If H.G. Wells were still alive, September 21 would be his 147th birthday. Who knows, he is one of the greatest science fiction writers, he might have figured out a way to live forever and is hiding out somewhere. Shake your head all you want at the unlikeliness of that idea, but take a moment to consider the seven things below that he predicted well before they actually were invented and you might reconsider.
1. Heat Rays
The Martian invaders in Wells' 1898 War of the Worlds relied on a heat ray as their primary weapon. "Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it. Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire."
The U.S. military has developed its own heat ray weapon. The Active Denial System, designed to be a non-lethal weapon against enemy troops, projects a wavelength that causes an intense burning sensation without leaving permanent damage. The U.S. Marines demonstrated the weapons maritime uses just last week.
2. Genetic Engineering
A central theme in 1896's The Island of Doctor Moreau is genetic engineering, specifically animal modification. "I began with a sheep, and killed it after a day and a half by a slip of the scalpel. I took another sheep, and made a thing of pain and fear and left it bound up to heal. It looked quite human to me when I had finished it; but when I went to it I was discontented with it."
Wells envisioned actually sewing parts of creatures together to make a new whole. In reality, genetic science works in a more exacting way and given us everything from herbicide tolerant crops to glow-in-the-dark cats.
3. Automatic Doors
"[I]nstead of going through the archway as he expected, walked straight to the dead wall of the apartment opposite the archway. A long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap, hung over the two retreating men and fell again."
One of Wells best known works is 1897's The Invisible Man. For those that haven't read it (which you definitely should), it essentially tells the story of a former medical student that tests his invisibility medicine on himself, is unable to reverse the condition and becomes very unstable. "I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they are got."
True invisibility is still a ways off but scientists are getting there. Using everything from cameras to nanotechnology to good old fashioned mirrors, science is inching closer and closer to allowing us to disappear like Wells' protagonist. Let's just hope when invisibility cloaks get mass produced we don't all go crazy violent like in the novel.
5. Atomic Bomb
Written in 1913, nearly 30 years before the Manhattan Project started, Wells' The World Set Free describes cities around the world being devastated by what he called "atomic bombs." Wells predicted not only the mushroom cloud we associate with atomic bombs, but their lasting radiation as well.
"Few who adventured into these areas of destruction and survived attempted any repetition of their experiences. There are stories of puffs of luminous, radio-active vapour drifting sometimes scores of miles from the bomb centre and killing and scorching all they overtook."
"In that flickering pallor it had the effect of a large and clumsy black insect, an insect the size of an ironclad cruiser, crawling obliquely to the first line of trenches and firing shots out of portholes in its side."
7. Cell Phones
He may not have called them cellular phones, but Wells definitely predicted them. He described wireless communication devices in his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come. He even created something very similar to modern email and voice mail in his 1923 book Men Like Gods:
"A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes."