What inspired Heinlein?

Sunday 17 March 2002This is more than 21 years old. Be careful.

This passage from a story by Robert Heinlein has been widely quoted:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped or turned back, for their private benefit.

It’s clear why this paragraph is so popular among technologists now: it is a strong statement of technological libertarianism, the absurdity of using legal means to prevent technological advances, and the short-sightedness and selfishness of business interests that try to perpetuate themselves at any cost. Its relevance to the recent events in the music industry and the intellectual property arena is startling.

It’s even more startling because the quote comes from “Life-Line”, Heinlein’s very first published story, written in 1939.

It got me thinking: were there real events that put those ideas in Heinlein’s mind? Is there some historical antecedent of today’s struggle between large businesses and the new technology that could threaten their business model?

There are examples from recent memory to point to, notably the entertainment industry’s alarmist calls about VCRs and the havoc they would cause (which they did not). But are there instances further back that could throw some light on today’s controversy?

In the story (which is about a scientist who invents a machine which accurately predicts the time of a person’s death, and his persecution by the insurance companies who are therefore being put out of business), the only example given is a coal lamp producer who would claim foul against the electric companies. But that example is presented in the story as an absurdity to drive home the point: a new technology should not be declared illegal just because it makes an existing business obsolete.

I’d like to find out what got Heinlein going along these lines. I took a quick look at some biographies, but they were sketchy on the matter. One referred to a failed family farm that was at the mercy of larger argicultural companies, but that doesn’t serve as a model for the conflict he was describing.


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