Tractor beaming

The idea of the tractor beam first appeared in fiction in 1931. Since then, scientists have worked to make it a reality… and they’ve actually had some success.

Tractor beam
Leo Morey / Radio-Science Publications [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There should be a term for scientific research which is intentionally or unintentionally pursuing technologies first posited in science fiction. If you have a suggestion, let me know. I’ll split the etymological credit with you.

The tractor beam is supposedly a beam of light or energy that draws objects towards it. An invisible space grappling hook, basically. It is a plot device in Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, and dozens of other films, TV shows, games, comics, and books.

The very first mention of the tractor beam was in the 1931 novel Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. Smith. It was serialised in three issues of Amazing Stories magazine and then collected together and published. This is the line:

A slow-creeping pale blue rod of tangible force reached out from the great sphere, touched the wreckage of the Forlorn Hope, and pulled; gently, but with enormous power.

“Tractor beams again!” exclaimed Stevens, still at the plate. “Everybody’s got ’em but us, it seems.”

“And we can’t fight a bit any more, can we?”

(I should mention that earlier in the book they’re called “tractor rays” – but this is the first mention of a tractor beam by that name.)

That’s science fiction. What about science fact? It turns out that there are a few working tractor beams out there right now. There’s the sonic tractor beam which uses acoustic holograms to move tiny beads around:

There’s a technique with laser beams that draws particles towards them using photophoresis (a tricky concept that relies on one side of a particle being hotter than the other). The most impressive tractor beams are the “optical tweezers,” which are lasers that use light to push and pull particles around with great precision:

That one won a Nobel Prize last year, by the way, so it’s safe to say that tractor beams are here to stay.


One Reply to “Tractor beaming”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s