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The fictional universe of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams is a galaxy-spanning society of interacting extraterrestrial cultures, so the technological level in the series is highly advanced, though often unreliable. Many technologies in the series are used to poke fun at modern life.
Most of the technology mentioned in the series are products of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a decidedly inept company responsible for the design and creation of a wide range of robots and labour-saving devices, such as lifts, automatic doors, ventilation systems, and the infamous Nutrimatic Drink Dispenser. In the novel So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the problem with all the corporation's products was summarised by the Guide:
It is very easy to be blinded to the essential uselessness of [their products] by the sense of achievement you get from getting them to work at all. In other words - and this is the rock solid principle on which the whole of the Corporation's Galaxy-wide success is founded - their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.
The only profitable division of the company is its Complaints division, which, according to the series, takes up all of the major landmasses on the first three planets in the Sirius Tau system. The theme song for the Complaints division is Share and Enjoy, and has since become the theme apparent for the company as a whole. The main office building and headquarters for the company was originally built to represent this motto, but due to bad architecture it sank halfway into the ground, leaving the upper halves of the motto's words to read in the local language "Go Stick Your Head in a Pig."
The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation invented a concept called Genuine People Personalities ("GPP") which imbue their products with intelligence and emotion. Thus not only do doors open and close, but they thank their users for using them, or sigh with the satisfaction of a job well done. Other examples of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation's record with sentient technology include an armada of neurotic elevators, hyperactive ships' computers and perhaps most famously of all, Marvin the Paranoid Android. Marvin is a prototype for the GPP feature, and his depression and "terrible pain in all the diodes down his left side" are due to unresolved flaws in his programming.
The Corporation is also mentioned in the radio serial of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. They are also listed in the instructions to the Atari Jaguar game Alien vs Predator as a manufacturer of medical equipment.
During the backstory Young Zaphod Plays it Safe, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation designed and produced synthetic personalities to order, but they turned out to be the "By-products of Designer People - amalgams of characteristics which simply could not co-exist in naturally occurring life forms". Some of these were dangerous as they did not alarm people to their dangerousness. The starship Billion Year Bunker contained three of these in the hold, on their way to being blasted out of the universe - but one had escaped to Earth, "the man babbling gently about a shining city on a hill"; later revised editions clarify the reference by describing the figure as "a Reagan", in other words Ronald Reagan.
Doors manufactured by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation are programmed to love their simple lives; they love nothing more than to open and close for passing users, and thank them profusely for so emphatically validating their existence. Most characters in the series grow to loathe the doors, particularly Marvin (and he was the first to explain about the doors' "cheerful and sunny dispositions").
The lifts in the Hitchhiker's Guide offices are called Happy Vertical People Transporters. As designed by the Corporation, they are meant to be sentient (enough to argue with) and have "defocused temporal perception." The latter concept is meant to enable the lifts to see far enough into the future to arrive at a floor before a potential passenger realises they wanted a lift, thus saving them from having to wait around and make friends like they would have to do normally.
The one lift with a voice appears in fit the seventh of the radio series, voiced by David Tate. The lifts make a cameo appearance of sorts in the radio series The Quintessential Phase and the computer game Starship Titanic.
The main means of teleportation encountered throughout the series, first used by a Dentrassi to transport Ford and Arthur onto a Vogon ship seconds before the Earth is destroyed. Ford explains that one probably loses some salt and protein when transported for the first time through a matter transference beam. In the Hitchhiker's game, this condition is fatal without eating peanuts. Used again in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, as the team try to escape from Hotblack Desiato's stuntship, They find a room, approximately 6–8 feet tall, with what resembles a multiple shower unit with half finished wiring tangled from the ceiling. Since there is no guidance programming and no automatic system, Marvin is forced to stay behind and operate the machine (he himself escapes by an artificially introduced Improbability Field). Arthur wakes up from the transport and states he has the worst headache imaginable.
The Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser is a product of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. The Guide has this to say on the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser:
When the 'Drink' button is pressed it makes an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject's metabolism, and then sends tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject's brain to see what is likely to be well received. However, no-one knows quite why it does this because it then invariably delivers a cupful of liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
In fit the ninth of the radio series, the machine fails to produce tea altogether, in fact refusing to try, and taps Eddie's logic circuits to compute why Arthur wants tea at all; "Because I happen to like it" doesn't compute. With the help of the spirit of Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth, Eddie eventually settles on the answer "because he's an ignorant monkey who doesn't know better", though this answer is not well received by Arthur.
