A Solid Prediction
by Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.
Published in the May/June 2021 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact. Copyright ©2021, Edward M. Wysocki, Jr. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the author.
When reading science fiction, one comes across descriptions of many strange and fantastic devices. The majority of these serve no purpose other than as an element of the plot. Others will actually have connections with real-world devices. Some will be predictions and some will serve as the inspiration for inventions. As I have discovered, the former far outnumber the latter.
In the course of my searching, I have discovered a prediction of 3D printing that has been overlooked.
Another way of describing the 3D printing process is as additive manufacturing, in which a desired object is created by addition of material. This is in contrast to conventional manufacturing techniques where material is removed, such as cutting, drilling or milling. All types of objects can be created by 3D printing. Several items in the news pointed out its use in creating inexpensive prosthetic hands for children. In connection with COVID-19, it has been used to create parts for medical equipment and for personal protective equipment such as face shields and masks.
When you read articles that discuss the history of 3D printing, you will encounter David E. H. Jones (1938 – 2017). He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Imperial College, London and worked both in industry and academia. His real claim to fame comes from the many columns that he wrote under the name of Daedalus that appeared in New Scientist, Nature and the Guardian. Daedalus was associated with the fictional company DREADCO, the Daedalus Research Evaluation And Development Corp. As Jones described them in his book The Aha! Moment: A Scientist’s Take on Creativity, “An ideal Daedalus column started with something everyone knew and finished with something nobody could believe.”
In his column in New Scientist for October 3, 1974, Jones began with an observation that certain liquid monomers can be polymerized to a solid by light. He pointed out that if you were to shine a laser beam of the appropriate frequency through a tank of liquid monomer, you would get a thread. The question was, how do you get the polymerization to occur at a point rather than along a line?
He answered the question as follows:
But Daedalus, with an eye on profitable production, is devising polymerisation reactions requiring two stages, each catalysed by light of a separate wavelength. Two different laser-beams traversing the tank would then form a solid spot of polymer at their point of intersection.
Do such two-stage reactions even exist? Perhaps not. Whatever actual scheme someone might develop along those lines, Jones then made a very accurate prediction of the consequences:
By scanning this point around, any type of solid object at all could be made up: even complex interlocking and re-entrant shapes quite impossible to mould. This effortless optical sculpture would revolutionise the plastic arts in all senses. Designers would be liberated from heavy, expensive steel moulds, and could try out their fancies at will in the laser-bath. Under programmed numerical control, the beams could reproduce any number of identical objects once the design had been optimized—silent, one-step, infinitely flexible mass production!
One of the several existing systems of 3D printing is stereolithography. The key is the use of a photopolymer resin that is solidified upon contact by ultraviolet light. An ultraviolet (UV) laser faces down into a thin layer of resin and is manipulated to draw and solidify a single layer of the object being created. The platform holding the object is lowered such that another layer of resin exists above the solid layer just created. Then the next layer is drawn and solidified. The process is repeated for as many layers as needed. The instructions for the motions required to create each layer are derived from CAD/CAM software that is used to render the original design into the necessary number of layers. Work was begun in this area in the early 1980s, with Chuck Hall applying for a patent in 1984.
I think we can safely say that the concept presented by Jones was a form of stereolithography. Not a bad prediction at all.
But what I have found presents the equivalent of a different 3D printing technique in a science fiction story that appeared 30 years before Jones’s article.
I am referring to the novelette “Blind Man’s Buff” by Malcolm Jameson that appeared in the October 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction.
Most of you may not have heard of Malcolm Jameson (1891 – 1945), so I must say a bit about him. After enlisting in the Navy, he became involved in 1916 with the study of the dispersion of shells from large naval guns fired at long range. This work continued during and after the U.S. participation in World War I. He then served for a time at the newly established Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia. His duties after Dahlgren included service on a submarine and two battleships.
