Sci-Fi Pioneer Hugo Gernsback Predicts Telemedicine in 1925

If you’ve ever won­dered why one of sci­ence fiction’s great­est hon­ors is called the “Hugo,” meet Hugo Gerns­back, one of the genre’s most impor­tant fig­ures, a man whose work has been var­i­ous­ly described as “dread­ful,” “tawdry,” “incom­pe­tent,” “grace­less,” and “a sort of ani­mat­ed cat­a­logue of gad­gets.” But Gerns­back isn’t remem­bered as a writer, but as an edi­tor, pub­lish­er (of Amaz­ing Sto­ries mag­a­zine), and pio­neer of sci­ence fact, for it was Gerns­back who first intro­duced the earth-shak­ing tech­nol­o­gy of radio to the mass­es in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

“In 1905 (just a year after emi­grat­ing to the U.S. from Ger­many at the age of 20),” writes Matt Novak at Smith­son­ian, “Gerns­back designed the first home radio set and the first mail-order radio busi­ness in the world.” He would lat­er pub­lish the first radio mag­a­zine, then, in 1913, a mag­a­zine that came to be called Sci­ence and Inven­tion, a place where Gerns­back could print cat­a­logues of gad­gets with­out the both­er of hav­ing to please lit­er­ary crit­ics. In these pages he shone, pre­dict­ing futur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies extrap­o­lat­ed from the cut­ting edge. He was under­stand­ably enthu­si­as­tic about the future of radio. Like all self-appoint­ed futur­ists, his pre­dic­tions were a mix of the ridicu­lous and the prophet­ic.

Case in point: Gerns­back the­o­rized in a 1925  Sci­ence and Inven­tion arti­cle that com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies like radio would rev­o­lu­tion­ize med­i­cine, in exact­ly the ways that they have in the 21st cen­tu­ry, though not quite through the device Gerns­back invent­ed: the “teledactyl,” which is not a robot­ic dinosaur but a telemed­i­cine plat­form that would allow doc­tors to exam­ine, diag­nose, and treat patients from a dis­tance with robot­ic arms, a hap­tic feed­back sys­tem, and “by means of a tele­vi­sion screen.” Nev­er mind that tele­vi­sion did­n’t exist in 1925. Sound­ing not a lit­tle like his con­tem­po­rary Buck­min­ster Fuller, Gerns­back insist­ed that his device “can be built today with means avail­able right now.”

It would require sig­nif­i­cant upgrades to radio tech­nol­o­gy before it could sup­port the wire­less inter­net that lets us meet with doc­tors on com­put­er screens. Per­haps Gerns­back was­n’t entire­ly wrong — tech­nol­o­gy may have allowed for some ver­sion of this in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, if med­i­cine had been inspired to move in a more sci-fi direc­tion. But the focus of the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty — after the dev­as­ta­tion of the 1918 flu epi­dem­ic — had under­stand­ably turned toward dis­ease cure and pre­ven­tion, not dis­tance diag­no­sis.

Gerns­back looked fifty years ahead, to a time, he wrote, when “the busy doc­tor… will not be able to vis­it his patients as he does now. It takes too much time, and he can only, at best, see a lim­it­ed num­ber today.” Home vis­its did not last anoth­er fifty years, but remote med­i­cine did­n’t take their place until almost 100 years after Gerns­back wrote. Indeed, the web­cams that now give doc­tors access to patients in the pan­dem­ic only came about in 1991 for the pur­pose of mak­ing sure the break room in the com­put­er sci­ence depart­ment at Cam­bridge had cof­fee.

Gerns­back even antic­i­pat­ed advances in space med­i­cine, which has spent the last sev­er­al years build­ing the tech­nol­o­gy he pre­dict­ed in order to per­form surg­eries on sick and injured astro­nauts stuck months or years away from Earth. He would have par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­ci­at­ed this usage, though he isn’t giv­en cred­it for the idea. Gerns­back also deserves cred­it for pok­ing fun at him­self, as he seemed to real­ize how hard it was for most peo­ple to take him seri­ous­ly.

To non-vision­ar­ies, the tech­nolo­gies of the future would all seem equal­ly ridicu­lous today, as in the pages of Gerns­back­’s satir­i­cal 1947 pub­li­ca­tion, Pop­u­lar Neck­an­ics Gagazine. Here, we find such objects as the Lam­pli­fi­er, “the lamp that has EVERYTHING.” Gerns­back­’s love of gad­gets blurred the bound­aries between sci­ence fic­tion and fact, always with the strong sug­ges­tion that — no mat­ter how use­ful or how ludi­crous — if a machine could be imag­ined, it could be built and put to work.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Iso­la­tor: A 1925 Hel­met Designed to Elim­i­nate Dis­trac­tions & Increase Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty (Cre­at­ed by Sci­Fi Pio­neer Hugo Gerns­back)

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

Enter a Huge Archive of Amaz­ing Sto­ries, the World’s First Sci­ence Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Launched in 1926

Sci-Fi Author J.G. Bal­lard Pre­dicts the Rise of Social Media (1977)

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts in 2001 What the World Will Look By Decem­ber 31, 2100

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • gwr says:

    Also, Kurt Lass­witz, the father of Ger­man Sci-Fi, wrote a short sto­ry in 1899 called “die Fernschule”(“the Long Dis­tance School”) which basi­cal­ly (and accu­rate­ly — some­what) pre­dicts Zoom class­es.

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