In the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, on the other hand, Arthur Dent manages to freeze up a Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser (along with the rest of the spaceship they are on) by asking it to make him tea, due to the various servings of the terrible-tasting sludge he'd received from the machine during the entire trip. The Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser defined tea as "The taste of dried-up leaves boiled in water." After many hours of considerable thought with the help of Eddie it manages to produce real tea, which Arthur describes as "the best tea he's ever drunk".
In the film adaptation, a machine similar to the drinks dispenser appears, serving brown sludge into a plastic cocktail glass. However, it is not mentioned by name, nor does it engage Arthur in conversation. There is also a similar machine nearby that detects and produces - according to Trillian - "what you're craving." While still incapable of making tea, this machine does not in fact paralyze the ship's systems—that feat is instead accomplished by the hitchhiking mice who are, in fact, the pan-dimensional beings who activated Deep Thought for the second time.
The Starship Billion Year Bunker appeared in Young Zaphod Plays it Safe. It was commissioned by the Galactic government to carry certain "by-products", such as aorist rods and biological weapons. It was meant to be almost indestructible and the cargo hold had been reinforced in many different ways. The crew was to steer the ship towards a black hole, where it would be sucked in and forever be destroyed. However, the captain took a detour to his home planet because he wanted some of the lobsters that were in abundance on the planet. The ship crashed into the water and split in two.
S.S. Heart of Gold is the first prototype ship to successfully use the revolutionary Infinite Improbability Drive. It is 150 meters long and has been represented in various shapes. The original radio series did not specify a shape. In the novel adapted from the first four episodes of the radio series, it was described as a sleek white running shoe, which the TV adaptation adopted as a basis for its depictions. In the 2005 movie, it is more spherical with a hole and red brake lights on the rear that form the shape of a heart, a shape derived from a teacup in the brownian motion producer that powers the Infinite Improbability Drive. It also features a mural around the hole which depicts the invention of the Drive. It was built as a secret government project on planet Damogran from where Zaphod Beeblebrox, the then-President of the Imperial Galactic Government, stole it at the launching ceremony.
In the novel Life, the Universe and Everything, it is revealed that the core of the Improbability Drive is actually the Golden Bail of Prosperity, one of five items that forms the Wikkit Gate. The drive is subsequently stolen by the robots of Krikkit, but it is later recovered by Zaphod Beeblebrox and reinstalled.
The Bistromathic Drive is used in Slartibartfast's craft Bistromath and works by exploiting the irrational mathematics that apply to numbers on a waiter's bill pad and groups of people in restaurants. the novel Life, the Universe and Everything describes bistromathics as follows:
Bistromathics itself is simply a revolutionary new way of understanding the behavior of numbers. Just as Albert Einstein's general relativity theory observed that space was not an absolute but depended on the observer's movement in time, and that time was not an absolute, but depended on the observer's movement in space, so it is now realized that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer's movement in restaurants.
Further explanation of the theory behind bistromathics:
The first nonabsolute number is the number of people for whom the table is reserved. This will vary during the course of the first three telephone calls to the restaurant, and then bear no apparent relation to the number of people who actually turn up, or the number of people who subsequently join them after the show/match/party/gig, or to the number of people who leave when they see who else has shown up.
The second nonabsolute number is the given time of arrival, which is now known to be one of those most bizarre mathematical concepts, a recipriversexcluson, a number whose existence can only be defined as being anything other than itself. In other words, the given time of arrival is the one moment of time at which it is impossible that any member of the party will arrive. Recipriversexclusons now play a vital part in many branches of mathematics, including statistics and accountancy, and also form the basic equations used to engineer the Somebody Else's Problem field.The third and most mysterious piece of nonabsoluteness of all lies in the relationship between the number of items on the bill, the cost of each item, the number of people at the table and what they are each prepared to pay for. (The number of people who have actually brought any money is only a sub-phenomenon in this field.)
The bridge instruments of the Starship Bistromath are ensconced in fake wine bottles.
The central computational area is a fake Italian restaurant table with seating for twelve encased in a glass cage. The table is decked with a faded red and white check tablecloth with mathematically positioned cigarette burns. A group of robot customers sit round the table, attended by robot waiters.
The mathematics play themselves out in the complex interplay between continuously circulating keys, menus, watches, cheque books, credit cards, bill pads and scribblings on paper napkins.
