Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

CLOAKING DEVICES

There are certain topics that I think I know a lot about. Star Trek is one of those topics.  But this post is the story of me being wrong about Star Trek things.

Cloaking devices are a common trope in science fiction.  They’re most closely associated with the Romulans, an alien race that sneaks around the Star Trek universe in their invisible spaceships, like the invisible spaceship pictured below.

Star Trek often gets credit for popularizing cool ideas, but not for inventing them.  I always assumed Star Trek popularized the cloaking device trope, but I figured the writers must have gotten the idea from somebody else—probably one of the early Sci-Fi writers of the pulp era.

But I was wrong.  According to Brave New Words: The Oxford English Dictionary of Science Fiction, the writers of Star Trek really did come up with the whole cloaking device thing.  The term “cloaking device” first appeared in an episode called “The Enterprise Incident” in 1968.

Except being the knowledgable Star Trek fan that I am, I still thought Brave New Words had made a mistake.  If nothing else, they’d overlooked the 1966 episode “Balance of Terror,” when the Romulans and their cloaking technology made their first appearance (or rather, their first disappearance).

But again, I was wrong, technically speaking.  In “Balance of Terror,” Mr. Spock explains that the Romulans are using a “practical invisibility screen.”  The Romulan commander refers to this as a “cloak” or “cloaking system.”  But strictly speaking, no one ever uses the term “cloaking device.”

Even after reading other sources (like this one) that said Star Trek really did invent the term cloaking device, and furthermore that the term really was first used in “The Enterprise Incident” and not “Balance of Terror,” I still didn’t believe it. When you think you know so much about a topic, it’s hard to admit when you’re wrong.  I had to rewatch both episodes to see for myself.

The point of all this is not just to tell you a cool thing about the history of Star Trek or how Star Trek has contributed to the Sci-Fi lexicon.  The real lesson is this: no matter how knowledgeable you think you are about a given topic, there is always still something more you can learn!

17 responses »

  1. I had no idea invisible spaceships made for such wonderful art.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Kate Rauner says:

    Sometimes an idea gets so firmly stuck in my head that it re-emerges even after I’ve fact-checked it and I have to fact-check all over again. I say – that’s because my idea is so much better than the reality 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve found Brave New Words to be wrong on some things. For instance, when discussing generation ships, they completely missed Heinlein’s 1941 story ‘Universe’.

    That said, finding the first occurrence of a concept in science fiction is extremely difficult. No matter how original you think something is, it always seems to turn out that some guy in 1931 wrote about it.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if some version of a cloaking device doesn’t show up in the period between 1925 and 1937, although almost certainly under a different name.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I guess I didn’t realize the term wasn’t used in Balance of Terror. And I’ve seen that at least 80 times. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gargi Mehra says:

    Very informative post as usual! The picture of the “invisible spaceship” is a brilliant touch 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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