Now that we’ve reached the end of the Skywalker saga, a story that began in 1977, we can take a look back at the technologies within the Star Wars films and compare what people in the 70s thought the future would look like to how we think of the future now.
In 1977 cars still ran using carburetors, vacuum lines, and points. The computer controlled revolution of the 80s was merely a twinkle in silicon valley’s budding eye. To understand the future of technology circa 1977 we need to look through the eyes of someone living in the 70s. So let’s take a look at some of the contemporary technologies of the late 1970s. By the way, in 1977, Neil Armstrong’s famous words “one small step…” were not even a decade old.
When one thinks of a computer, they likely imagine something that looks like either a Mac Book or a Dell PC. In 1977, however, computers were entirely different.
In the 70s, computers weren’t what they are today. Personal computers in the 70s came as kits that the end user needed to assemble. Users needed to solder and clip together many tiny little components to build what essentially looks like the inside of an old transistor radio. Printed circuit boards and bolt-on components (Nvidia Titans etc.) simply didn’t exist in the way that they do now. There were no standardized formats as all of the technologies were still emerging. Computer stores weren’t like the big-box electronics stores we have today, they were small one-owner AV shops with computer sections for the most part. Specialized computer boutiques were around but they did not exist in any way that a millennial would recognize. Multi-colour displays and high resolution graphics simply weren’t a thing yet. The targeting computer on the Millennium Falcon is a good approximation of what was available for graphics at the time. Star Wars’ creators knew that computers were the future, or perhaps a far-away distant past, but like most people in 1977 they had no idea what the future of electronics would look like.
Vinyl records were still the go-to audio format and the VHS player had yet to reach mainstream success. The format that would become that standard had released in Japan but one year prior to the release of the first Star Wars film. The VHS player didn’t really take off and find its way into many American homes until part way through the 80s.
There is one thing on everyone’s mind right now that really didn’t make its way into Star Wars in 1977, at least not in the form people nowadays would expect. Artificial Intelligence isn’t really mentioned in the main Star Wars saga. We understand AI as a neural network that has been trained using algorithms to find patterns within certain datasets, and over time the AI can make predictions based on what it’s been fed. But in 1977, AI wasn’t thought of as we think of it today simply because they didn’t yet have the ability to program one. Their computers simply weren’t good enough. Just think of trying to build a video game like Jedi Fallen Order on your high school math class calculator. It’s impossible for a bunch of reasons. Also, general computer knowledge was not widespread mainly due to the cost of the machines themselves and overall lack of specialized teaching positions, and availability of the machines in the home.
Where the people of the 2000s and beyond would use AI, the people of the 70s would use a robot. A robot (a droid in Star Wars terminology) is a sort of Artificial Intelligence, but rather than being a computer program, it is a physical thing that can be interacted with and anthropomorphized. There are many varying types of robots in Star Wars and each has its own purpose. Apparently even spacefaring creatures are not advanced enough to devise an Artificial General Intelligence.
There is perhaps nothing more synonymous with Star Wars than the lightsaber. The lightsaber itself is nothing more than a sci-fi sword, however it is more fi than sci (for now), much to the disdain of nerds the world over. If you don’t know, the lightsaber is a beam of energy that is focused by a magical Kyber crystal in its hilt. The lightsaber went through many conceptual iterations but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the lightsaber in Star Wars is how they made it happen on screen. Nowadays we can simply turn to the computer to generate ‘realistic’ lightsaber effects, but in 1977 Lucas couldn’t. Rather, the film crew mounted reflective film-screen material to rotating rods which they then shined a light on. The lightsaber effect was created by rotoscoping the reflective material. A far cry from the computer aided effects of the prequels and the new Disney trilogy.
Space ships in 1977 with their hand wired circuit boards and monochrome displays are quite a bit different from what they are pictured as today.
The Millennium Falcon is not as much as ship as it is a character in its own right. Its form and functions lend a good deal of insight into the perceived future of technology in 1977. From the radar dish to the user-controlled laser cannons, the Falcon is a hypothetical time capsule.
The X-Wing fighter is another such example. In cockpit of the X-Wing is a perfect representation of 1970’s technology. In Star Wars the Last Jedi, Poe Dameron’s X-Wing gets hit and his weapons go down. He calls on BB-8 to fix the problem. The camera shows the adorable autonomous ball jumping connections between resistors. This is particularly fascinating because the X-Wing is wired using components that would have been commonly available at an electronics store in 1977.
The above is a picture is of the board from a Commodire C-16 circa 1984. In this image we can see an example of resistors of a similar style to what are shown in the movie used in a computer of the same relative era. Moreover, monochrome displays are quite prevalent in Star Wars. Apple sparked the graphical revolution of the 80s and it is no surprise that being a movie from 1977, the computerized displays seen on board space ships and in the rebel base aren’t exactly in technicolour. Suffice it to say, in my opinion, people in 1977 imagined computers being quite a bit more powerful in terms of calculations etc., but did not consider advances in graphics technology.
