The real, true history of teleportation

In fiction, anyway.

The real, true history of teleportation

Image source: Igor Karasi/Shutterstock/Big Think

  • People have been intirgued with teleportation for over a century.
  • These days, our tech entitlement is making some of us impatient to start beaming ourselves all over the place.
  • The Thotheen could do it, why not us?

People are fascinated with the idea of near-instantaneous travel, or teleportation. What could be sweeter than stepping onto a platform during a frigid winter day and stepping off it into Hawaiian sunshine? Sign us up right now. We're not talking about quantum teleportation, mind you, which is something else. We're talking about that fictional mode of transportation that zaps us from one place to another, a la Star Trek.

Star Trek dates from the 1960s, but, really, the idea has been around for a long time in one form or another.

Matter transfer

Image source: CreateSpacePublishing

  • The very first mention of a teleportation-like device in fiction appears to have been in Edward Page Mitchell's The Man Without a Body, published in The Sun, a New York City daily, in 1877. Mitchell's teleportation was actually referred to by another name, "matter transfer." This was three years after H.G. Wells wrote anonymously about a "tachypomp," a device designed to travel at "infinite speed" — not quite teleportation, but clearly en route to one as a concept.

Teleportation's first use as a way to hop from one planet to another popped up in Fred T. Jane's 1897 science-fiction parody, To Venus in Five Seconds. In the satire, two Venutian species, the humanoid Sutenraas and the Thotheen — interestingly described as a cross between an elephant and a horsefly — used matter transfer to zip around Venus and also make quick trips to our planet, where they beamed themselves between the Egyptian pyramids and Mexico. While Jane never describes the tech behind his matter transfers, it would presumably have been more science-y than Edgar Rice Burroughs' means of getting to Mars: wishing.

The word "teleportation" first appeared in the writings of one Charles Fort, whose raison d'etré was unexplained phenomena. Teleportation could be involved, he suggested, in the way objects show up in surprising places and also might explain the sudden disappearances and reappearances of people via in alien abduction. (He was an early proponent of extraterrestrial visitation.) Fort also wrote about frogs raining down from the sky, spontaneous combustion, ball lightning, and so on.

"Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call 'Teleportation."' — Fort's Lo!, 1931

Writers knew a catchy idea when they saw one, and teleportation went on to become a tried-and-true trope in movies:

  • Buck Rogers — The classic 1933 serialized stories that didn't intend to be campy.
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory — See young Mike Teavee transport over other characters' heads and into a TV.
  • The Fly — Sorry, your teleport's not working so well: It turned you into an insect.
  • Galaxy Quest — Teleportation is a terrifying, definitely iffy operation in this hilarious ode to sci-fi.
  • Jumper — Great instant-travel effects in the thriller that proves Hayden Christensen can actually act. (Cough, Darth Vader.)
  • "Logan's Run" — Characters use teleportation for futuristic booty calls.
  • X-Men — In X2 and X-Men:Last Stand, Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler certainly gets around.

And on TV:

  • Twilight Zone — A teleporting character is forced to consider whether instantaneous travel would benefit or harm humanity if revealed. Bad guys and warriors popping up out of nowhere would be a bad thing, right?
  • Doctor Who — We want a teleportation bracelet made from Aquatar, but not the ones humans make. Aliens make the good ones.
  • Charmed — People and demons, also Whitelighters, are popping in and out all the time in both generations of this show.
  • Heroes — In this series, some characters can teleport and move through time, while others can only teleport. Losers.
  • Fringe — I'm not crying, you're crying. One of the series' most moving episodes, "White Tulip" involves a scientist who teleports back and forth through time seeking forgiveness.
  • Stargate SG-1 — What do you think happens when you go through a stargate?
  • Star Trek — But of course.

Why do we so badly wish  teleportation was real?

Image source: ImageFlow/Shutterstock/Big Think

It's easy to understand why writers love teleportation. Moving characters around can be an arduous, pace-killing problem, especially when the plot demands that they traverse large distances. The poor teleportation-less spacetrotters of Star Wars have to pretty much drive from one end of the galaxy to another (usually via a time-saving screen wipe.)

But what about its appeal to the rest of us?

Some of it undoubtedly comes from our societal sense of tech entitlement as we see so many sci-fi tropes becoming real. Though not generally available, there are flying cars, jet packs, invisibility cloaks, and even 3D printers that produce food in a manner not so very different than replicators.

The most obvious "real" thing teleportation would offers us is effortless mobility, an experience of increasing rarity as air travel becomes more and more difficult for the average person, with cancellations, delays and experiences that seem designed more for the benefit of the airline than us. Slower modes of travel — cars, busses, trains — are typically cheaper, but take so much time. And as long as we're using our imaginations here, maybe teleportation would be safer, too?

One genuinely cool use of teleportation would be making it easier — or even possible in the first place — for people with mobility issues to get from place to place.

Then there's the exploration of remote locations, from uncharted places on Earth to distant planets we may otherwise never reach in a single generation, if at all.

Finally, maybe we can just let climate change ruin Earth and migrate via teleportation en mass. just in time, to some new world we can destroy. Hey, when science sees a dim future ahead, there's alway sci-fi.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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