Schmitz's ComWeb
Early SF Desktop Computers & Internet

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
March 2002

Writing as a practical visionary

So maybe science fiction did predict the atomic bomb and space travel. But the predictors had some major blind spots, right? Science fiction writers didn't predict personal computers, a small computer on someone's desktop, did they? How about the Internet and email? How about the World Wide Web? Maybe the desktop computer wasn't obvious, but —

Well, it depends on what science fiction we're talking about.

In many of his Federation of the Hub science fiction stories, mostly first published in Analog Science Fiction magazine in the 1960s, James H. Schmitz has characters casually using a device called a ComWeb. Without worrying too much about the definition of prediction, or issues of precedence, let's look at some neat examples from Schmitz.

A restaurant-table ComWeb

A tough operator named Heslet Quillan is dining at a garden restaurant in the Seventh Star Hotel, floating deep in interstellar space. The hotel guest finishes his meal:

After a minute or two, he yawned comfortably, put out the cigarette, and pushed his chair back from the table. As he came to his feet, there was a soft bell-note from the table ComWeb. He hesitated, said, "Go ahead."

"Is intrusion permitted?" the ComWeb inquired.

"Depends," the guest said. "Who's calling?"

"The name is Reetal Destone."

He grinned, appeared pleasantly surprised. "Put the lady through."

There was a brief silence. Then a woman's voice inquired softly, "Quillan?"

"Right here, doll! Where —"

"Seal the ComWeb, Quillan."

He reached down to the instrument, tapped the seal button, said, "All right. We're private."

"Probably," the woman's voice said. "But better scramble this, too. I want to be very sure no one's listening."

Quillan grunted, slid his left hand into an inner coat pocket, briefly fingered a device of the approximate size and shape of a cigarette, drew his hand out again. "Scrambling!" he announced. "Now what —"

"Mayday, Quillan," the soft voice said. "Can you come immediately?"

James H. Schmitz
"Lion Loose"  (1961)

In the above passage the ComWeb system can route a call to someone in a public place. A restaurant-table ComWeb serves as a telephone with call screening, caller identification, and built-in privacy available. Beyond that, a call can be encrypted using an unattached device. ComWebs throughout the Seventh Star Hotel figure significantly in the plot.

Remote printing & signing

Another example. Trigger Argee is using her desktop ComWeb to call the personnel office of the Precolonial Department; surprisingly her call is routed to a high executive, Undersecretary Rozan:

... a businesslike blonde showed up in the screen.

To this on-screen woman, Trigger says:

"I'd like to apply for a transfer back to my previous job. The Manon System."

"That's your privilege," said Rozan. She half turned, swung a telewriter forward and snapped it into her ComWeb. She glanced out at Trigger's desk. "Your writer's connected, I see. We'll want thumbprint and signature."

She slid a form into her telewriter, shifted it twice as Trigger deposited thumbprint and signature, and drew it out. "The application will be processed promptly, Argee. Good day." ...

If not a gabby type, the Precol blonde was a woman of her word. Trigger had just started lunch when the office mail-tube receiver tinkled brightly at her. She reached in, took out a flat plastic carrier, snapped it open. The paper that unfolded itself in her hand was her retransfer application. ...

James H. Schmitz
A Tale of Two Clocks  (1962)

In the above exchange the ComWebs act as videophones for a conversation. As with Heinlein, Schmitz's characters use their technolgies matter-of-factly, without fuss or surprise or the necessity of explaining commonplaces to each other.

The attachable telewriter devices can be plugged in while the ComWeb is running — hot-swappable as are Firewire connectors, but not the older SCSI connectors. A telewriter serves as a thumbprint and signature scanner at the sending side; another telewriter as a real-time, interactive printer on the receiving side, to inscribe and authenticate an official document.

The physical document generated at the Precolonial office soon is physically routed back to Trigger via office mail-tube; it's not specified if this is pneumatic or something fancier.

Queueing, storage, & security

A final example, from a Telzey Amberdon story. Here a ComWeb call by Telzey for information gets her the promise of two reports to be delivered shortly:

The blue reception button on the ComWeb was glowing when Telzey came into her room. She closed the door, pulled up the report on the Sirens, and sat down. The report began flowing up over the reading screen at her normal scanning rate.

... The ComWeb had emitted a single bright ping-note a minute or two earlier, and the blue button was glowing again. Telzey erased the material on the Sirens and brought up the report on ...

James H. Schmitz
"Compulsion"  (1970)

Her ComWeb unobtrusively lets her know that the first report is available. This report on the Siren pseudotrees being classified, Telzey deliberately erases it after reading; she could have retained it in her ComWeb. The second report announces its arrival but doesn't interfere with her reading the first one. This report being private, Telzey erases it also.

An interpersonal, extensible tool

These Federation of the Hub stories are set in or near James Schmitz's Hub benchmark year of 3500 A.D., quite a long time from now — a year I presume he picked to allow humanity to spread out to over 1200 worlds and develop in exotic ways, rather than to chart the progress of any particular technology. On the other hand, he doesn't specify how long the basic ComWeb technology has been around; and of course there likely are other attributes that are not mentioned because they don't contribute to any of the existing stories.

In keeping with his deep interest in people and psychology, Schmitz's ComWeb is in his stories for people to communicate with each other. It's not a gadgeteer's extrapolation, an engineer's daydream worked out in loving detail. Research, communication, the personal touch at a distance, human sociability — all these aspects of the human community were part of the initial concept for our World Wide Web.

Speaking of psychology, the Federation's Psychology Service has some very exotic computers, mind-reading machines, visualizers, and the like — but that's taking us far from the desktop.

Of course, science fiction's business is not prediction, but speculative entertainment. I'm sure Schmitz had fun with these speculative details of his ComWeb — or communications web.


© 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson

An even earlier example:
"A Logic Named Joe"  (1946)
by Murray Leinster

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