Consider This: Star Trek's Impact on Innovation

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Gene Roddenberry and his writers and set designers had an enormous task predicting what the future would be like in 2250. The first Star Trek television show, "The Original Series," debuted on September 8, 1966 and aired for three seasons on NBC.

  • The super futuristic show used a very large “communicator” with a wire mesh antenna as part of the flip phone case. It provided the ever-important “person locator” for beaming back up, including the immortal phrase, “Two to beam up, Scotty.” By 2340, the communicator was a gold metallic emblem that you just touched, with seemingly AI ability to know with whom you wanted to communicate with. Of all the future inventions the writers created, the communicator was probably the only one or two that we have even come close to developing.
  • Phaser hand-held weapons? Nope, not even close.
  • Warp drive? We are still trying to get above 20,000 miles per hour, a monstrously long way to go to light speed and make the leap to warp speed, seven times the speed of light, if that is even possible.
  • The AI computers? We have done not a bad job of getting close to what they used.
  • The transporter? Well, I will let someone else test it first, not wanting to get my molecules scattered forever.
  • My favorite future invention was the “food creator.” I’ll take a Pittsburgh steak and single malt drink, please. It’s a future invention that we have gleefully imagined, but sadly is improbable.

 One area remotely possible is “Raise the shields, Mr. Chekov.” Future inventions are possible, given some work on electromagnetic plasma fields. The earth’s magnetic shield keeps out a large mass of the sun’s radiation and forces, so maybe not too far off if we have another 200 plus years of development to catch up on. Many of the enterprise’s futuristic inventions are, sorry to say, impossible, knowing what we do today about the laws of physics; but hey, who is to say a new Albert Einstein, 75 years from now, changes our thinking of the laws of physics in a massive way again? It has happened before.

Looking at the printed circuits used by the first Star Trek TV shows are of interest. They were clear, with internal traces and I would venture, had circuits inside. Rather rudimentary and not far off what we were manufacturing in 1967, but of course, they performed many more functions than what we could back in the day. Society was still using tubes in their electronic devices at home, such as radios and televisions.

I would have to believe that flex and embedded circuitry was theoretically used. The daily crew uniforms could measure and send information on body functions, a technology that we are advancing, and I suspect will exceed the show’s outstanding imagination well before the star date 2234.

Over the last 60 years, we have seen flex quickly grow with the invention of many new technologies. From its simplistic start as a single-sided print and etch, it has grown to 40 layers of rigid and flexible circuits, proudly going where no circuit has gone before by spreading its arms to interconnect many different individual parts of the overall circuit.

If you ever get the chance to see a camera’s flex circuit all folded up with its many spiralia of arms, it is a wonder to behold. Where will flex be in another 220 years? I would guess it will be in much smaller traces, possibly of a superconductor material. The flexible base material may become infused with low cost, man-made diamonds for super high heat conductivity. I can see in my crystal ball, integrated circuits small enough to be embedded right into the base material if Moore’s law continues its path to the future.

As flexible circuits are asked to do more, inventors will come to the design table, adding their special niche to the mix. Future electronics is all about smaller, thinner, and more transistors per square nanometer. I know human’s desire for creation, and more and more electronics in their lives. Flex circuits will fill the technology gap until flex circuits are truly the invention that the future will need.

Star Trek was important in more ways than just entertainment. It was a first to intentionally feature a multinational cast during the height of a cold war. As well, Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss. Having censors on set, trying to hold back a futuristic-thinking Roddenberry would be a tough job. Remember, in 1966 America was struggling with its inability to integrate people of color properly and equally after 300 years of failure. Unfortunately, even today, America is still struggling with its racial past.

The show inspired many future inventors. One huge fan of the first shows was Steve Wozniak who credited watching Star Trek and attending Star Trek conventions in his youth as a source of inspiration for co-founding Apple computers, which have probably come as close as anything to the infamous communicator of Star Trek. The series drew in inventors—people who think outside the box. Heck, most true inventors with futuristic thinking don’t even know there is a design box. One such futuristic past genius, Leonardo DaVinci, comes to mind.

Over the years, one future invention which is close to reality is Scottie’s transparent aluminum water tank. Aluminum oxynitride—ALON—is being tested in R&D as it is lighter and stronger than traditional aluminum and it is visibly clear. It was featured in one movie as a container needed to protect the last pregnant whale and save the earth.

The entire body of Star Trek television and movie series, with its many, many shows, was always trying to teach us to invent, create, and think of new technologies. However, it also showed humanity was needed and paramount to our future success. Sometimes, I wonder if we could have learned more from the series.

This column originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Design007 Magazine.


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