Systems Engineering Via Science-Fiction…

Now systems engineering as a recognised discipline really seems to have come out during the mid to late 1940’s, but the principles behind it have certainly been floating around before hand.  The term itself gets followed back to complex engineering projects that were being developed in that time period, especially out of Bell Telephone Laboratories where the flow of information was considered to be vastly increased. When you have the need to both identify and manipulate properties of whole systems and juggle the complex flood of information related to it, things need to get organised.

It always interests (and kind of amuses) me when following back on how certain things get developed they can lead to various key figures freely admitting that they only created/invented/developed something due to reading about something similar in a science-fiction story. So, for the non-heavy moment of blogging and such, let us have a hazy flashback moment to the second world war…. radar recently developed and evolved for that war time setting, the slow end of the battleship, and the development of the aircraft carrier and just how many ships were being sent out in fleets and admirals and ship captains needing a fuller understanding of just where everything is in relation to each other.


So the US Navy gets a bunch of people together to look at how their ships communicate, how they use technology, how they find the enemy, and how they can organise it all in a meaningful manner…  Systems Engineering before it was recognised as such.  Still, in the middle of this someone apparently went “hang on, I read something in Astounding Science-Fiction a couple of years back…” And they basically dug out a copy of said magazine, and found the story that had been published in 1939 that detailed all the problems they were facing, the requirements that were needed, and an effective solution…


Now sure, certain elements of this have to have been in development over time; the increase in coordinated fire control from WW1 and such-like, and I’m sure that while the RAFs design of the “filter room” to coordinate their radar stations were shared with the Americans to a point.. I still find it entertaining that the setup that they developed as the Combat Information Centre is pretty much exactly as described and thought out (at least using then-current technology) as E.E.”Doc” Smith wrote about in Gray Lensman before WW2 even broke out…

In fact, in a letter to Astounding magazine, editor John W. Campbell stated the acknowledgement of Captain Cal Lanning that Smiths ideas were used extensively in the design of US Navy warship’s Combat Information Centers.

“The entire set-up was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communication channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique and proved how advantageous it could be. You, sir, were 100% right. As the Japanese Navy—not the hypothetical Boskonian fleet—learned at an appalling cost.”


So yes, science-fiction has inspired many things over the years, even in systems engineering…

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2 Responses to Systems Engineering Via Science-Fiction…

  1. TDipper says:

    I think the blog just went full nerd.

  2. EHiggins says:

    For the full on nerd-out: Captain Cal Lanning was also a friend of at that time, a retired naval officer named…. Robert Heinlein.

    Also, I did come close to posting a direct quote of the book. 😉
    As it is, if you’re curious about that:

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