Arts, Culture & Media

A science fiction writer from the Soviet Union found the secret to time-travel


A flying "Tardis" remote control air craft is test flown in San Diego, California November 18, 2013.


Mike Blake/REUTERS

For more than a century, science fiction and invention have been caught in a kind of quantum entanglement; certain technologies have emerged from a lab and simultaneously from the pages of pulp novels.

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“Extravagant Fiction Today — Cold Fact Tomorrow”— that was the motto of the early 20th century magazine Amazing Stories that helped readers to peer over the horizon at wonders like the television. Hugo Gernsback — the magnate who published a stable of sci-fi magazines — argued for a new storytelling genre that he called “scientifiction,” halfway between engineering and fiction. Side by side with his magazines about time-travel machines and starships, he released journals for inventors and put Nikola Tesla on the cover of one of his publications.

Indeed, hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of technologies have begun as stories or movie props and then tiptoed into reality. In the original Star Trek TV series, the medical tricorder looked suspiciously like it was made out of a cassette player and a salt shaker, but it functioned in a mind-bending way that infected our fantasies: it could peer through the skin and deep into the body, scanning and sensing to come up with an accurate diagnosis. Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, in an effort to inspire real-world engineers, reportedly inserted a clause in his contract with Desilu/Paramount that would let anyone who created a hand-held, computerized diagnostic tool call it a “tricorder.” He intended his Star Trek gizmo to act as a kind of prototype, and indeed it did. A number of companies are now racing to create real-life versions of the machine.

We’re used to the idea that a science-fiction story can predict or help create a demand for a new technology. But less discussed is this: inventors often do the same kind of imaginary work. Brian David Johnson, the futurist at Intel Corporation, advocates for experimenting with written narratives, films, and cartoons to envision new possibilities — a technique he calls “science-fiction prototyping.” We can “use these fictions to get our minds around what that thing might one day be,” he wrote.

As we saw in the previous chapters, Silicon Valley embraced the idea that the engineers in polyester shirts and pocket protectors could double as dreamy soothsayers. As computer chips, and Moore’s Law, spread into many other industries, so too did science-fiction thinking.

Perhaps no one has ever deployed that kind of thinking as artfully as Genrich Altshuller, a popular Soviet science-fiction writer of the mid-twentieth century who set out to reinvent invention itself. Altshuller spent most of his life in the mountainous region where Europe melts into Asia. Mentally, too, he inhabited a borderland. He was one of the first people — perhaps the first — to create a formula for invention that involved science-fiction-style prediction, cognitive

science, and deep knowledge of the way technological systems (like aviation) progress through history. Though bits and pieces of Altshuller’s method eventually caught on in the corporate world, few Americans are aware of his existence. And that’s an oversight I’d like to correct. In the 1950s, Altshuller declared a new science of inventing; and he recognized, before perhaps anyone else, that it was possible to study how machines arise in the human mind. He should be considered the father of Inventology. And yet, many of his writings still have not been translated into English. So in this chapter, we’ll try to understand the groundwork that he laid out for the new discipline he had invented.

As a boy in the 1930s, Genrich Altshuller wandered a cobblestoned maze of streets in Baku, a city with views of the Caspian Sea and oil derricks strewn around like children’s toys. These, along with the books of Jules Verne, fed his imagination.

By the age of 14, he began to draw plans for his own inventions inspired by the fictional technologies in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “Captain Nemo walked on the ocean bed — that’s why we need pressure suits,” he thought, and then he designed a diving suit.

By the age of 20, he’d joined the Soviet navy, a skinny kid with a black sailor’s cap wedged on his head like a plug to contain all of the ideas that bubbled inside him. The Soviet ships limped through the water, their engines wheezing, always in need of ingenious repair — and Altshuller became the fleet’s fix-it man. His wizardry attracted notice, and soon he was working as an inspector in a patent office connected with the Baku naval base, where he pored over stacks of applications for new inventions in aviation, medicine, weaponry, and chemistry. Many of the would-be patents that came into the office were terrible; he’d scan a blueprint and realize that the machine wouldn’t work. He began to wonder what separated the failures from the successes. How did some inventors solve problems that stumped everyone else? He and his best friend, Rafael Shapiro, wandered through the library, looking for answers to this question.