Jameson’s naval career came to an end when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1926. Various treatments kept him alive for almost 20 years. His first science fiction sale was “Eviction by Isotherm,” which appeared in the August 1938 issue of Astounding. Besides Astounding, his works appeared in Amazing Stories, Astonishing Stories, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown and Weird Tales. Jameson died on April 16, 1945.
“Blind Man’s Buff” is about a competition to survey and claim areas of Venus. A western land rush on a planetary scale. This is one of the many Venus stories that appeared until our knowledge of the planet rendered them impossible. It assumed a Venus that was capable of supporting human life, was highly active tectonically and had an atmosphere that contained all sort of conditions besides obscuring clouds that rendered normal navigation by radar impossible.
The protagonists in this story are named Travis and Hartley. They have developed a type of super-radar, called magnar or “Maggy,” which is the key to their success. The supposed means of operation of the magnar is just doubletalk and is not relevant here.
Maggy has two important uses in the story. First, it helps them pierce the dangerous atmospheric conditions that kill many of the other competitors. Second, after they have landed, it also acts as a ground-penetrating radar. Unlike real ground-penetrating radar, Maggy is able to distinguish between various types of minerals.
What is of interest here is the way the results of the geological survey of their surroundings are presented. As described by Jameson:
The instrument rested on the flatter part of the roof, shielded from the downpour by a hastily stretched tarpaulin. By it stood the box that was to receive the scale relief map the Maggy was to construct. It was a three-sided, open-topped affair, made of plates of transparent synthetic crystal. Travis fastened the pantograph’s arms to lugs extending out of the magnar’s side, and attached the quills at their tips. When he finished the rigging, the pantos extended out into the receiving box.
So how does it operate?
Travis filled the panto quills with a tarry substance that when exuded hardened quickly into a dark glass. That was the symbol that stood for granite in their code. He had other plastics for the other rocks—dark red for sandstone, olive green for shale, a dirty yellow for limestone, and so on. Hartley cut in the juice.
It took the Maggy an hour to lay the foundation for their work. The weaving pantos worked in and out in an ever widening arc as directed by the operator, squirting the colored plastics onto those laid before. Where volcanic necks intervened—and there were many—Hartley stepped up the current so as to force the reluctant radiation through, since when it was set to be reflected by basalt it would bounce back from the nearer surface. It took skill and understanding, but in the end they were well pleased with the result.
What stood in their box was the skeleton of what was to be a diorama of their surroundings—so far just the naked land on which they rested. One could walk around the crystal box and see just how far down the basic magma lay, and how the stratified rocks above were twisted, folded, and faulted. It was the geologist’s dream come true.
As it happens, we have a representation of the scene just described.
(Author’s Note: As originally written, the article included an illustration of the system from “Blind Man’s Buff.” It turned out that it was not possible to obtain permission to reproduce the illustration. For those with an interest, I suggest that you access the October 1944 issue of Astounding in the Internet Archive.)
This illustration was done by Frank Kramer (1905 – 1993). He is known for the drawings for two Oz books and for a number of sports-related books in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1939 through 1946, he appeared often in Astounding and Unknown. Just to list a few familiar stories that he illustrated, we have “Black Destroyer,” “Farewell to the Master,” “Solution Unsatisfactory” and “Goldfish Bowl.” Other Jameson stories that he did include “Tricky Tonnage,” “Brains for Bricks,” “Fighters Never Quit” and “When is When?”
In A Requiem for Astounding, Kramer was given a less than flattering evaluation by Alva Rogers. My question is, if Kramer was as bad an artist as Rogers felt he was, why did John W. Campbell continually make use of his work for 8 years?
One problem that faces illustrators of works of science fiction is that they are usually asked to portray something that does not exist and may never exist. The result may be something that is fantastic in nature and eye-catching, but which bears little if any resemblance to what the author described in the story. What can be said about Kramer’s representation of the output device for Maggy?
