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February 2, 2024

Telemedicine Prediction From 1925

The 1920s was an incredible decade of advancement for communications technology. Radio was finally being realized as a broadcast medium, talkies were transforming the film industry, and inventors were tinkering with the earliest forms of television. People of the 1920s recognized that big changes were ahead, and no one relished in guessing what those changes might be more than Hugo Gernsback.

A doctor’s diagnosis “by radio” on the cover of the February, 1925 issue of Science and Invention magazine.

Gernsback was a pioneer in both radio and publishing, always pushing the boundaries of what the public might expect of their technological future. In 1905, he designed the first home radio set and started the first mail-order radio business in the world. The radio was called the Telimco Wireless and was advertised in magazines like Scientific American for $7.50 (about $180 today).

In 1913 Gernsback started publishing a magazine called Electrical Experimenter, which in 1920 became known as Science and Invention. In the February, 1925 issue of Science and Invention Gernsback wrote an article that would combine his fascination with the future of radio communications and predict a device for the year 1975 that we still don’t see in any practical household form today.

Gernsback’s device was called the “teledactyl” and would allow doctors to not only see their patients through a viewscreen, but also touch them from miles away with spindly robot arms. He effectively predicted telemedicine, though with a weirder twist than we see implemented in 2012.

From the February, 1925 issue of Science and Invention:
“The Teledactyl (Tele, far; Dactyl, finger — from the Greek) is a future instrument by which it will be possible for us to “feel at a distance.” This idea is not at all impossible, for the instrument can be built today with means available right now. It is simply the well known telautograph, translated into radio terms, with additional refinements. The doctor of the future, by means of this instrument, will be able to feel his patient, as it were, at a distance….The doctor manipulates his controls, which are then manipulated at the patient’s room in exactly the same manner. The doctor sees what is going on in the patient’s room by means of a television screen.

“Here we see the doctor of the future at work, feeling the distant patient’s arm. Every move that the doctor makes with the controls is duplicated by radio at a distance. Whenever the patient’s teledactyl meets with resistance, the doctor’s distant controls meet with the same resistance. The distant controls are sensitive to sound and heat, all important to future diagnosis.”

The doctor of the future examines a patient, 1925.

The man of 1975 signs important documents by videophone, 1925.

Diagram explaining how the teledactyl was supposed to work, 1925.

A year after this article was released Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories, the first magazine that was devoted entirely to science fiction. In 1929, he lost ownership of his first magazines after a bankruptcy lawsuit. There is some debate about whether this process was genuine, manipulation by publisher Bernarr Macfadden, or a Gernsback scheme to begin another company.

After losing control of Amazing Stories, Gernsback founded two new science fiction magazines, Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. A year later, due to Depression-era financial troubles, the two were merged into Wonder Stories, which Gernsback continued to publish until 1936, when it was sold to Thrilling Publications and renamed Thrilling Wonder Stories. Gernsback returned in 1952–53 with Science-Fiction Plus.

Gernsback was noted for sharp, sometimes shady, business practices, and for paying his writers extremely low fees or not paying them at all. H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat”.

Barry Malzberg has said: “Gernsback’s venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the financial rights of authors, have been well documented and discussed in critical and fan literature. That the founder of genre science fiction who gave his name to the field’s most prestigious award and who was the Guest of Honor at the 1952 Worldcon was pretty much a crook (and a contemptuous crook who stiffed his writers but paid himself $100K a year as President of Gernsback Publications) has been clearly established.”

Jack Williamson, who had to hire an attorney associated with the American Fiction Guild to force Gernsback to pay him, summed up his importance for the genre: “At any rate, his main influence in the field was simply to start Amazing and Wonder Stories and get SF out to the public newsstands—and to name the genre he had earlier called “scientifiction.”


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