The flying car is a persistent dream, and a consistent one. People have always wanted to get off the crowded, broken, bumpy, dirty, inefficient roads and soar directly to their destination through the clean, unobstructed air like gods or superheroes. From here to there without the bother and fuss. The logical extension of that dream is teleportation. From here to there in an instant. Don't ask how: it's a dream.
According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, the word "teleportation" and its variants suddenly start to appear in science fiction in the early 1940s. The earliest reference goes to the August 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds, the fantasy magazine John W. Campbell ran as a companion to Astounding Science Fiction, but this dating calls for a honking huge caveat. "The Bones" was the third and last story Unknown credited to Theodore Sturgeon and James H. Beard, following "The Jumper" in August 1942 and "The Hag Sèleen" in December 1942. Beard is as obscure a name as can be dredged up from the Golden Age, so fortunately Sam Moskowitz mentions him in Seekers of Tomorrow. Beard, he wrote, was "a crippled old man [who] had submitted several stories to Campbell which were strongly plotted but inadequately written." Five stories, to be exact. The first, "Five Fathoms of Fable," appeared under Beard's single name in October 1939 and then "Carillon of Skulls" was given to Lester del Rey to write up under the pseudonym of Philip James for the February 1941 issue before Sturgeon got the last three.
Those are all we would ever get, a pity for "The Bones" is both strongly plotted and finely written, sliding gracefully from science fiction to crime to horror. A backyard inventor connects any number of wires in service of a new radio design before the need to replace a burnt-out condenser inspires him to jury-rig one out of a hollow mutton bone and tinfoil from a cigarette pack. Somehow the combination feeds through the headset and into his brain the mind of the sheep up until the moment of its death, though fortuitously he tears himself from the scene before he can meet Death, capital D, in the face. A bit of experimenting leads him to realize that this would work for any bone, with the inevitable raising of the stakes to use a human bone, one supplied by the coroner in an effort to try to determine exactly how the victim met her fate. And then the retribution on the murderer.
Where does teleportation enter into any of this? It doesn't, being mentioned as an aside, a baffled inquiry to himself by the inventor. "What have I got here? Transmigration? Teleportation? Clairvoyance?" None of the above, not that it matters. For us the importance of the question is that it presents the word "teleportation" to readers as something they would already be familiar with, on a par with the religious "transmigration" or reincarnation of the soul and the psychic's "clairvoyance," information received by other than the senses. Those terms would be basic vocabulary to the readers of Unknown in 1943, but Moskowitz hands us another twist. He states directly, "Both stories ["The Hag Sèleen" and "The Bones"] were written before June, 1940." Moskowitz is iffy as a source on many things but his knowledge of the lives of his contemporaries is the reason to read him. Teleportation evidently was well known as a term before 1940. After "The Bones" come a swift series of additional usages in varying forms, all in Astounding: Harry Walton in "Boomerang," June 1944 (teleport); Isaac Asimov in "Big & Little," a Foundation story, August 1944 (teleported); Robert Abernathy in "The Canal Builders," January 1945 (teleport). Abernathy comes closest to putting in an explanation for readers.
When we use the teleport, we travel through a sort of interspace between Earth and Mars, in which the distance is insignificant - infinitesimal, so that for practical purposes we have the planets superimposed.
"Interspace" is the odd-looking term for us today, apparently a rare variant on what we call "hyperspace." Neither term was in regular use in SF in 1945, although hyperspace is known to have appeared as early as "The Invisible Bubble," a story by Kirk Meadowcroft in the September 1928 Amazing Stories. Still, regular readers wouldn't have any problem in understanding: teleportation was the process by which teleporters teleported using a device called the teleport.
The true etymological mystery is why it took so long for any term, let alone this particular one, to enter the science fictional vocabulary. Fred T. Jane introduced a matter transmitter to send people to other planets in his 1897 novel To Venus in Five Seconds. Other transmitters littered the pages of early SF. Humorist Stephen Leacock showed that the concept had permeated general knowledge in a short piece included in his 1929 collection satirizing scientific change, The Iron Man and the Tin Woman. "More Messages from Mars" is built on the latest news from the world of science, that British astronomers announced the certainly of life on Mars while a London scientist proclaimed that he had been in radio contact with them. Leacock imagines meeting a supposed Martian, confused as to where he was.
I knew, of course, from what our leading scientist have told us that he had come to this earth in a process that will one day be as familiar as the passage of light and radioacting. He had been disembodied and sent over.
