Does the Star Trek franchise explain how teleportation is achieved?

To say that teleportation to and from the starship is a staple in Star Trek is an understatement. It’s a long time since I saw anything connected with the franchise and I was wondering if the principle behind how the teleportation works was ever explained within it.

What I’m getting at is, I always imagined teleportation as the scientific achievement of a process that would otherwise be magical, whereby a person (or a physical object) would simply be caused by some kind of waves/beams to travel intact from one location to another. However, more recent sources that I have come across speculate that it would be achieved by breaking down the subject into particles and putting them together elsewhere. In fact, I have run into an even more extreme interpretation. There was a book in my middle school library called the Usborne Book of the Future. It was published in 1979 and speculated on how we would be living in the future, comparing it with the past and present along the way. I quite liked the book and it’s interesting to look at it now and see what has come true and what hasn’t (it’s available for download through However, there was one rubric of which I retained a vague memory of it being bizarre, if not unsettling, where two space travellers who used teleportation are shown in an illustration. The other day, I stumbled across the book on the aforesaid website, and re-read the caption, which I reproduce here in full: “Future travellers check their arrival data with a robot clerk. Their journey has not been by starship, but by teleportation. They are, in fact, not ‘real’ people, but copies involved in a fantastic process, the reconstruction of living matter. Back on Earth, computers made detailed examinations of their atomic structure. This was put into code and the data transmitted across space using laser beams. At Starport Central, computers receiving the information used vats of the necessary chemicals to reconstruct the travellers in their original images. Horrifying though this idea may sound, a laser-copying process already exists to make images of inanimate objects.” (The rubric is reproduced here on Twitter.)

The “horrifying” aspect that the writer chose not to spell out is that presumably that the “originals” of the people were somehow destroyed during the process and that only copies of them survive. Is that how the Star Trek characters are teleported? That they are basically destroyed each time and reconstituted as copies of themselves? Or are they actually moved from place to place? Is this ever explained?

Honestly, it’s difficult to imagine that ordinary people would be so enthusiastic about travelling through space that they would ever be willing to have themselves destroyed so that their exact copy could simulate their travel there. (So as you can imagine, I consider the idea that uploading someone’s mind would cause that person to be immortal to be absolute nonsense - it would be a clone and not the original person).

Beyond the technobabble that was always a part of Star Trek: no, not really. The description of how a transporter works has always been, more or less:

  • It creates a detailed scan of the person/object to be transported
  • It then converts the matter of the transportee into energy
  • It directs the energy to the target destination, and reverts the energy to matter, using the scan of the original

As to how exactly it did that…no, they didn’t really get into that. Roddenberry and his writers first came up with transporters as a way to move characters to and from planets with a (relatively) cheap SFX technique, as it was cheaper to produce than shots of a shuttlecraft.

Much like any of the other technologies in Star Trek, the only times that the shows ever really delved into any of the minutiae of how the transporters worked was when the plot required there to be issues with the transporters (or when a character like Bones or Pulaski would complain about them).

In various Trek series, it has been established that it was seen as a rather risky device, at least up until the 23rd century (the period of the original series); by that point, though it wasn’t foolproof, accidents were quite uncommon.

More information than you ever really wanted to know about Star Trek transporters, on the Memory Alpha Wiki:

For a deep dive into this conundrum, try this:

That video, btw, turned me into a full-on fan of its creator. Lots of other tasty stuff on his channel most Dopers would appreciate.

I’ve got the Usbourne Book of the Future- it is an amazing piece of work, especially for a kid’s book. I read with interest the description of ‘teleportation’ in that book - it is very close to how I expect teleportation to work in the future, if it ever does work, that is.

I would point out, however, that the Usbourne book does not suggest that the original travellers were destroyed, or killed, or suffered any other indignities. All that happens in the processed described by Usbourne is that the travellers are ‘scanned’, presumably non-destructively, then copied.

This doesn’t seem to happen in the Star Trek universe, where the traveller is completely disintegrated. This seems to be a quite different process, which may or may not kill the traveller.

Then why do you think the author chooses to describe the prospect as “horrifying” to contemplate? And if only the travellers’ synthetic human copies experienced the travel, then, of what use is it to the original travellers, who stayed on Earth? And what would they do with the copies of the travellers? Where would they go to live? Who would give them a job? Do you see what I’m getting at?

This form of ‘teleportation’, by copying alone, is fairly horrifying, since it results in the creation of an exact duplicate at a distant location- an ‘exact’ copy of yourself, which shares no current experiences with you and leads an entirely separate life. If you ever met them you might hate each other, or steal each other’s wives.
Or something.

