COMMUNICATIONS PIONEERS: Gene Roddenberry

Yeah, the Star Trek guy. An otherwise obscure TV writer and sci-fi author is a communications pioneer? You bet. I’ll explain why, but first a little about the man himself.

Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, 1921-1991

Gene Roddenberry was a soldier and a pilot before falling into the first of several jobs as a writer. As a prominent denizen of Los Angeles in the 1950s, it was natural that he get involved in TV production. He achieved some success as a TV producer but never had a show go longer than three seasons. By the mid-1970s, believe it or not, he was considered washed up.

Mr. Roddenberry’s contribution to pop culture, Star Trek, premiered on TV in 1966 and has not been off the air since, despite being canceled in 1968 and again in 1969. The show remained incredibly popular with fans and when science fiction movies took off in the mid-1970s, Star Trek got a second life. Its creator, Gene Roddenberry, and its stars (then considered has-been actors) did too.

Star Trek has, to date, given us 13 movies and hundreds of hours of television spread over seven different series. Three more are on the way. As the show evolved, Mr. Roddenberry’s own vision was expanded into the Trek you know today.

But, that’s not the only contribution to society.

Here’s where the story gets interesting

In 1973, the first cell phone call took place on a public street. (You have to imagine the looks that guy was getting.) It was the inventor of the cell phone, Martin Cooper, calling his primary rival to say that he’d done it, that he was capable of making a direct-dialed call using a handheld device to a regular phone number. That’s a lot of mumbo jumbo, but it explains the difference between that one phone call and everything that came before.

There was mobile phone service before that moment, but it involved a complicated radio link between the mobile user and the regular phone, and at least two people in the middle.

For younger readers, it’s impossible to even explain the revolution that the cell phone brought. Before the cell phone, meeting someone anywhere was a nerve-wracking experience. If you were lost, or your car broke down, you were left walking miles looking for a pay phone.

But what about Gene Roddenberry? Dr. Cooper, who’s listed as having invented the mobile phone, has been asked multiple times what his inspiration was when creating something so revolutionary. His answer: Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, and its handheld communicators.

The device on the left is a real cell phone from a decade ago. The device on the right is a prop from Star Trek. It took some time for phone design to get there, but it’s pretty clear where the influence was.

It didn’t stop there

Communications tech was influenced by Trek tech several other times.  Take a look at this shot from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This would be a fairly boring shot of an actor holding an iPad, if it hadn’t been shot about 20 years before iPads were invented. The Trek folks even called their device a PADD.

So there you go.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.