Entry updated 9 September 2012. Tagged: Theme.
Term coined by E E Smith in Spacehounds of IPC (July-September 1931 Amazing; 1947) for the Force-Field equivalent of a rope and grappling iron, used to seize and immobilize or haul in objects encountered in space – typically, mineral ores and Spaceships which may be hostile, damaged or simply docking. The tractor beam has been widely adopted by sf authors, both as an item of Terminology and a plot convenience. Rick Raphael's "The Mailman Cometh" (February 1965 Analog) is an example of a story featuring it as a routine sf prop requiring no more explanation than a Rocket or spacesuit. James White uses the term throughout his Sector General series (although White's rationale involves artificial Gravity and Antigravity rather than Smith's "quasi-solid" fields of force), and in Star Surgeon (1963) combines it with the converse Pressor Beam as a Weapon called the rattler, which shakes apart its target with a rapid alternation of strong pulls and pushes. Tractor beams became known to a mass television audience through their use in the original Star Trek.
An early anticipation of this device is the apparently electromagnetic "flying loop" used to disarm and restrain a would-be suicide without physical contact in Rudyard Kipling's "As Easy as A.B.C." (March-April 1912 The London Magazine). Another is the aeroplane-mounted force Ray which can lift people from the ground in Jacques Futrelle's "The Flying Eye" (November 1912 Popular Magazine). The all-purpose Ray technology of Robert A Heinlein's Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951) includes a tractor-beam equivalent. [DRL]
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