Launching the Final Frontier of Technology

On this day in economic and business history ...

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise... which began on Sept. 8, 1966, when the original Star Trek series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy launched on NBC. Its four-decade-plus mission: to inspire generations of tech-savvy individuals while simultaneously earning billions of dollars in revenue for Paramount and its corporate parents -- Viacom (NASDAQ: VIAB  ) controls Star Trek's film rights, while CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) owns television rights for the sci-fi series.

The franchise's 12 feature films (and counting) have racked up about $2 billion in total box-office receipts, but that's only a slice of the merchandise and syndication windfall that Star Trek's four main iterations (we'll ignore the ill-fated Enterprise prequel that ended Trek's 18-year run of new shows in 2005) have generated since 1966. However, the financial impact of Star Trek has always run secondary to its cultural and technological impact. A number of Trek techs have since made the leap to the real world, in some form or another.

Early "flip" cell phones stylistically mimicked the original Trek communicators, and mobile phone functionality and design have often taken cues from the franchise. Today there are more mobile phones in use than there people in the world, which exceeds Trek creator Gene Rodenberry's vision, as it was only the crew members of the Enterprise who had access to this once-futuristic technology. The crew of The Next Generation's starship took to touchscreens as readily as today's consumers have taken to iPads. Commentary on the patent lawsuits involving this Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) tablet have often pointed out that Trek constitutes a form of "prior art" for tablets, although an actual Samsung defense in one iPad patent case chose to focus on a scene from the earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The crew of the Enterprise often accessed everything that wasn't touch-activated on the ship via voice command, presaging the recent shift toward digital companions such as Apple's Siri. When interacting with the denizens of "strange new worlds," the crew relied on a universal translator -- clearly a more evolved form of translation technologies (some with real-time voice-translation functionality) already in use today. And those big screens on the bridge of every Enterprise can only be an interstellar implementation of visual teleconferencing.

The replicators used in Trek from The Next Generation onward are certainly an inspiration for 3-D printers, although the real-world technology is still a long way from the Federation's ability to instantly materialize anything from a new tool to a cup of Earl Grey tea. Advanced medical scanning technology like the tricorder should soon become a reality. Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) began sponsoring a Tricorder X Prize worth $10 million in 2012, and the chipmaker is hoping that a winner will emerge by 2015. The Enterprise's diagnostic-rich "sick bays" have given way to modern hospitals stuffed with MRI machines and a variety of other advanced electronic screening gadgetry. Even portable energy-beam weapons are in development and have been named PHASR in honor of Trek's handheld future-guns.

Two Trek technologies remain, for now, unattainable holy grails of technological development: the matter transporter and the warp drive. That hasn't stopped ambitious scientists from trying. Quantum teleportation has been tested in several labs, but that's a long way from beaming people to nearby planets. Faster-than-light travel is still far beyond our abilities, but some very smart people at NASA believe it might be possible. The agency's propulsion-focused skunkworks division has been working to detect possible "warp bubbles" at microscopic levels. If the warp bubble theory is real, our descendants might really be able to venture to deep space, where no one has gone before.

Let's stick together
We don't have to look to the final frontier to find bright ideas first revealed on Sept. 8. 3M (NYSE: MMM  ) began to sell a waterproof, transparent cellophane adhesive tape on Sept. 8, 1930. It took on the name "Scotch tape" when, as Wired writes:

... a St. Paul car dealer became annoyed because the cellulose ribbons originally only had adhesive on the borders. Slagging 3M (known in those days as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.) for being stingy, he invoked Scotland's penny-pinching reputation and dubbed the product "Scotch tape."

Scotch tape is now one of 3M's most popular products. The company has reported that it sells enough Scotch tape each year to circle the globe 165 times -- that's more than 4.1 million miles of tape!

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