Much has been written about the future technology depicted in Star Trek and its sequels. Another TV series (Danger Man) and its follow-on (The Prisoner) are also notable for their fascinating portrayal of advanced technology.
This post will focus on the technology from Danger Man, a.k.a. Secret Agent. Later, I will write a longer essay on the technology and socio-political context of The Prisoner.
Danger Man was produced in the UK during the early 1960s. It’s about the global adventures of a Cold War era British secret agent, John Drake, who is played by Patrick McGoohan. Though Danger Man is not set in the future, Drake frequently uses technology that we assume is withheld from the public for cost and/or national security reasons.
The Prisoner was filmed in the fairytale coastal town of Portmeirion, Wales in the late 1960s. It’s about a secret agent (again played by Patrick McGoohan) who resigns only to be kidnapped and imprisoned in “The Village.” McGoohan’s character is known thereafter as “Number Six.” Unlike Danger Man, The Prisoner is clearly science fiction, often featuring bizarre mind control technology. Though McGoohan denied that Number Six was John Drake that was probably for legal reasons; McGoohan himself resigned from Danger Man to produce The Prisoner.
I’m a fan of the two series for several reasons. The producers were unafraid to present the struggle for individual liberty as a battle between good and evil. However, the characters were often complex, and the dialogue was generally intelligent. Though most episodes contained violence, it was usually in the form of fistfights; John Drake and Number Six relied mainly on their wits and almost never on deadly weapons. Danger Man dramatizes Cold War espionage; The Prisoner shows how the mass media and even democratic institutions could be manipulated to take away our freedoms.
The technology in Danger Man consisted mainly of advanced spy tools. The gadgets performed familiar functions such as eavesdropping and tracking—but their performance and small size exceeded what was possible in the 1960s and in some cases even today.
Danger Man gadgets included a battery-powered shaver with built-in tape recorder; a self-adhesive, thimble-size telephone bug requiring no direct connections; a cigarette lighter with concealed camera; and a cigarette lighter that doubled as a two-way radio. There was also a thimble-size location beacon and a larger compatible electronic compass. Gadgets and microfilm were often hidden in shoes, pencils, briefcases, and canes. Drake almost always operated alone but sometimes rigged up noise- and smoke-making devices to create the illusion of a SWAT team at just the right moment.
The smallness of the eavesdropping, tracking, and two-way radio devices would not seem impressive were it not for their extraordinary range and reliability. Today there are cell phones not much bigger than John Drake’s cigarette lighter that can perform all of these tasks plus take pictures and even short videos. However, cell phones require extensive infrastructure support.
Somehow, Drake is able to eavesdrop on conversations and track individuals using concealed devices with little room for batteries and presumably no Global Positioning System satellites, no mobile phone networks, and no external antennas. All of this was envisioned at a time when simple integrated circuits were just coming to market.
Danger Man correctly predicted the further enhancement of devices for recording and communicating. Understandably, it failed to anticipate digital electronics, which has made audio tape and photographic film essentially obsolete.
The ideals and optimism of Danger Man are reflected not only in its story lines and its hero’s personal integrity, but the assumption that free and open societies are more likely to gain and hold technological leadership. The series is as enjoyable today as it was in the 1960s—perhaps more so. It challenges the modern entertainment industry view that sophistication and moral goodness are mutually exclusive.
But arguably the best thing about Danger Man is that it set high standards for its sequel, The Prisoner.
Two frequently cited examples of foolish ideas that were once quite popular are spontaneous generation and eugenics. We now know that maggots and mice don’t spontaneously arise in meat and grain, and that trying to improve the human race through controlled breeding is a dangerous idea.
These ideas are ridiculed today, but they were once supported by intelligent and even illustrious individuals—and not without good reason.
Spontaneous generation was the rational alternative to biblical creation and the perfect complement to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Supporters of spontaneous generation said that given the proper raw materials and environmental conditions, life arises as the result of natural processes.
Eugenics was also a natural outgrowth of evolution. If humans and other species are the result of ongoing evolution, then we must learn as much as we can about the process, and apply that knowledge to the benefit of individuals and society. That was certainly the intention of early enthusiasts such as Alexander Graham Bell.
What brought these ideas into disrepute? Belief in spontaneous generation was an obstacle to understanding the spread of disease-causing germs. The fiercely conservative Louis Pasteur used swan-necked flasks to show that microbes do not arise spontaneously. He influenced Joseph Lister, the developer of antiseptic surgery. And Eugenics is now associated with racial discrimination, forced sterilization, and genocide.
It’s easy to portray these ideas as silly or immoral, but neither has been totally rejected. Scientists have shown that simple organic molecules can be created from inorganic substances. Genetic screening, counseling, and abortion are now common practices.
Browsing articles on the history of science at Wikipedia, I was surprised by the number and extent of scientific advances attributed to Islam’s “Golden Age.” For example, the article Islamic Science credits Muslims with inventing the modern scientific method. It explains that Ibn al-Haytham applied the scientific method while pioneering modern optics in the eleventh century, and that some consider him the first scientist. The article also asserts that al-Haytham employed a version of Occam’s razor before Occam was born, and that Roger Bacon was familiar with his work.
It would require considerable space just to recite the many crucial discoveries and inventions ascribed to Muslims from that period. We are told that “Muslim scientists… laid the foundations of agricultural science.” One paragraph cites no fewer than 45 inventions, ranging from coffee to “flight control surfaces,” that are “believed to have come from the medieval Islamic world.” We learn that Ibn al-Nafis was first to describe pulmonary and coronary circulation, that al-Khazini proposed laws of gravitation that were proved by Newton centuries later, and that Muslims developed theories of evolution long before Darwin. The essay also claims that public hospitals, libraries, and universities originated in the Islamic world, and that Muslims invented peer review.
I have no doubt that medieval Muslim scholars studied and wrote about these topics. If any of them have been denied credit due merely to prejudice, then that needs to be corrected.
However, there are serious problems with many of the claims. Almost all of the references cited are secondary sources. Claims are frequently substantiated with hearsay and appeal to authority. For example, “His [al-Haytham’s] Book of Optics has been ranked alongside Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica as one of the most influential books in the history of physics.” Meanwhile, Western figures are smeared via innuendo (for example, the broad hint that Roger Bacon took his ideas from al-Haytham). And some statements are simply misleading; the article Islamic Medicine states that in 2007 Malaysian scientist Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor “became the first to perform biomedical research in outer space.” Perhaps that meant he was the first Muslim to perform biomedical research in space.
The biggest problem is that many of the claims are based on a simplistic priority test. To wit, it’s assumed that the first person to suggest an idea is its discoverer. As I explained in my History of Wireless, “The question is not who was first to make a claim, but who was first to make a difference.” Ibn al-Nafis may have been the first person to describe the circulatory system, but his text could not have made a very great impression, as it vanished and was only rediscovered in 1924. In contrast, William Harvey’s book builds the case for the circulatory system point by point, was widely read and debated during his lifetime, and had a profound and lasting impact. Al-Nafis’s insight deserves recognition, but Harvey is rightly given the lion’s share of credit.
If the Islamic Golden Age was so advanced, why is the Muslim world of today so far behind? The Wikipedia article “Islamic Science” acknowledges the decline, attributing it in part to the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but primarily to invasions by Mongols and Crusaders. Still, it seems odd that a civilization that invented the scientific method was torn asunder by feuding religious sects and subsequently overrun by inferior peoples.
Unfortunately, it looks like Wikipedia’s user-created, history of science articles have been overrun by Islamic supremacists.