A Brief History of the Real-Life Invisibility Cloak
By Chris Gayomali
The evolution of the cloaking device, from its origins in Star Trek fantasy to intricate new metamaterials.
March 27, 1958
Run Silent, Run Deep, a World War II naval drama starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, reportedly inspires Star Trek screenwriter Paul Schneider to mull a space-exploration equivalent to a submarine submerging underwater. What to do...
Dec. 15, 1966
Invisibility technology makes its Star Trek debut in episode 14, "Balance of Terror," when a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device attacks the Starship Enterprise.
Sept. 27, 1968
In episode 59, "The Enterprise Incident," the technology finally gets a name: It's called a "cloaking device." The Trekkie trope inevitably becomes a sci-fi staple, appearing (and disappearing?) in everything from Dr. Who to Predator to Stargate.
June 26, 1997
A divorced mother of a young child quietly publishes a children's book about a young orphan who receives an invisibility cloak as a Christmas present. Only 1,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone are printed.
Physicists from Duke University unveil the world's first-ever invisibility cloak. (Thanks, J.K. Rowling!) The elaborate set-up was created using metamaterials, which are capable of manipulating wavelengths — like light — in ways that aren't found in nature. The catch? This "cloak" only works on microwaves and in two dimensions.
The British military tests something frightening: An invisible tank, which uses cameras and projectors to beam the surrounding landscape onto the vehicle's hull. Says one soldier who was apparently at the test trials: "This technology is incredible. If I hadn't been present I wouldn't have believed it. I looked across the fields and just saw grass and trees — but in reality I was staring down the barrel of a tank gun."
Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, use metamaterials to change the natural direction of visible and near-infrared light in three dimensions. Developed by Xiang Zhang, a professor at Berkeley's Nanoscope Science and Engineering Center, the light-bending concept is likened to viewing a distorted straw through a glass of water.
The U.S. Army expresses interest in using metamaterials to cloak its vehicles, soldiers, and other weapons, thereby allowing them to bypass radar and sensors. Dr. Richard Hammond at the Army Research Office thinks the military is about two or three years away from manufacturing actual cloaking devices.
U.C. Berkeley's Zhang engineers a "carpet cloak" from nanostructured silicon that successfully hides small objects from the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Zhang says the cloak "should be upwardly scalable," meaning that, in theory, it could work in the visible spectrum to distort objects from view.
Across the Atlantic, military interest in cloaking devices continues to build. This time, a lecturer at the British Royal Navy College considers "the next generation of stealth ships that could be virtually invisible to the naked eye, roaming radars, and heat-seeking missiles," says Gizmag.
Scientists at Tufts and Boston universities create a tiny invisibility cloak capable of manipulating terahertz waves. One problem: This new class of metamaterial was crafted by etching 10,000 gold resonators onto a 1 cm square of silk. Luxury!
Nature reports that two scientists — one based in Singapore, one based in London — develop a more effective metamaterial from calcite crystals, which are much cheaper than, well, gold-etched silk.
Now we have video! University of Texas researchers demo a real-life invisibility cloak that uses carbon nanotubes.
March 5, 2012
Mercedes debuts an "invisible car" as part of a promotional stunt. Okay, it's not really invisible, but the vehicle uses cameras and moving images the same way that the British tank mentioned above does.
Researchers from Duke University create a "flawless" invisibility cloak capable of completely hiding tiny objects, in this case a 7.5 by 1 cm cylinder. So what constitutes a flawless cloak? This one channels incident light completely around an object. Voilà — pristine, perfect invisibility.
The biggest problem with all the aforementioned cloaking devices is that they're big, bulky, and cumbersome. They need lab desks to work. But not for much longer: University of Texas, Austin researchers have created an ultra-thin material that's just 0.15 mm thick. Now, says Sebastian Anthony at ExtremeTech, "it's really only a matter of time until an actual invisibility cloak is realized."
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