4 Sci-Fi like objects that actually exist

Cray-2-supercomputer-Heinz-Nixdorf-MuseumForum

The Cray-2 supercomputer; photo © Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum & Jan Braun; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Four Sci-Fi like objects that actually exist

We have all been fascinated by the imaginative inventions of science fiction writers, artists, and designers; from the futuristic city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the Cloud City of The Return of the Jedi (1983), from the Batmobile to the orbital hotel of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), and so on. At the same time, we take for granted that, though ingenious, they are just fiction.
Yet, there are real-world objects that, in terms of inventiveness, have nothing to envy those in science fiction, and products whose design was fundamentally inspired by it.
I’ll present here four cases in which totally real products look as if they were created by a Sci-fi author; because, sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Cray-2 (1985)
Imagine a computer shaped like a large cylinder 45 inches high and weighing 5,500 pounds. Now, suppose that the machine lies permanently submerged in a transparent container filled with a glowing liquid, like a brain pulsating menacingly in the lab of a B-movie’s mad scientist; you could agree that even for a science fiction writer it would be difficult to conceive something so absurd.
And yet, that object really exists and, furthermore, it was the most powerful computer of its time; it’s the Cray-2.
Introduced in 1985, the Cray-2 was the second supercomputer by Cray Research, which designed it to be the most powerful mainframe ever made. Its cylindrical shape, consisting of 14 “columns” arranged along a 300-degree arc, was intended to reduce the space between the computer’s electronic boards, as well as their wiring, as much as possible.
The “glowing” liquid was an electrically insulating fluid, produced by 3M and named Fluorinert, which dissipated the enormous amount of heat produced by the circuits of the supermachine; the gas drops floating hypnotically in the cooling fluid earned the supercomputer the nickname “Bubbles”. The “alien” look of the machine was further accentuated by the electronic circuit LEDs light that, scattering in the liquid, made it glow.
To give an idea of its complexity, the Cray-2 power consumption was 195 kW (roughly the same as 1000 modern personal computers) and its price was about 40 million in today’s dollars. Due to its high costs and its applications in the military sector, the 27 units manufactured were sold almost exclusively in the United States to governmental agencies and large companies.
Yet, the era of the small-series mainframes was ending, though few were aware of it, and ingenious and imaginative Cray Research went bankrupt ten years after the introduction of the Cray-2, in 1995. Nevertheless, even tech companies can arise from their ashes and Cray is still making its visionary supercomputers these days, though as a subsidiary of Hewlett Packard.

Cray-2 supercomputer NASA Langley Research Center

The Cray-2 at the NASA Langley Research Center; image courtesy of NASA (Public Domain).

Cray 2 computer

The “interior” of a Cray-2; photo Rama (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR).

Cray 2 supercomputer

After removing the heat from the circuit boards, the fluorocarbon-based fluid flew through an external “waterfall” cooling unit. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Northrop YB-49 “The Flying Wing” (1947)
In the 1953 film “The War of the Worlds” there is a scene in which the President of the United States deploys a futuristic airplane called “Flying Wing” with a view to getting rid of the alien invaders by “vaporizing” them by dropping an atomic bomb (by the way, the attempt miserably fails). Since we are speaking of a Sci-Fi movie, we can suppose that a so improbable airplane was just fictional technology.
But that plane was real, and it actually flew; it was the Northrop YB-49, the jet-powered successor of the earlier piston-engined YB-35, and was actually nicknamed “The Flying Wing”.
The Germans were making “all-wing” aircraft (namely without a tail) back in the 1930s but, after World War Two, it was Jack Northrop in the United States who developed their concept extensively.
The purpose was twofold; on the one hand, the tailless shape had great aerodynamic properties, on the other hand, it made the plane almost invisible to “enemy” radars.
Yet, the Northrop YB-49 was unstable and prone to stall; therefore, the flying wing design had been abandoned for decades, until it was resuscitated in the Eighties with the famous Northrop-Grumman B-2 stealth bomber.

Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing airplane 4

Northrop-YB-49-Flying-Wing-airplane-3

Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing airplane 2

Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing airplane 1

The Northrop YB-49 “Flying-Wing”; all photos © U.S. Air Force (Public Domain).

OSI Silver Fox “Bisiluro” (1967)
When I was a boy, I had a model of a fantastically odd automobile. Turning it upside down, I could read its name carved in the black plastic bottom: OSI BISILURO; what a name!
Created by Italian automobile manufacturer OSI (Officine Stampaggi Industriali) in 1967, the Bisiluro (its actual name was “Silver Fox”, but the nickname Bisiluro, meaning “double torpedo” in Italian, was far more popular) wasn’t a concept car like the Ferrari Modulo and the Alfa Romeo Carabo, ma a real automobile.
Indeed, it was built after a design by engineer Sergio Sartorelli to compete for speed records and in the 24 hours of Le Mans.
The strange twin-hull body (each torpedo-shaped hull contained a seat, one for the pilot and the other for a passenger) was designed to accommodate in its central section an Alpine 1000 cc engine and several adjustable aerodynamic surfaces aimed at increasing downforce at high speed.
Unfortunately, the automobile never raced in official competitions; in 1968, the premature death of its cofounder, Luigi Segre, put an end to OSI. Yet, still today, the Silver Fox keeps on surprising and amazing the public with the many vintage car shows in which it is shown.

OSI Silver Fox Bisiluro race car 1967 2

The OSI Bisiluro at the 2013 Goodwood Revival Car Show; photo Georg Sander via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Captain Kirk’s flip phone (1964)
“Scotty, beam us up!”. In the Sixties, when Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were in trouble on a hostile planet, they could simply use a phone-like device to be teleported to safety on the Enterprise. The small mobile phone (whose actual name was “communicator”) had a curious clamshell-like design arguably intended to look very “23rd century” (the period in which the original series of Star Trek is set).
Strange as it may seem, nobody had ever realized before how that kind of design would be promising. Since then, things have changed.
In 1965, Marco Zanuso and Richards Sapper, likely unaware of Star Trek’s communicator, created the Grillo phone which featured the same clamshell design as Kirk’s fictional device.
Yet, it was in 1996 that the idea behind Star Trek’s communicator transformed into a real product: the Motorola StarTAC mobile phone which, honestly, had much in common with Kirk’s device.
The phone of Star Trek wasn’t a working device, of course; it was just a prop created by Chinese-American visionary set designer Wah Ming Chang.
Nevertheless, it’s quite remarkable that a design originally conceived as a prop for a TV series contained “in embryo” concrete qualities so good that it has been replicated in millions of real-world mobile devices.

Star Trek Captain Kirk flip phone communicator

Captain James T. Kirk with his communicator in the original series of Star Trek; image CBS Studios Inc.

Siemens Grillo folding telephone, Zanuso Sapper, 2

Siemens Grillo folding telephone, Zanuso Sapper

The Siemens Grillo telephone (1965) designed by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper; photos courtesy of Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Motorola StarTAC flip phone

The Motorola StarTAC flip phone (1996); photo courtesy of Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (CC BY-SA 4.0) / Inexhibit.


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