Another technology we use every day that is noticeably lacking in Star Wars is the prolific touchscreen. Tactile interfaces abound in the galaxy far far away but the touch screen interface is a subtle feature of electronics engineering that is seemingly not as well known. Although there are a few in-universe technologies that seem to make use of touch interfaces, such as the imperial duty post, we don’t see Jedis and smugglers interacting with them regularly. If you pay close attention to the image below you’ll see that it is a still for the Emperors’s throne room in Return of the Jedi. In the six years between the original film’s release and the release of Jedi, Earth technology had advanced significantly and the effects can be seen in minor ways such as the inclusion of (potentially) touch interfaces.
Portable and wireless communications are quite different today than what 1977 seemingly predicted. In the past few decades we have gotten used to the idea of phones being communications multitools but in the past, phones were only for talking. What a concept. This is evident in Star Wars. In the first film, portable communications did exist in the form of a comlink, a standardized handheld device consisting of a microphone, speaker, and receiver. Luke and C-3P0 can be seen using these devices in the famous compactor scene. Rather than having a do-it-all communications device, characters in the Star Wars universe make use of several instruments for a variety of communications reasons.
Holograms are a definite sci-fi trope and can be seen in many films, tv series, and comic books. A widely-cited first appearance of the hologram is 1956’s The Forbidden Planet. The Forbidden Planet had a direct influence on Star Wars and the sci-fi genre at large. Holograms similar in style to Alderaan’s princess can be seen all throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Gamers will recognize the name Cortana from the video game series Halo. Without films like Star Wars, holograms would not exist in sci-fi like they do today. Holograms are not necessarily the fiction any longer. However, in my opinion, I believe this is less ‘prediction-esque’ and more of an influence of sci-fi on the real world. Either way, in 1977 holograms were a thing of the future and they’re pretty much here now. How long until we get hyperspace and the force? The picture (above) is a still of C-3P0 and Chewbacca playing Holochess (Dejarik). If you look closely you’ll see some glowing buttons along the rim of the chessboard. Going back to the idea of a lack of touch-based interfaces, even this super advanced holographic chess game doesn’t consider non-tactile controls.
Hacking via the internet is a terribly common thing in movies and tv today. Often times when a character tells another to ‘hack’ something there is more movie magic involved than actual computer science, but if you’ve ever seen Star Wars you’ll notice the general lack of wireless ‘hacking’. This is likely due to the state of the internet in 1977. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was an early version of the internet which was funded by the United States’ Department of Defence. In 1977 access to the primordial internet was limited to researchers and academics. The internet didn’t really appear until 1990 when Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, a method of connecting to the internet via an interface. It is no wonder that the internet as we know it doesn’t exist in Star Wars as it was born two decades after the release of the film. Wireless communications and transmissions do exist in Star Wars, but like comlinks, its a utilitarian concept. If Star Wars debuted this year in 2020, Obi-Wan would have hacked into the tractor control system rather than sneaking around the base.
Perhaps one of the most important points in the original film’s plot dates it so accurately. In the first film, a reference to stolen plans and data tapes is made. The dominant form of storage media in 1977 were cassette tapes and floppy discs. It is now quite hard to imagine that multiple space-faring civilizations operating either under one empire or a galactic republic did not have a need for extreme amounts of data storage. Humans are just one species and we use and produce an obscene amount of data. In 2012, an estimated 2.5 billion GB of data was generated daily. It would be impossible to fit 2012’s data on data tapes. Assuming the tapes had a similar storage capability to commercially available devices in 1977, around 200 Kb. That number is 1.25e+13 or 1250000000000000. It would take one quadrillion, two hundred fifty trillion tapes holding one hour of audio to hold the data that was generated in one day in 2012. It is no wonder Darth Vader couldn’t recover the stolen tapes, there were probably tens of thousands of them ;)
Personal computers in 1977 weren’t what they are today. 1977 saw the release of the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor). These computers weighed 47 pounds, had a 9” blue and white monitor, RAM expansions, and 4K of memory. Maybe part of the reason why the Death Star is so large is because the 1977 computer required to operate the station was the size of a small moon.
Rather than imagining something completely new, Star Wars takes influence from great epics, story telling, martial arts, and contemporary science. Where science could not take him, Lucas turned to the mystical arts for explanation. Star Wars has been a mainstay for the last 42 years, and in 42 years we’ve come a long way technologically.
The late 70s were a cool time. Computers were just beginning to become accessible, video games were gaining in popularity and the 90s were yet to happen. 70s sci-fi is a unique glimpse into a would-be future that is influenced by the technology of the day and the sentiments of its creators. Human technological culture in 1977 was vastly different than it is today. The concept of a do-it-all electronic device never made it into Star Wars and the movies don’t mention ‘quantum’ anything. In 42 years we’ll look back at the sci-fi of today and scoff the way we do when we watch classic sci-fi today.