Slartibartfast explains that "On a waiter's bill pad, numbers dance. Reality and unreality collide on such a fundamental level that each becomes the other and anything is possible."
Should the ship's captain sit at the table, the mathematical functions speed up; the customers become more vociferous and wave at each other. Eventually, the equation balances, and the customers become polite and civil once more. The more heated the argument, the more complex the equation, and the farther the ship may travel.
Effectively, the ship takes advantage of the strange rules that only restaurants operate under by turning itself into a controlled, artificial restaurant. This allows a ship equipped with a bistromathic drive to accomplish feats quite outside the normal capabilities of spacecraft, such as travelling two thirds across the galactic disk in a matter of seconds. The drive is notably more controllable than the Infinite Improbability Drive. It is also said to "make the Heart of Gold seem like an electric pram."
The Vogon ships use hyperspace travel to go faster than light. They also destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Ford Prefect describes going into hyperspace as "rather unpleasantly like being drunk". When asked what's so unpleasant about being drunk, he replies, "You ask a glass of water."
The Infinite Improbability Drive is a faster-than-light drive. The most prominent usage of the drive is in the starship Heart of Gold. It is based on a particular perception of quantum theory: a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin (for example close to a distant star). Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space (or hyperspace, for that matter), if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive "passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously," meaning the traveller is "never sure where they'll end up or even what species they'll be when they get there" and therefore it's important to dress accordingly.
The Guide's entry on the drive states it was invented "following research into finite improbability, which was often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess' undergarments leap one foot simultaneously to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy". It further explains that many respectable physicists wouldn't stand for that sort of thing, "partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn't get invited to those sort of parties."
The Heart of Gold was the prototype ship for infinitely improbable travel. It is the infinite improbability drive in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that saves Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from very probable death by asphyxiation in deep space after being thrown out of the Vogon ship; the improbable odds against being rescued being 2276709 to one; the superscripted number incidentally being the telephone number of the Islington flat where Arthur went to a fancy dress party and first met - and totally blew it with - Trillian (in the film, the number is 2079460347, which is, oddly enough, a number in Battersea, London - not Islington) Incidentally, Adams explained in the annotated volume of the original radio scripts that it was the eviction of Arthur and Ford out the spacelock of the Vogon ship that led to his own "invention" of the Infinite Improbability Drive. Adams realised that he had worked the story into a dead end, thinking in frustration that the only solutions would be "infinitely improbable." In a flash of insight and what Adams called "mental jiujitsu", the Infinite Improbability Drive was born.
In the third book, the Infinite Improbability Drive is discovered to be the Golden Bail of Prosperity in the Wikkit Gate. It is stolen by the white Krikkit robots; however, it was returned and the Heart of Gold returned to operational status.
Adams developed the notion of the improbability drive having greater causal (and narrative) effects in later books. For example: when Zaphod's great-grandfather discusses his great grandson's career-to-date he explains that he (Zaphod) cannot escape his destiny now the improbability field "controls you".
Karey Kirkpatrick, who adapted the novel for the screen in 2005, described the improbability drive as a "a plot contrivance machine", allowing Adams to construct elaborate plotlines based on coincidences that would, in other narratives, be considered too improbable to be believed.
The Kill-o-Zap is a weapon first appearing in the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, wielded by the police from Blagulon Kappa when they come to Magrathea to arrest Zaphod.
In the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe it is described in more detail:
The designer of the gun had clearly not been instructed to beat about the bush. 'Make it evil,' he'd been told. 'Make it totally clear that this gun has a right end and a wrong end. Make it totally clear to anyone standing at the wrong end that things are going badly for them. If that means sticking all sort of spikes and prongs and blackened bits all over it then so be it. This is not a gun for hanging over the fireplace or sticking in the umbrella stand, it is a gun for going out and making people miserable with.'
In the novel Life, the Universe and Everything, the group arms themselves with Kill-o-Zap guns against the Krikkiters. Arthur "fumbled to release the safety catch and engage the extreme danger catch as Ford had shown him. He was shaking so much that if he'd fired at anybody at that moment he probably would have burnt his signature on them."
In the 2005 movie adaptation, the gun has a sophisticated look. It is more of a white circle that covers the hand and has a trigger on the inside. This version is wielded by Marvin.
