I signed on this ship to practice medicine, not to have my atoms scattered back and forth across space by this gadget.—
For the average Joe, the notion of matter transmission is an intriguing, though rather nebulous concept, which begins and ends with Star Trek and the pop culture catchphrase, "Beam me up, Scotty." Never mind, of course, that this phrase doesn't actually appear anywhere in the Star Trek canon. It's still sufficiently popular that it generates a couple hundred thousand Google hits (185,000 at last count).
But the fictional concept of matter transmission was hardly a new one when it debuted on Star Trek in 1966. By that time the device was old hat for science fiction fans, having first appeared about a century earlier and turning up numerous times after that in short stories, novels, and movies.
One of the earliest occurrences of something resembling matter transmission came in 1855, in Sidney Whiting's novel Helionde: Or, Adventures in the Sun, a book that also described a recording device, of sorts, as "very delicate machinery, which stamped indelibly the language expressed." Though perhaps not an example of matter transmission in the sense that we tend to think of it—the protagonist dreams that he's dissolved into vapor and transported to the sun, which is inhabited—
The first fictional gizmo used to transmit matter appeared in Edward Page Mitchell's "The Man Without a Body," a short story published in the New York Sun on March 25, 1877. Mitchell published a number of other stories in the Sun during this period, including "The Clock That Went Backward" and "The Soul Spectroscope." The latter, published two years before Edison invented the phonograph, finds Professor Dummkopf planning to bottle music so that he can one day "put operas in quart bottles" and "light and popular airs in ounce vials."
In "The Man Without a Body," the narrator encounters a partially mummified head in a museum. As the head begins to speak, revealing what is left of Dummkopf, the story takes on a decidedly whimsical tone. Dummkopf, who was responsible for such scientific accomplishments as photographing smell and freezing the aurora borealis, is also the first man to experiment with transmitting matter over telephone lines, using a device he has dubbed the Telepomp.
Dummkopf starts small, transmitting such items as a three-cent postage stamp, then works his way up to "a black and yellow cat," and finally decides to try the experiment on a human—himself. Needless to say, the experiment goes awry and Dummkopf's body ends up "Lord knows where."
Telephone wires also figure in Robert Milne's story, "Professor Vehr's Electrical Experiment," which appeared in the January 24, 1885 issue of a publication called The Argonaut. The Professor, who had figured previously in Milne's "A Modern Magic Mirror," devised machinery that allowed him to dissolve a person into energy. This was transmitted to New Orleans, where the subject was brought back to his original form. Alas, an attempt to return the subject and his love interest to their starting point went haywire and they were, as Milne puts it, "dispersed into the ether."
In 1889, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his novel The Mystery of Cloomber, had his narrator encounter three Indian Buddhists who have taken up residence in a deserted fisher cottage on the coast of Scotland following a shipwreck. Two of the men are in a deep trance and the third reveals that they are actually on the "banks of the Ganges" at that very moment. This might be dismissed as a simple case of astral projection were it not for the man's description of the phenomenon: "This is accomplished by our power of resolving an object into its chemical atoms, of conveying these atoms with a speed which exceeds that of lightning to any given spot, and of there re-precipitating them and compelling them to retake their original form."
Nearly forty years later, in a short story called "The Disintegration Machine," Doyle presented the Nemor Disintegrator. Theodore Nemor, a key character in the tale, was a Latvian gentleman "who claims to have invented a machine of a most extraordinary character which is capable of disintegrating any object placed within its sphere of influence. Matter dissolves and returns to its molecular or atomic condition. By reversing the process it can be reassembled." Though not a matter transmission gadget, in the strictest sense of the word, the notion of dissolving and reassembling an object is obviously part and parcel of most conceptions of this process.
As the twentieth century dawned, the idea of matter transmission would become an even more popular fictional device. Writing in 1962, Hugo Gernsback, an influential publisher and the man often credited as the father of science fiction, erroneously recalled that the concept had been around since 1909.
An unrepentant technophile, Gernsback was "quite sanguine that teleportation will be with us in the not-too-distant future." He reckoned that he was "probably the first to speak of particle transmission at will." This alleged milestone came in the February 1909 issue of his magazine Modern Electrics, when he conceived of the Interplanetarian Wireless Food Co., a firm that would make its mark by "conveying food through the ether wirelessly for unlimited distance." Onions would have been one of the noteworthy omissions, given the fact that "the odor is lost in transmission—and an onion without smell is like a bridegroom without libido."
Gernsback's 1909 piece went on to give an intricate and involved explanation of the process by which this would occur, an explanation that amounted to pure gibberish, but which must have delighted his geeky readers. In his 1962 essay, he gave a partial list, composed of twenty science fiction stories published between 1927 and 1956, that made use of the concept of matter transmission.
Among these occurrences was the Clement Fezandie 1922 short "The Secret of Electrical Transmission," which appeared in Science and Invention magazine. It featured the aging scientist and inventor, Dr. Hackensaw, a character who turned up in Fezandie's other stories from time and time and who came up with such inventions as invisibility and time travel, just to name a few.