We can see two mechanical arms attached to the controlling mechanism, which is partly obscured by the operators. The arms extend over and then down into the three-sided box. Although we cannot see the pattern being generated within the box, I feel that this illustration is a very good attempt at portraying what Jameson described.
There is, however, one key means in which the illustration differs from what Jameson said. He described the use of a pantograph to position the quills. Just what is a pantograph?
A pantograph is a simple mechanical linkage. Its primary use for centuries has been in copying of drawings. If a pointer attached to the linkage is used to follow the lines of the original drawing, a pen attached elsewhere in the linkage will reproduce the drawing. Depending on the construction of the linkage, the reproduction may be scaled to any size with respect to the original.
Although you may have never seen a pantograph used to copy drawings, you have no doubt seen other structures that are also called pantographs. One example is the extension mechanism for a small bathroom mirror. Another is the collapsible gate that one can use to keep a young child away from a stairway. Versions of the pantograph have also been used in three dimensions: to copy sculptures, to reduce the relief designs for coins, and as a means of controlling equipment in certain manufacturing operations.
Jameson used a pantograph as the way to transfer precise position information from Maggy to points within the three-sided box. Kramer chose to represent what Jameson described as a pantograph by a pair of simple slender hinged arms. This was probably because the slender arms were just easier to draw. While it is possible to criticize this detail of the illustration and even Jameson’s proposed use of a pantograph, we should not lose sight of the basic process as described by Jameson in the story, which was to get the various colored plastics deposited at their proper locations within the box.
There exists another system of 3D printing known either as fused filament fabrication (FFF) or the trademarked term fused deposition modeling (FDM). It is the process most often employed by people who make such creations as a hobby or in a small business operation. A filament of a thermoplastic material (which softens upon heating) is fed from a spool into a heated printer head. As the softened material is extruded from the head, it moves around to create a single layer, which solidifies as it cools. The print head is then raised a small distance and the next layer is created.
I maintain that what is described by Jameson, with the “panto quills” moving around and “squirting the colored plastics onto those laid before” is a process of 3D printing that very closely matches the principle of operation of fused filament fabrication.
Would such a device as described by Jameson be useful in geology today? 3D printing has indeed found use in the field of geology, for creating models of types of rocks and minerals and in creating 3D topographic models. If something like Maggy was available today, however, Jameson’s device would not be the ideal method of presenting the data. Important information would be hidden within the interior of the structure that had been built up. This information would not be available for study unless one was willing to slice up the structure. The obvious approach today would be to display the geological data on a computer screen. The displayed structure could be rendered partially transparent, rotated and sliced through along any plane.
Well, what do you think? Is the earliest mention of the principle of 3D printing to be found in “Blind Man’s Buff”?
A detail of the output device for the radar in “Blind Man’s Buff” was identified as the pantograph. As pointed out to me by Alec Nevala-Lee, Robert Heinlein used this term in several stories. In “Elsewhere,” which appeared as by Caleb Saunders in the September 1941 issue of Astounding, he mentioned a machine that was capable of manufacturing operations as directed by a scale model. It was “vaguely and inaccurately” called a three-dimensional pantograph. In the story, the machine was “molding the bodies of fighting planes out of plastic, all in one piece and in one operation.” Does this process sound a bit like 3D printing? One might claim that “Elsewhere” presented an even earlier prediction. The difficulty with such a claim is that Heinlein, unlike Jones and Jameson, did not provide any details of his fictional process.
In “Waldo” by Anson MacDonald in the August 1942 issue of Astounding, the title of the patent for the remote manipulators known as “waldoes” was given as “Waldo F. Jones’ Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph.” The last use of the term was in the second part of “Gulf” in the December 1949 issue of Astounding. The New Men in the story make use of an integrating pantograph, a “factory-in-a-box” that could “reproduce almost any prototype placed on its stage, requiring only materials and power.” I wonder what was behind Heinlein’s apparent fascination with the pantograph.