A Touchy Subject

So, who first thought of touch screens?
First, let’s talk about touch. If you want to get technical — which I do — nothing ever touches. Not ever. Not even when you kiss your better half. When we touch something, what we feel is actually the resistance between the negatively charged electrons surrounding the atoms that make up our skin and the (also negatively charged) electrons on the surface of whatever we’re touching. So all we ever feel is the interaction between electric fields. Look it up. It’s a thing! Makes you feel a little lonely, doesn’t it?


What’s interesting is that touch screens work basically the same way that we do. iPhones have an electrostatic field created by tiny capacitors beneath the glass, and when we touch the screen, our fingers bend that field. The phone pinpoints where the change in current originated and carries out the operation programmed to correspond with that area of the screen.

The first touch-screen-like device to show up in science fiction (that I could find) was in Isaac Asimov’s Foundations, written over about a decade beginning in 1942. To put that in perspective, Stephen Hawking was born in 1942. The touchscreen wasn’t invented by E.A. Johnson until 23 years later! Here’s an excerpt from Foundations:

“Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the files and rows of buttons that filled its surface. Red symbols glowed out from the upper tier.”
(Click quote for source)

How INSANE is that? Did I mention that it was 1942? According to Johnson Hur of bebusinessed.com, only several thousand American households even owned televisions 5 YEARS LATER in 1947!

And it gets crazier! Touch screens are just one form of gesture-based tech interfaces we use today. There are also motion-sensing interfaces, voice-activated interfaces, and other kinds of touch screen interfaces that have a similar function to capacitive touch screens, but respond to pressure instead of electrostatic manipulation. You can expect to see future Under the Sun posts on those topics.

When our friend E.A. Johnson finally got around to actually inventing the touch screen in 1965, it would be another eighteen years before HP came out with the first commercial touch screen personal computer, the HP-150.

The first iPhone was released in 2007. (Who else is excited for Apple’s 10-year anniversary iPhone release this September?) And well, here we are today, 75 years after Asimov rolled over and thought, “Huh, that’d be cool.”

Please leave comments below. I will respond, and I do take topic requests if you have any ideas for fiction that has become fact. Thanks for taking the time to read!


2 thoughts on “A Touchy Subject

  1. Kristen Hirst says:

    Ideas manifest like the twinkling of stars in our night sky. It starts with a glow in our minds eye. Years later, it manefests in “real” time for humans to experience its brilliance.

    Liked by 1 person

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