Who Invented the Computer? Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek
Who Invented the Computer? This is the twenty-fourth installment in our ongoing series.
Military conflict has too often been the impetus for technological development, but every now and then an idea that has nothing to do with violence comes along to push innovation forward at warp speed. One such event occurred on Sept. 8, 1966, when the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) premiered Star Trek, a new science fiction television show by Gene Rodenberry.
In the early 1960s the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing and influencing popular culture in a big way. News articles trumpeting NASA's newest achievement appeared weekly, and toys, games, books, and movies were all seemingly focused on the idea of space travel.
At the time, Rodenberry was working as a script writer for a number of television programs, including the popular western Have Gun Will Travel. While he was earning a good salary, his real passion was science fiction. In 1963, he came up with the idea for a futuristic show where a united Earth sends a peace-seeking spaceship out into the galaxy to seek out new lifeforms and civilizations.
NBC liked the idea and commissioned a pilot — with changes to several of Roddenberry's original concepts. The name of the spaceship, the S.S. Yorktown, was changed to the Enterprise and the lead character Captain Robert April became Captain Christopher Pike. The Spock character kept his pointed ears but lost his tail, which was also pointed — the executives said he looked too much like the devil.
The pilot episode for the new series, The Cage, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike, aired in January 1965. Audience reviews were lukewarm, however, with numerous complaints that the story was "too cerebral," and the lead, Pike, too "brooding and lacking in humor."
If at First You Don't Boldly Go ...
Fortunately, NBC believed in Star Trek and, in an unprecedented move, commissioned a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, featuring William Shatner as Captain James Tiberius Kirk. NBC originally wanted Hunter to reprise his earlier role, but Mrs. Hunter (Hunter's second wife, model and stunt performer Joan "Dusty" Bartlett) said no, declaring, "My husband is a movie star, not a television actor."
(Hunter later died tragically at age 42 of a hemorrhage likely brought on by a concussion sustained during a botched special effects sequence on a movie set.)
The new pilot was a hit and NBC commissioned 29 episodes. A big challenge for the show was the cost of production, particularly when it came to scenes of landing the Enterprise on a planet. To keep costs down, Rodenberry came up with the idea of beaming characters down from the ship to a planet's surface via a teleporter.
At the end of Star Trek's second season NBC announced that because of low ratings, they would be cancelling the show. Upon receiving the news, Roddenberry unleashed his loyal army of Trekkies in a letter and phone campaign. Studio executives finally agreed to a third season after Rodenberry led 500 hard-core fans in a protest outside NBC offices.
Unfortunately, the fan base wasn't growing fast enough to offset the lower ratings and increased production costs and the show was cancelled after its third season.
Life (and Scientific Discovery) After Star Trek
NBC's cancellation of Star Trek ended up being a goldmine for Rodenberry. The show was picked up for syndication on 150 television networks in more than 60 countries worldwide. With increased exposure, Kirk and the Enterprise crew were on their way to becoming a global phenomenon.
To date the multi-billion-dollar Star Trek franchise has spawned seven spin-off TV series, two animated series and 13 feature films, with a 14th expected in 2024. A dedicated fan could watch Star Trek, in all its forms, eight hours a day, seven days a week for nearly 12 weeks before running out of original material.
Trekkies even made NASA change course in 1976 when they wrote to President Gerald Ford, inundating the White House with hundreds of thousands of letters requesting him to change the name of the first space shuttle from Constitution to Enterprise. It worked! President Ford overruled NASA officials telling them, "I'm a little partial to the name Enterprise."
One aspect of Star Trek's enduring popularity is Roddenberry's long-held insistence that the show's futuristic technology had to be scientifically plausible. Science and technology buffs loved the idea that Trek devices might one day become reality. Several devices and concepts that were science fiction on the show are now part of daily life, or have at least been proven plausible.
Captain Kirk's communicator, for example, has become our smartphone. Virtual reality, while not yet perfected is similar to the holodeck, and SIRI and ALEXA enable us to interface verbally with computers, smart homes, and numerous other devices. We are even working our way to a universal translator—Microsoft Translator currently supports 65 languages and working to add more.
Its Continuing Mission
While we don't yet have warp drive for interstellar travel, the theory of combining matter and antimatter to release tremendous amounts of energy was proven viable by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in 1995.
Recent advances in robot technology and artificial intelligence are bringing society ever closer to fully androids. Many experts believe that by 2045, or sooner, we will have developed fully functioning androids that will interact smoothly with humans and relieve us from performing repetitive and dangerous tasks.
It's not directly measurable, but one of the most influential thing Star Trek did was to inspire countless young people to delve into science and technology, take up careers in those fields, and, in the process, help create our modern world. (One of the computer world's most influential innovators is an avowed Star Trek fan. I'll refer to just one highly public example of his fandom.)
The most complete description of Star Trek's influence on the world was given during a television interview by Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock for almost half a century. "The best of what we did was in the hopes of illuminating mankind's potential and its hope for the future."
On Oct. 12, in a fitting nod to Star Trek and its enduring legacy, 90-year-old William Shatner (the Canadian actor who brought the world Captain Kirk) boldly went where no sci-fi actor had gone before, taking a ride into (almost) outer space aboard Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket.
In my opinion, no other individual is more deserving of the honor.