I could have explained to him, in a rough and ready sort of way, that his atomic structure had been broken loose and sent across the gulf of empty space and then had reassembled itself on this planet. Five minutes ago, so I could have told him, he was in Mars....
Even at the present stage of our scientific development there is no mystery in this; nothing but the need of the further elaboration of processes already known.
Excuse me, but wow. This is a note-perfect rendition of teleportation, written up as commonplace talk for the common reader 14 years before the word enters mainstream science fiction.
Why did it take so long for the term to be science fictionated? I haven't any good answer, in fact not even a bad one. It had been coined a full decade before Sturgeon's story saw print, in a book that any self-respecting member of the tiny band of oddballs in fandom would have been intimately familiar with: Charles Fort's Lo! (Yes, the explanation point is part of the title.)
Charles Fort, 1874-1932, looked like a cross between Theodore Roosevelt and a walrus. Both a recluse and a collector of friends, he spent most of his life apart from normal society except for his devoted wife, who spent her life putting up with his eccentricities, communicating with the outside world mostly through letters and telegrams. For several decades Fort combed through the newspaper archives at the New York Public Library and the British Museum, eventually compiling what he claimed were 60,000 stories of weird, anomalous, and unexplainable behaviors. He filled four books with the results: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). Fort was often sickly and distrusted doctors. He had barely managed to finish Wild Talents when the leukemia he had ignored caught up with him. A Fortean Society, founded in 1931 by his first champion, Theodore Dreiser, had a galaxy of world-famous nominal members but was almost immediately taken over by the writer Tiffany Thayer, who ran what was left of the organization as a one-man operation loosely connected with reality.
Lo! is concentrated Fortean essence, filled with tales of rain that falls indoors, earthquakes that correlate with new stars being spotted, mysterious lights in the sky, and the recent discovery of Pluto in the wrong place. Mostly, however, Fort deluges the reader with hundreds of stories of people, animals, and stones that appear out of nowhere, not strange disappearances, but strange appearances. He has an all-purpose explanation for these oddities - they came from elsewhere. (Since there are dozens of editions of Lo! I'll reference chapter number rather than page number.)
We look up at the stars. The look is of a revolving shell that is not far away. And against such a view there is no opposition except by an authoritative feeble-mindedness, which most of us treat respectfully, because such is the custom in all more of less savage tribes.
Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call Teleportation. I shall be accused of having assembled lies, yarns, hoaxes, and superstitions. To some degree I think so, myself. To some degree I do not. I offer the data. [Chapter 4]
The word Teleportation is italicized in the original, evidently the very first appearance of the word. Once introduced it gets repeated endlessly, seemingly in every other sentence in that chapter.
The simplest cases of seeming teleportation are flows of stones, into open fields, doing no damage, not especially annoying anybody, and in places where there were no means of concealment for mischievous or malicious persons.
If there is Teleportation, it is in two orders, or fields: electric and non-electric – or phenomena that occur during thunderstorms, and phenomena that occur under “a cloudless sky,” and in houses.
A sensible suggestion is that somebody, in Cupar, having read the Liverpool story, had faked a similar story [clothes on clotheslines shooting upward] from his town. A suggestion that is not so sensible is that, in this year 1842, somebody had learned the secrets of teleportation, and to avoid attracting much attention in any one place was experimenting in places far apart. It seems likely enough to me that, if there be teleportation, human beings may have come upon knowledge of it and may have used it.
The look to me is that, throughout what is loosely called nature, teleportation exists, as a means of distribution of things and materials, and that sometimes human beings have command, mostly unconsciously, though perhaps sometimes as a development from research and experiment, of this force. It is said that in savage tribes there are “rain makers,” and it may be that among savages there are teleportationists. Some years ago, I’d have looked superior, if anybody had said this to me but a good many of us are no so given to the “tut-tut!” as we used to be.
The outstanding suggestion, which, however, like many other suggestions, I cannot now develop, is that, if Teleportation exists, it may be used. It may be criminally used, or it may be used commercially. Cargoes, without ships, and freights, without trains, may be of the traffics of the future. There may be teleportative voyages from planet to planet. [all from Chapter 4; my italics]
Suddenly Fort looks less like a prophetic wizard when his predictions fall short of those a humorist had made two years earlier. Or those of a cartoonist thirty years before that. To be kind, one must also tiptoe past the notion that when we look up at the stars we see a "revolving shell." That hidebound notion from the ancients gets trotted out frequently by Fort as an all-purpose source of whatever oddity he happens to have a clipping for.