According to the film, the gun was created by Deep Thought prior to its long pondering of the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. When used on someone, it will cause them to see things from the point of view of the person firing the gun (the Guide says that it "conveniently, does precisely as its name suggests"). According to the Guide, though the gun was designed by Deep Thought, it was commissioned by the Intergalactic Consortium of Angry Housewives, who were tired of ending every argument with their husbands with the phrase: "You just don't get it, do you?"
This neatly mirrors the Total Perspective Vortex, an earlier plot device from the radio series and second novel, created by the character Trin Tragula to show his wife the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
Humma Kavula wants to obtain the gun in order to expand the influence of the religion he heads. He agrees to trade it with Zaphod Beeblebrox for the coordinates to Magrathea, but takes Zaphod's second head as collateral instead, as Zaphod doesn't have the gun at the time. When the gun is discovered inside Deep Thought, it is playfully used by Ford Prefect and Zaphod on one another, and eventually taken by Trillian who uses it to force Zaphod to understand why she is upset over the destruction of Earth. (In the movie adaptation, Zaphod authorised the destruction of Earth, thinking he was simply being asked for his autograph for a fan, and was completely unaware why Trillian was angry with him when she discovered this revelation.) Following this, Zaphod threatens to fire the gun at Trillian, to which she scathingly replies that she is "already a woman" (implying that the gun only works on men, because women are sympathetic and thoughtful of others, and therefore can already see things from another's point of view).
Near the end of the film, Marvin the Paranoid Android uses the gun to save the crew of the Heart of Gold from hundreds of Vogons. After the Vogons see things from Marvin's chronically-depressed point of view, they all collapse, no longer finding a point to life.
There are seven holsters for Point of View Guns inside Deep Thought, but only one actual gun. The rest of the holsters are empty. At the end of the movie Arthur Dent possesses the gun, and Zaphod has not yet turned the gun over to Humma Kavula.
Quite Unwieldy Experimental Sublimation Torpedo, an experimental anti-god missile used by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz to attack the god Thor in the novel And Another Thing.... The Vogons bought the device from Zaphod, who reveals that he installed a lawnmower engine on it in a scheme to defraud them.
Featured in Life, the Universe and Everything, the supernova bomb is "a very very small bomb" that resembles a cricket ball, and is the greatest weapon of mass destruction ever created in the history of the universe. Initially designed by the supercomputer Hactar for the Silastic Armourfiends of Striterax, who had demanded that it create an "Ultimate Weapon" but forgot that computers take instructions literally, the bomb creates a path through hyperspace that connects all major suns together into one gigantic supernova, effectively destroying the entire universe. Hactar deliberately designed the bomb with a flaw that rendered it useless; when the Silastic Armourfiends discovered this, they smashed the computer into dust and then destroyed themselves through constant warfare.
Hactar's particulate form wrapped itself around the idyllic planet Krikkit, isolating it from the rest of the universe, and gradually re-engineered its society until they could recreate the bomb and fulfill Hactar's program. The Krikkiters were defeated in the Krikkit Wars, racial memories of which would lead to the invention of the game cricket on Earth. Billions of years later, they built Hactar's flawed bomb and tried to deploy it, leading to their discovery of the computer's influence on their evolution. Trillian noted that it was impossible for the Krikkiters to be smart enough to build this weapon on their own, yet stupid enough not to grasp that it would destroy them if they used it. Hactar created a fully functional duplicate of the bomb and hid it in a travel bag belonging to Arthur Dent, who very nearly caused it to explode before stopping it by accident at the last second.
Earth's population are described in the first novel as "so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea." When Arthur Dent loses his left arm as a consequence of the Infinite Improbability Drive, he panics upon realising he can no longer operate his digital watch. Hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings built the supercomputer Deep Thought in part to comprehend why people spend so much of their lives wearing digital watches. In the 1970s, when the series was first composed, digital watches were the height of techno-fashion. For the 2005 movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, references to digital watches were replaced by mobile telephones.
