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Human imagination, the cosmos in your mind

Steam Engine Time and Ideaspace: Fortean Theories of How Creative Ideas Emerge Simultaneously

Last week on Twitter I came across a link to a sci-fi short story by writer Elly Bangs which sounded interesting. Clicking through I was taken to Bangs’ piece at the website of Clarkesworld magazine – and was instantly intrigued by the title.

“Dandelion” tells a wonderful, human story through the lens of science fiction, about three generations of scientists and “their evolving relationships to an enigmatic object recovered from the dry valleys of Antactica” – an alien life-seeding probe. I won’t discuss too much more, because spoilers, but I’d suggest Fortean readers will also enjoy it given how it touches lightly on government cover-ups and ‘disclosure’ as well as the more traditional hard sci-fi elements.

However, the reason I took special note of the title – and after that, the content of the story – was that around 13 years ago I had the bare bones of an idea for a science fiction novel (or movie script), which I sketched out in my ‘Ideas’ notebook. It was about the impact of alien life being found on Earth, seeded here by an alien probe that scientists ended up giving the name…’Dandelion’.

And that’s what I called my sci-fi story idea.

Start of the outline of my Dandelion fiction idea

Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that Bangs’ wonderful short story is based on anything I wrote in my Ideas notebook and then left in a filing cabinet and forgot about for over a decade. But it was still quite wild to see not only the title, but the rough story outline, be so similar.

(There were, it should be noted, also many differences in the details – my ‘Dandelion’ was an ice-crystal structure that looked like a dandelion floating through space, that would disintegrate into individual probes as it got within the ‘habitable zone’ of a star – multiple ‘seeds’/probes then landed on Earth in my story.)

Update, April 2023: Five years after writing this article, Harvard professor Avi Loeb has co-authored a scientific paper discussing hypothetical alien probes as ‘dandelion seeds’ being separated from an alien mothership due to the tidal gravitational force of the Sun . 

The similarities could of course just be put down to coincidence – there are billions of people on Earth, and a lot of them, at some point, write stories. But it might be better explained not simply as raw coincidence, but rather as coincidence via what’s come to be known as ‘Steam Engine Time’: a concept often used to explain the strange phenomenon of creative ideas being developed at the same time by different, unconnected people.

For instance, Alexander Bell is known as the inventor of the telephone, but most don’t remember the name of Elisha Gray, who simultaneously came up with the idea (and ‘simultaneously’ is hardly an overstatement – he filed notice with the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., on the same day, February 14, 1876, as Bell did.

As this 2008 article by Malcolm Gladwell notes, the example of the simultaneous development of the telephone is just one example in a long list of inventions and creative ideas:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery — what science historians call “multiples” — turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

Ogburn and Thomas listed many other examples:

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.

They concluded that the sheer number of these simultaneous discoveries showed that these creative ideas were, in a sense, inevitable: they were “in the air”, waiting to take root in the right person’s mind, as a result of the milieu of that particular time and place.

That great cataloguer of the anomalous and strange, Charles Fort, coined the term mentioned earlier for this phenomenon, ‘Steam Engine Time’, which has been taken up by the science fiction community in particular. The term originated in Fort’s observation that “a social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time.”

William Gibson, the author of the seminal Neuromancer, discussed this in relation to sci-fi story ideas in an interview where he applied it to his ground-breaking idea of ‘cyberspace’:

There’s an idea in the science-fiction community called steam-engine time, which is what people call it when suddenly twenty or thirty different writers produce stories about the same idea. It’s called steam-engine time ­because nobody knows why the steam engine happened when it did. Ptolemy demonstrated the mechanics of the steam engine, and there was nothing technically stopping the Romans from building big steam engines. They had little toy steam engines, and they had enough metalworking skill to build big steam tractors. It just never occurred to them to do it. When I came up with my cyberspace idea, I thought, I bet it’s steam-engine time for this one, because I can’t be the only person noticing these various things. And I wasn’t. I was just the first person who put it together in that particular way, and I had a logo for it, I had my neologism.

Or, if we want to get a little more speculative when it comes to explaining the simultaneous development of these creative ideas, we could look at Alan Moore’s model of ‘Ideaspace’, which might be considered the ‘Steam Engine time’ expansion pack. In his brilliant book KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, John Higgs describes Moore’s Ideaspace as “something very similar to Jung’s collective unconscious”; as he puts it, it is the ‘greater’ mental world beyond our own personal mind space, such that “we could open the doors of our individual homes and walk out into this shared landscape beyond”.

Alan Moore

In Moore’s model, the physical world isn’t the foundation of everything – the mental world of the imagination is – and as such, when people explored that world, they were bound to find the same things.

This was the phenomena of why, after millennia of inventions such as the electric light, calculus or steam engines not existing, several people would invent the exact same thing at much the same time (at which point there’s a mad race down to the patent office, with the winner being the one who is celebrated by history whilst the others forgotten). As Moore saw it, the idea had been discovered in a shared area of Ideaspace, and several wanderers had stumbled upon it shortly afterwards.

Whether it was just coincidence, Steam Engine time, or Ideaspace, I’ve now pulled the old ‘Ideas’ notebook out of the filing cabinet, and have decided that I really should stop just outlining ideas and then hiding them away, and instead should actually start putting flesh on some of those old bones.

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