Look up into the night sky. Look long enough, and you'll likely see a small dot moving across the stars. Up until October 4th, 1957, it wasn't something you saw in the skies: an artificial satellite. Now, there are over a thousand orbiting above us. They do a lot for us: some look far into the universe, while others look at the weather, or what we're doing. Still others act as communication relays, or navigational beacons. While satellites are highly advanced instruments, their conception is one that predates the space age by almost a century.
Edward Everett Hale was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1822, to Nathan and Sarah Hale, and backed by a distinguished New England ancestry. By all accounts, he was a bright child: he entered the Boston Latin School at the age of nine, and Harvard University at the age of thirteen. From an early age, he was surrounded by words - his father was the editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser - and he would become exceptionally well known for his writing in the fledgling United States and was associated with authors such as Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Throughout his career as an author, Hale notably wrote a number of speculative works. His 1867 Atlantic Monthly story, 'My Visit to Sybaris: From the Rev Frederic Ingham's Papers' describes a utopian setting, and he followed up with similar themes in 1870 with 'Ten Times One is Ten: The Possible Reformation: A Story in Nine Chapters'. Around the same time, he published a notable serialized novel, 'The Brick Moon', which appeared in 1869 in the Atlantic Monthly in October, November and December of that year.
The story is one that seems to have been drawn from practical concerns: throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, accurate navigation was a growing concern for nations which depended upon overseas colonies in the Americas and Africa. As early as 1714, early, concentrated efforts were underway to develop the means to accurately measure longitude. Prizes (similar to the X-Prize we have now) were offered to inventors, and over time, some methods were developed and improved upon. Influenced by the ongoing and practical scientific discussion, as well as works such as those from Richard Adam Locke's ‘Great Moon Hoax’ and popular dime-store novels, Hale turned to fiction to explore ideas of the day.
In his story, ‘The Brick Moon’, Hale's protagonist plans to launch an artificial beacon into the sky, where it would comfortably sit above the Atlantic Ocean, aiding ships below. While Jules Verne had explored the heavens with stories such as From the Earth to the Moon just a couple of years earlier, Hale's characters exhibit less lofty ambitions: they're concerned less with the grand ideas of exploration than they are with practical engineering to solve a pressing problem.
Hale's characters cunningly reference some of Verne's ideas, discussing the practicality of launching something into Earth orbit with a gun. In many ways, their intentions are far beyond what the French author had envisioned in his Moon stories: bringing a 200 foot wide installation into orbit. Using giant flywheels, they bring the new moon into orbit, but not before several individuals are left onboard. To date, it's the first conception of an artificial satellite in fiction. Just months later in February 1870, Hale followed up the story with a sequel, ‘Life in the Brick Moon’. Here, the characters work to survive on their new home above the earth, bringing together the idea of a manned space station to fiction. As they communicate with the Earth below, the station becomes the first communications satellite.
Other science fiction authors would become well known for their ideas regarding Low Earth Orbit, chiefly Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who published a paper in 1946 titled 'Extra-Terrestrial Relays in Wireless World', noting that three satellites, placed in geosynchronous orbits, could effectively transmit signals around the world, bolstering his reputation as a scientist in the science fiction circles. In 1957, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union, followed months later by the United States with Explorer 1. In 1965, IntelSat 1 was launched, the first communications satellite. Science Fiction had become reality. Starting in 1971, the Soviet Union launched the first space station, Salyut 1, followed by the US in 1973 with Skylab. Later, Mir, the International Space Station and Tiangong would become our habitats in Low Earth Orbit.
Beyond the practical solutions offered up by a satellite in space, Hale stumbled upon a curious idea, noted by Chris Gainor in his entry in the University of Nebraska Press's landmark and excellent A People's History of Spaceflight, To A Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers: "Brick Moon also anticipates a recurring theme in speculative fiction about space stations and spaceflight: the idea that these new settlements would be free from social problems that beset humans on Earth." This has happened on numerous spaceflights: astronauts refusing orders and resisting their controllers on the ground.
It's interesting, looking back at Hale's story, at the ideas presented, and how close it is to reality at points. While the Brick Moon is an exceptionally simple and limited concept when it comes to navigation, much of the navigation undertaken now, whether it be by ship or by car, depends on advanced machines travelling hundreds of miles above our heads. While the form of satellites and stations is very different, the functions of both are identical.
Hale's works belong to a visionary age of science fiction, joining authors such as Jules Verne and Edward S. Ellis during a truly exciting, innovating and transformative era. This brand of science fiction - while looked down upon as primitive today - was innovative in its day, bringing together real and practical concepts such as navigation and creating a fictional scenario that is both exciting and interesting to readers. Forget 1939: this is where science fiction really started to come into its own.
Andrew Liptak is a regular contributor to io9, Armchair General, Lightspeed, Kirkus and many others. He is the co-editor of the upcoming War Stories anthology of original fiction, and the author of new history of science fiction, coming 2015 from Jurassic London. You can yell at him about fiction (science or otherwise) at @AndrewLiptak.