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"it slowly dawned on me that the landscape of science is maybe what interests people a great deal in science fiction."
- Gregory Benford

Ansible  
  Faster-than-light communication.  

One of the key problems in running an interstellar empire (or just traveling between stars) is communicating with the home world. Electromagnetic radiation dawdles along at a mere 299,792,458 meters per second. At that rate, you could never carry on a long distance phone call with anyone on Alpha Centauri; you would wait years just to hear "hello."

It is widely reported on the 'net that the first appearance of this term is in LeGuin's award-winning book Left Hand of Darkness." However, an earlier reference can be found in this work, published in 1966.

Only for a moment, when he had located the control room and found the ansible and sat down before it, did he permit his mind-sense to drift over to the ship that sat east of this one. There he picked up a vivid sensation of a dubious hand hovering over a white Bishop. ...

As his fingers (left hand only, awkwardly) struck each key, the letter appeared simultaneously on a small black screen in a room in a city on a planet eight lightyears distant:

From Rocannon's World, by Ursula LeGuin.
Published by Not Available in 1966
Additional resources -

LeGuin is supposed to have invented the idea of FTL (faster than light) communication, but that is hard to believe. Discussions of how energy might travel faster than light were done shortly after publication of Einstein's original papers on relativity in 1905.

In his 1951 novel Foundation, Isaac Asimov referred to a hyperwave relay that could be used to instantaneously trip a switch across interstellar distances. In his 1950's Cities in Flight novel series, James Blish refers to a Dirac transmitter that allows instantaneous communication throughout the galaxy.

Perhaps my favorite means of FTL communication is the sniggertrance, which is what happens when you take a Taprisiot call in the 1969 Frank Herbert novel Whipping Star.

Also, the concept is implicit in well-known Saturday movie serials from the 1930's, like Buck Rogers.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Rocannon's World
  More Ideas and Technology by Ursula LeGuin
  Tech news articles related to Rocannon's World
  Tech news articles related to works by Ursula LeGuin

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