He's not done, though. In addition to being an accomplice to his almost blinding ignorance of astronomy, Teleportation does double duty as part of his argument against evolution:
In every organism, there are, in its governance as a whole, mysterious transportations of substances and forces, sometimes in definite circulatory paths, and sometimes specially, for special needs. In the organic view, Teleportation is a distributive force that is acting to maintain the balances of a whole; with the seeming wastefulness sometimes, and niggardliness sometimes, of other forces: providing, or sometimes providing, new islands with vegetation, and new ponds with fishes: Edens with Adams, and Adams with Eves; always dwindling when other mechanisms become established, but surviving sporadically. [Chapter 15]
Teleportation is the basis for apparitions as well, an occult force that is closer to Sturgeon's pairing of it with clairvoyance than anything remotely scientific:
If we accept that Teleportation, as a "natural" force," exists, and suspect that some human beings have known this and have used it; and, if we think that the culmination of a series of tele-operations will be the commercial and recreational teleportation of objects and beings, we are concerned little with other considerations, and conceive of inhabitants of the earth willing themselves - if that's the way it's done - to Mars, or the moon, or Polaris. [Chapter 32]
Honest, it's all like this. While typing out Fort one can feel IQ points slide away. We have to be thankful that SF writers came along and rescued the word for posterity.
So thank Fort for the word teleportation, but give the real credit to the unnamed scientists Leacock read about in his newspapers, scientists whose serious extrapolations of technology are the true source of SF then, earlier, and today.
One footnote that's off subject but is a pet peeve of mine.
Lo! is also the book in which Fort introduced his most famed saying, "steam-engine-time." [Ch. 4] That's a neat observation and the phrase is both pithy and memorable. Only one tiny nit to pick: the steam engine is a terrible example to choose as an exemplar.
When was steam-engine time? There's no context for this line - it appears in the middle of a paragraph of purest gobbledygook.
[T]hough I know of no standards by which to judge anything, I conceive - or accept the idea - of something that is The Standard, if I can think of our existence as an Organism. If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time. ... [Chapter 4]
Whatever that might mean, it's fair to Fort to assume that he found lacking the early independent discoveries and rediscoveries of the principles behind the steam engine that were limited to a handful of learned inventors until a sufficient number of hardheaded businessmen recognized its usefulness and put it to work for the mundane needs of heavy lifting.
When was the steam engine put to use? Popular history gives that honor to James Watt in 1765. Real history is a bit more complicated.
1606 - Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont puts a steam water pump to use in the mines of Guadalcanal, Spain.
1663 - Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquess of Worcester, pumps water by steam power up the walls of the Great Tower at Raglan Castle in Wales.
1679 - French physicist Denis Papin, after working with Robert Boyle, announces to London's Royal Society his "steam digester," a type of pressure cooker.
1690 - Papin creates first steam engine with a piston, while in the Germanic province of Hesse.
1698 - Thomas Savery takes out an English patent on a pistonless steam engine. His "Miner's friend" is the first steam engine in regular industrial use.
1704 - Papin builds a steam-powered boat, first steam vehicle.
1712 - Thomas Newcomen, an English inventor, puts all the pieces together to create the "atmospheric" engine, which is commercially available, successful, and used widely for 75 years.
Is "steam-engine time" somewhere in that century? Certainly, by any definition of steam and use you'd like to make. Watt created a far more efficient engine, but that was merely an additional incremental advance. In fact, Watt's design used so many parts of previous ones that his condenser could be added to Newcomen engines already in use, so that a whole new engine didn't need to be installed. Could Fort have meant Newcomen's advances instead of Watt's? Defenders would no doubt think so, and there is no evidence against it (or for it) except that the needed innovations are spread out over too long a period to be a singular "time" of simultaneous discovery in either case. Some who have cited Fort explicitly refer to Watt, as in this line from Harlan Ellison's Introduction to his anthology Dangerous Visions: "When it is time for the steam engine to be invented, even if James Watt doesn't do it, somebody will."
Good concept; shoddy execution. Could Fort have known this history? Easily. He spent most of his days in libraries, combing old newspapers and occasionally reading other works. Histories of the steam engine existed that included all the names mentioned here and more, including many who were theoreticians establishing needed principles, like Sir Samuel Morland, Master Mechanic to Charles II, in the first major treatise on steam power in 1683.
History is the study of context. Fort's obsessive compilation of incidents is neither history nor science. He is a not a pointillist amassing dots to allow a beautiful picture to burst through. He's a conspiracy theorist "just asking questions," doubting scientific explanations, and contributing ignorance. His every pronouncement is plain wrong.