A few years later, in Argosy, Ralph Milne Farley kicked off a serialized trilogy of Burroughsian adventures that took place on Venus. The Radio Man, The Radio Beasts, and The Radio Planet appeared in 1924, 1925, and 1926 and were later issued in novel form. They centered around the lurid adventures of one Myles Standish Cabot, the inventor of a matter transmitter, and, as the narrator of The Radio Beasts described him, "the greatest radio genius I have ever known."
The notion that matter could be transmitted turned up again a few years later, in 1931, in the nonfiction book Lo! by Charles Fort—
What's arguably one of the more infamous instances of teleportation came in 1939, in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy fired up her matter-transmitting ruby slippers by simply clicking her heels together three times and reciting the words "there's no place like home." Or maybe that was simply magic.
In "Special Delivery," a 1945 story published in Astounding Science Fiction, writer George O. Smith was more specific about how the process of matter transmission was affected, describing how items were broken down to the atomic level, stored in a "matter bank" and then recreated from another matter bank on the receiving end. A similar device that only duplicated matter turned up in others of the thirteen-story series Smith wrote that included "Special Delivery."
Also appearing in 1945's Astounding Science Fiction was A. E. van Vogt's World of Null-A. Like his The Mixed Men, it makes use of the gimmick of matter transmission. This convention also turned up two years later in "The Vanishing Spaceman" by Alexander Blade. In Henry Kuttner's The Time Axis, which appeared in 1949, "matter-transmission" took the place of public transportation, being carried out by "discs of dull metal set in the pavement" at various intervals.
While it may or may not have been the first time matter transmission turned up on TV, the gimmick made at least one appearance in the Flash Gordon serials that were so popular in the 1950s. In "The Brain Machine," Zydereen, the mad witch of Neptune, employed a matter transmitter and a solar ray to advance her scurrilous agenda. An episode that aired a few months later—"The Matter Duplicator"—
That same year also saw matter transmitters turn up in Tunnel in the Sky, a novel by SF heavyweight Robert Heinlein. It featured a device that instantly transported humans to other planets light-years away. Known as a Ramsbotham Gate, it was named for its fictional inventor Dr. Jesse Evelyn Ramsbotham.
The following year brought one of the great SF movies of all time to the silver screen. Forbidden Planet didn't utilize matter transmission, but the gadget the crew stands in as the ship is downshifting from faster than light speeds bears more than a passing resemblance to Star Trek's transporter.
In Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, which first appeared in 1956, teleportation was achieved, as in Jumper, not by gadgetry, but by mental powers. As the author noted, the character "had to visualize, completely and precisely, the spot to which he desired to teleport himself; and he had to concentrate the latent energy of his mind into a single thrust to get him there."
While the transporters on Star Trek were often made to malfunction in various dramatic and spectacular ways, one of the most memorable foul-ups involving matter transmission came nearly a decade before that show graced the airwaves. It took place in a short story by George Langelaan that appeared in the June 1957 edition of Playboy magazine. The following year, that story—
Nasty malfunctions aside, matter transmitters continued to turn up in science fiction novels in the years leading up to Star Trek's TV debut. Among them was Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, which employs a device that essentially records the position of a person's atoms and recreates them from materials on hand when they are "beamed" to the moon.
In The Wailing Asteroid, published in 1961, Murray Leinster offered up the idea that transmitting matter by a transmitter would be "a self-defeating operation" and proposed that a matter-transposer be used instead. What he leaves up in the air is just exactly what the distinction is between the two.
Other fictional appearances of matter transmission in the early sixties included the comic book The Creature From Krogarr. In it, a modified television set allows for transporting between Earth and Krogarr. The concept also appeared in a 1961 Analog short story by James. H. Schmitz and "The Galaxy Being" (1963) and "The Mice" (1964), which were both episodes of The Outer Limits.
In Clifford Simak's 1964 novel Way Station, the convention of matter transmission is carried out by mysterious aliens who utilize "transfer booths." While Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also published in 1964, is not typically lumped in with science fiction, it makes use of science fictional notion of matter transmission, as described by Mr. Wonka himself: "if these people can break up a photograph into millions of pieces and send the pieces whizzing through the air and then put them together again at the other end [television], why can't I do the same with a bar of chocolate?"
Though Star Trek's transporter technically was not even invented—
As already noted, the resemblance of the transporter to the machinery in Forbidden Planet is so striking that it's hard to imagine that it's a coincidence. According to some accounts, The Fly also served as inspiration for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his cohorts. While the original plan for Star Trek called for a ship to land on the planet of the week, budgetary concerns shot that notion in the foot and one of the most famous gadgets in all of SF was conceived primarily as a means to save a few bucks.
Of course, just as matter transmission didn't begin with Star Trek, neither did it end there. The concept has turned up often in printed and visual works of SF over the course of the last forty-odd years. And though we now hear reports of scientists making halting preliminary efforts to put this science fictional notion into practice, it's safe to say that it's not time to toss out your frequent flyer card just yet.
Niven, Larry. "Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation" in All the Myriad Ways. 1971.