Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "Travel by Wire!": Email yourself for dinner, please!

This beautiful & humorous story is also Clarke's first published (but see the caveat near the end of my note on "Rescue Party"). Very dated idea now, & yet not a moment of boredom. In fact, he makes you smile most of the time.

Story summary.
Unnamed narrator is telling the achievements of his team - initially a group at Research Foundation; later as one of the promoters of an unnamed commercial venture.

Idea is now familiar - Star Trek like instant personal transport. Sender is a kind of 3D scanner that looks at a thing (including its interior detail!), disassembles it locally, transmits the information via some communication medium to a Receiver device at destination that assembles the thing back out of thin air! The process works the way TV picture is built with many dots; input thing is digitized similarly!

Story tells the progress of research - perfecting the transmission of a block of wood; then a small rodent; then "Professor Kingston, who teaches Greek or something foolish". Then of founding of a commercial venture for transporting the people around the world - initially via radio from London to Paris "inaugurated on May 10th, 1962"; then via cables to other destinations.

Among the many accidents of the commercial venture, there was one due to "high resistance" in some electrical circuit that resulted in some people losing weight at Receiver end - leading to another business of flab cutting that transmits people to their own current location via a high resistance circuit!


  1. Story outlines many other transmission accidents. A specific one reminded me of a plot element in Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961): "One common complaint was earthing along the line. When that happened, our unfortunate passenger was just dissipated into nothingness." Mike (the hero) in Stranger also does this dissipating of people & things into nothingness - only he doesn't need any apparatus, & sends them along a fourth dimension rather then splitting them into particles!
  2. After reading this, J K Rowling's wizard transmission network via fireplaces in Harry Potter series feels like only a special magical adaptation! She calls it "floo network" or something - I don't recall the name.
  3. Narrator's sentiments near the end of the story - "I see it's nearly 22, so I'd best be leaving. I have to be in New York by midnight. What's that? Oh no, I'm going by plane. I don't travel by wire!" - is very similar to that of human raiding party on Mars in Clarke's "Loophole". The party was beamed there by wire, but would rather await development of chemical rockets for return journey!
A note on the technology involved.
While the technology of the story sounds wishful, it is less wishful than it seems. Here is what we can already do with commercially available devices:
  1. A 3D Scanner can literally look at a small object of arbitrary shape, & measure the location of several hundred thousand points on the surface of object - relative some coordinate system. Though the operation is not trivial - requires some technical expertise.
  2. Software applications are available that take these points, & with considerable help from operator, help fit surfaces through these points - effectively producing a digital shape that models original physical object. To some specific level of accuracy.
  3. A so called RP Machine (RP stands for Rapid Prototyping), available in many labs, can take "triangulated" 3D surface data (derived from Step 2, often with operator help) to produce a physical object of original shape. Though these machines use only a few kinds of materials - typically waxy substances. And, anyway, input model did not have "what kind of material" information.
Of course, you can electronically move the scanned point data, fitted surface data, or "triangulated data" in the specific file format that RP Machines expects.

This is, of course, far from emailing humans. But who can say it will remain impossible in a few hundred or thousand years?

Fact sheet.
Travel by Wire!, short story, review
First published: Amateur Science Fiction Stories, December 1937
Rating: A

This story appears in the following collections.
  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"


Anonymous said...

Hi, your summary and explanations were good:) i liked em. However, can you explain the ending ~ I don't travel by wire! You see, I helped invent the thing. Rockets for me! Good night! I don't really get it. Would really appreciate if you could help. Thx:)Keep it up XD keep posting!!!! XDDD Also, how does the setting tell/ set the mood of the story? I don't understand...i just wanna know more about this amusing and fascinating story. Thx a lot!!!! :)

Anonymous said...

haha. Travel by wire is such a weird story...but at the same time, worth reading:) Strongly recommended for ppl dying of boredom. Happy reading!

ng said...

can't believe im using this story for my literature exam tmr ...anyway , thanks for the summary !