STTNG implies that participants remain conscious throughout the transportation process - for example in Realm of Fear, Barclay sees creatures ‘in the matter stream’ while he is being transported. In Contagion, Picard is able to speak a parting line as he is dematerialising. Various other episodes have had people ‘trapped alive’ in the transporter pattern buffer (or elsewhere); in some cases, we get to witness their experiences.
So whilst the process involves dematerialisation, conversion of matter to energy, then the reverse of these processes, the script suggests that the participants have some continuity of person throughout.

There are at least four different types of ‘teleportation’, which have different philosophical consequences.

1/ The one described in the Usbourne book, which involves scanning and copying but does not necessarily involve the destruction of the original. I’ve written a few pages about this concept myself, here. Note that I didn’t discover the Usbourne book until long after I wrote these pages, although I don’t claim to be original in any way.

2/ The destructive form of this same process, which requires that the original instance of the traveller is destroyed during the scanning process. It is a bit tricky to imagine how a human brain and body could be scanned in fine detail without destroying it, but maybe it would be a good idea to avoid destroying anything, only in order to reconstruct it in a slightly less detailed form.

3/ The slightly magical process described in Star Trek, which disintegrates the original, encodes it, and sends it off to the distant location. This process is philosophically ambiguous, since the traveller really is disintegrated and put back together. Even if this involves quantum information down to the smallest subatomic particle level, this represents a discontinuity which can be interpreted as the death of the original and the creation of a new one. Most people in Star Trek don’t worry about this too much, but Dr McCoy and a few others find it slightly disturbing. This doesn’t usually stop them.

4/ ‘Teleportation’ using some kind of portal, or wormhole - if done correctly, the original individual should simply step through the portal, with no existential problems whatsoever. But wormholes are usually considered as a different class of phenomenon altogether, albeit equally imaginary.

FWIW, this form of teleportation is what’s used by Kurt Wagner, the mutant known as Nightcrawler, in the X-Men comic books and movies. He opens an aperture into a parallel dimension, enters it and travels rapidly through that dimension, before opening another aperture to return to this dimension.

Characters are shown in TNG as being aware of being transported with their consciousness being uninterrupted. Reg Barclay is one example. So presumably, the crewman’s molecules are disassembled and physically transported to the beam down site, where they are reassembled.

I think Nightcrawler is great! There was an earlier mutant, known as the Vanisher, who seemed to use the same process.

Except that various Trek sources have explicitly stated that their transporters convert matter to energy, and then back to matter. Even the official Star Trek site describes it thus:

That doesn’t always prevent writers from contradicting or bending this “canon” for a story, however. :slight_smile:

I’m quite fond of the teleportation process in Larry Niven’s Flash Crowd stories, which involves the conversion of each traveller into a single large neutrino-like particle with all the characteristics of the original, including momentum.


Since this is about a work of fiction, not the real world, it belongs in our Cafe Society category, not General Questions. Moving.

A slight problem with converting a human into energetic particles is that this would produce more energy than the Tsar Bomba. You could use teleport beams as weapons of mass destruction, preferably using sacks of rocks rather than exploding people.

One can imagine a time in some distant future when the destructive scanning of a human, transmission as information, and reconstruction at a distant place is accepted as routine, and the “death” of the original considered as merely philosophical pedantry, the “horrifying” nature of it merely an outdated perception due to unfamiliarity with a revolutionary new technology. There were, after all, some very strange and completely unfounded fears about early trains in the 19th century, stemming from the general idea that human beings were never meant to travel at such incredible speeds as 50 mph …

My first encounter with the concept came from a Pohl & Williamson story from 1973:

It was no skin off the backs of those duplicated, but the copies doomed to live out their lives in a far-off alien world were far from happy with “themselves”.

As everybody who has read the recent thread about Bones and Phlox knows, I’m fond of calling Star Trek transporters “suicide machines.”

The old show of course had a rule to keep the treknobabble explanations short and terse unless it were required for the plot. So it never really explained how could it happen, just that it did.

Which creates the characteristic “BAMF” sound effect as he leaves/enters the location at each end (because of course it involves the sudden displacement of air by the sudden absence or presence of the individual).

Eh, old Trek also whiffed that particular side of things with the “disintegrate” setting on phasers. It would also involve a ludicrous amount of energy to just evaporate a body into nothing, and you don’t even get scorch marks where their shoes were.

On the “horrifying” aspect, we’ve had threads and threads discussing the philosophical and practical question of whether a transportee is the “same person” after as they were before. Suffice it to say the question is complicated and fraught.

Not trying to start that hijack here; trying to prevent it. Anyone interested in that side issue would do better to read those threads and pick up the discussion there.