis, the first feature length movie of the genre. Set in a futuristic urban dystopia, Metropolis follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city's ruler, and Maria (who is replaced by a robot), and was, at the time, the most expensive film ever released. The effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created pioneering visual effects for Metropolis. Among the effects used are miniatures of the city, a camera on a swing, and most notably, the Schüfftan process, in which mirrors are used to create the illusion that actors are occupying miniature sets.

Read PART 2 (1928-1968)