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Literary mysteries: Books that predicted the future

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Russian diesel-electric submarine
The Russian diesel-electric submarine Stary Oskol in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Jules Verne wrote about electric submarines as early as 1869.
Olga Maltseva | AFP/Getty Images 2014

The question: Which books have predicted the future?

Many authors have written about the future with eerie accuracy, describing inventions and events 100 years ahead of their time. A large number of these books fall into the science fiction genre, which makes sense — sci-fi authors are always dreaming up what's next for the world. 

So what happened in print before it happened in person?

Jonathan Swift identified the two moons of Mars 150 years before astronomy caught up

In Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," everyone remembers the Lilliputians, the tiny people who are just six inches tall. But that's only the first stop on Gulliver's journey. He also stumbles across Laputa, a floating island with a highly educated population. In Swift's story, astronomers on Laputa have discovered the two moons of Mars — in reality, Mars' two moons would not be discovered until 1877. 

Jules Verne predicted submarines, skywriting and a space center in Florida

Verne's view of the future was filled with gadgets, many of which came true in the modern age. His stories reference electric submarines, lunar modules and even skywriting. These ideas were not entirely Verne's own; he was just very well-read. He kept up on the scientific journals of the time and applied a healthy dose of his imagination to new developments.

In a piece titled "In the Year 2889," Verne does seem to have predicted the morning news: "Instead of being printed, the 'Earth Chronicle' is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen and scientists, learn the news of the day." 

The most accurate of all of Verne's predictions may be his idea that rockets would one day take off from Florida. In "From the Earth to the Moon," published in 1865, Verne describes launching a rocket from "Tampa Town," nearly 100 years before the Kennedy Space Center was built. 

Authors dreamt up anti-depressants, earbuds and nuclear war

Verne's accurate imagination is not alone: Aldous Huxley may have made the first ever reference to anti-depressants in "Brave New World" and Ray Bradbury's description of "little seashell radios" in "Fahrenheit 451" is pretty close to Apple's earbuds. Lots of authors get credit for dreaming up video calls: E.M. Forster, Verne and others. Then there's H.G. Wells, who foresaw a very dark reality: a world ruled by nuclear weapons. 

In "The World Set Free," published in 1914, Wells described nuclear weapons and their chilling effect on global politics. One reader was particularly inspired: physicist Leo Szilard, who reportedly read Wells' novel in 1932. In 1934, Szilard filed a patent for his work on neutron chain reactions.

An 'unsinkable' ship sank, 14 years before the Titanic

In "Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan," an "unsinkable ship" strikes an iceberg in April in the North Atlantic. There aren't enough lifeboats and nearly half of the over 2,000 passengers perish as the ship sinks. Sound familiar? The novella "Futility," written by Morgan Robertson, was published in 1898 — 14 years before the Titanic set sail.

The waterbed started as a work of fiction

Robert Heinlein's stories and novels are another example of literature ahead of its time. Heinlein seems to have predicted the Cold War before World War II even started, in "Solution Unsatisfactory." Also, if you consider the internet "a series of tubes," then he invented that too. He imagined a system of pneumatic tubes connected to librarians who could send back answers to even the most obscure of questions — this "information network" is in his 1938 novel "For Us the Living."

And then there's Heinlein's crowning achievement: predicting the waterbed. His 1942 description of the waterbed in "Expanded Universe" was so specific that when Charles Hall, who actually manufactured waterbeds, tried to patent the design in the 1960s, he was turned down — it was determined that Heinlein was the true inventor, even though he'd never made one.

A modern take on making predictions

Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story," which came out in 2010, described a world where the U.S. defaulted on its debt and China scolded the country for its spending habits. Within a year, every news channel was carrying a story about the last minute debt-ceiling deal and China's harsh words for the U.S. government.

How do they do that?

So how could Verne, Swift, Huxley and the rest have pulled this off? The New York Times interviewed James E. Gunn, the director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, about novelists' eerie power to make predictions.

These predictions could actually be self-fulfilling prophecies, Gunn said, they "could even help encourage the future by preparing minds."