Designed to help the wearer develop a relaxed attitude to danger. The lenses turn completely black at the first hint of trouble, thus preventing the wearer from seeing anything that might alarm him/her. Appeared in episode 3 of the TV series and in chapter 5 and 6 of the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
A special helmet that Zaphod Beeblebrox uses in the film adaptation. It is possibly an old-fashioned device, as stated by Ford Prefect that it was used when ship captains needed to concentrate. It is basically a helmet with a trigger device on top that resembles an automatic citrus juicer, which is why it is powered by common lemon juice. The effects of the thinking cap, in Zaphod's case, last about 10 minutes per lemon. In the film, Arthur Dent negatively remarks to Ford's trust in Zaphod's ability at making guesses by angrily replying "Go with the hunch of a man whose brain is fuelled by LEMONS!?" After Ford starts the Thinking Cap, Zaphod (who was very groggy from having his second head removed by force) immediately was able to walk straight and think smarter than usual, and ten minutes later he could still walk, but was back to his normal, over-the-top self.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy states that a towel is the most important item a hitchhiker can have. It also mentions that "to know where one's towel is" means to be in control of one's own life. It describes the towel as a multipurpose tool which can be converted into such things as a sail for a makeshift raft, a gas mask, a blindfold and a weapon for hand-to-hand combat. Resourceful hitchhikers have enhanced their towels in highly exotic ways, including embedding complex circuitry; Roosta, who Ford Prefect says "really knows where his towel is", fortified his towel with yellow stripes high in protein, green stripes with vitamin supplements, pink flowers of wheatgerm extract, and other areas containing barbecue sauce and anti-depressants. Ford Prefect, a traditionalist, has so far only reinforced his towel's seams, which enabled him to use it as a rope to stop himself from falling to his death. In the TV series, towels move of their own accord during hyperspatial jumps, and the amount they've moved allows an experienced hitchhiker to calculate the distance he has travelled. The towel was useful in the film version a handful of times mainly by Ford. When he started to wave it around in front of a group of Vogons, who screamed and ran away, on the homeworld of the Vogons while attempting to cross the beach infested with the shovel-like creatures that feed on thought, pulling the pipe from the Vogon ship attempting to increase the range of his ring, to name a few.
Sub-Etha is an interstellar faster-than-light telecommunications network used by hitchhikers to flag down passing spaceships. The primary hitcher's tool is known as the Electronic Thumb, a short black rod that can be used to contact passing ships and ask to be let on board. Ford also carries a Sens-O-Matic, a device for monitoring ships' Sub-Etha signals, and learns from it that the Vogons are on their way to demolish the Earth. Sub-Etha is used throughout the Milky Way for any kind of data transmission, such as listening to the news or updating the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself.
The Total Perspective Vortex is allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected.
When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."
Located on Frogstar World B, the machine was originally invented by one Trin Tragula in order to annoy his wife. Because she was forever nagging him for having no sense of proportion, he decided to invent something that would show her what having a sense of proportion really meant. Unfortunately the shock of being placed in the Vortex destroyed her brain, but Trin Tragula's grief was tempered by the knowledge that he had been right and she had been wrong. In Adams's words, the Total Perspective Vortex illustrated that "In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion." Gargravarr is the disembodied mind and custodian of the Total Perspective Vortex.
The machine produces a virtual reality model of the entire universe by means of the axiom that any piece of matter is affected by all other matter. The Vortex reconstructs the universe through computer processing of a high-resolution scan ("extrapolated matter analysis") of a piece of fairy cake. In the words of the Hitchhiker's Guide,
...since every piece of matter in the Universe is in someway affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every Galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
Only Zaphod Beeblebrox is reported to have survived the Vortex unscathed (and then to have eaten the small piece of fairy cake). When it showed him the "You Are Here" marker, Zaphod correctly interpreted the Vortex as simply telling him that he was the most important being in the universe. This is due to the fact that he entered the Vortex in an artificial universe, which had been specially created for his benefit (thus making him the most important being in it) by Zarniwoop. After emerging from the artificial universe's Total Perspective Vortex, Zaphod ate the piece of fairy cake, saying "If I told you how much I needed this, I wouldn't have time to eat it."
In the radio series The Quintessential Phase, the ideas behind the Total Perspective Vortex and the Guide Mark II are used to combine story lines from all of the radio episodes. This allows many of the plot lines from the divergent versions of the story to be wrapped up by the radio series' conclusion.
The Wikkit Gate is an artifact featured in the novel Life, the Universe and Everything.
The Wikkit Gate is a universal symbol among the diverse cultures of the Galaxy of the basic ideals of civilisation. The Galactic Government therefore chose to model the key that could unlock the envelope of Slo-Time surrounding planet Krikkit after a Wikkit Gate. The gate was destroyed, then the various parts re-animated as different objects around the universe. It is composed of:
According to the novel, the sport of cricket as played on Earth is a tasteless reminder of the Krikkit Wars, and the cricket wicket is a highly distorted racial memory of the Wikkit Gate. The novel describes the "bit where the little red ball hits the stumps" as being particularly offensive.