You know the trope: your weapon, or spaceship, or whatever needs a dense power source, and the author handwaves something in.
They go by a zillion names. For some reason it seems like “fuel cell” is the most common, even though these power supplies have nothing to do with real fuel cells. Fuel cell, power cell, energy cell, atomic battery, nuclear battery, arc reactor, digital reactor, reactor core, fuel core, etc.–the list is endless.
I’d say they have a few key properties:
- Very energy/power dense. Often, a cell that can power a starship can be handled by a single human.
- No fuel required. Cells last for years at a time, and tend to be replaced whole.
- Removable and modular. A key part of the trope is that you can disable the ship/robot/etc. by just pulling out the cell.
I’m wondering what the history of these devices is. I’m not too familiar with early science fiction; the earliest stuff I remember that fits are the atomic batteries (?) in the Foundation series. It’s been a long time since I read the books but I recall they had some very small and long lasting power supplies. What’s the earliest the trope appeared in recognizable form?
Did the background explanation go through fads? Fission, fusion, antimatter, etc.?
A part of me always wonders–if we really had energy technology that sophisticated, society would undergo a drastic upheaval. It’s ridiculous to say that these things exist, and yet simultaneously have the “dying Earth” trope where people can’t get fresh water or food. If you have that much energy at hand, you can do all the other stuff. Are there any good books or stories that explore what happens when a device like that is invented?
Feel free to add anything else you find interesting on the subject.