They assumed they would find lots of books that taught the craft of invention. After all, “there were whole shelves of books on patent law and patent research, . . . [so] there ought to be 10 times as much material on the psychology of inventors’ creativity, on techniques for solving inventors’ problems,” Altshuller said later. Instead, he discovered that almost nothing useful had been written on the subject.

One day, in 1945 or so, it dawned on him that all the secrets to inventiveness had been right in front of him all along, hidden in the patent system itself. He realized that the most valuable clues to the human brain are revealed in the things we design, in the way one machine improves on its predecessor, and that technology evolves over time — in other words, the patent system is a mirror of the human mind operating at its peak. It could be mined, like a mountain, for veins of ore; if you only knew how to search through it, you could discover the core principles of creativity itself.

Today, in the age of big data, we recognize the value of this kind of analysis. But in the 1940s, few people had ever tried to datamine their way to an answer. Altshuller, an Azerbaijani with no phone in his house and limited access to news of the world, had realized the power of large amounts of data to reveal patterns. For two years, he toiled at the patent office and camped out in the library, returning to his parents’ home only to drop exhausted into bed, as he struggled through the entire patent system. Later he claimed that he identified two hundred thousand patents that he thought would contain clues about successful problem solving and that he read through forty thousand of them to find patterns.

In the blueprints of the past, he could trace the origins of great breakthroughs and observe how inventors leaped forward — for instance, he might study a patent that showed how one mechanic built an engine into a bicycle in order to create the first motorcycle, and then map out how that idea spread as other minds improved on it. By the late 1940s, he had begun to boil down all that they had learned from the patent system into a set of principles.

“Inventors always have two secrets,” he wrote in 1961. The first, of course, is the creative insight that leads to a new technology or improvement.

“The second is how they make their inventions. ... Sailors have long been mapping the currents, sandbars, and reefs ... so that everyone knows about [the dangers]. For centuries, inventors have done without a map; every beginner has been making the very same mistakes,” he observed.

And now Altshuller would chart that map. He believed it would protect the next generation from crashing on the shoals of befuddlement and guide them to open waters where they could discover vast new continents of technical knowledge.

Then, just as Altshuller was actually putting his system into practice to invent novel technologies, he was seized by the military police, thrown into prison and accused of sedition. ... He was seen as a danger to Stalin’s regime and what that tells us about the politics of inventing. But for now, let’s fast-forward to the mid-1950s, after his release from Vorkuta labor camp, when he returned to his home city of Baku and took up again his crusade to understand the nature of invention.

After his release, Altshuller holed up in his apartment and began typing furiously. He was determined to make a living as a science-fiction writer, and by the late 1950s he was succeeding at that, publishing stories under several pen names; he would become one of the bestknown Russian science-fiction writers of that era.

He considered his stories to be not just entertainments but also blueprints of machines that could exist in the future. “Since my childhood ... science fiction determined my life. It is a kind of religion [for me],” he confided to friends in a 1964 letter. “I prefer prognostic science fiction” he added, because it allows the writer to “look into the future as precisely and far as possible.”

In a particularly impressive example of that prognostication — a story published in 1966 and titled “The Donkey Axiom”— he described a working 3-D printer that could create objects out of powder.

In the story, he explained that if you look at historical trends, you realize that personal factories (i.e., 3-D printers) will have to be invented in the 21st century. The cycle of improvement is continually speeding up, he pointed out, and he imagined a time in which conventional, large-scale factories wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace of technological breakthroughs. After “color TV was developed ... hundreds of millions of [black-and-white TV] sets in perfect working order were thrown away.” Pretty soon, the color sets would become outdated, too, Altshuller predicted, and they would be tossed out to make way for “stereovision.”

By the 21st century, he forecast, products would be obsolete in a matter of days. Then consumers would need to update technology constantly, “mercilessly throwing out billions of new machines simply because they are no longer the latest thing.”

At that point, products would be made from powder so that they could be continually destroyed and resurrected. It’s an unnervingly prescient take on the logic that has led us to where we are today ... Altshuller had been able to construct that new technology in his mind decades ahead of time.

Excerpted from Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World © 2016 by Pagan Kennedy. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.