Dreams that changed the world

Published August 20, 2022
Illustration by Ziauddin
Illustration by Ziauddin

What did you dream last night? Were you running away from a ferocious lion; in the jungle and someone woke you up, or were you flying in the sky; feeling so light like a bird?

Yeah … we all dream of these things. And I know how unusually scary it is to feel that you are being chased away by a lion: and how fascinating to be up in the high sky; wishing you had never woken up from your dream.

Well, sometimes, dreams can be incredibly productive, so much so that a host of amazing things have actually been invented while their creators were sleeping. Yes, that’s true. Because dreams are a powerful way to process information, and useful for processing complex ideas. It is not surprising that many people have had great ideas while dreaming.

The list of famous ideas that were created in dreams is long and impressive. Some of the most important achievements in history — from both science and art — were considered impossible before someone dreamed them up. For example, the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison while he was asleep as well. In addition, many other inventions such as the internal combustion engine and vaccines were also conceived during sleep. Some people have even reported to had vivid dreams which resulted in them creating breakthrough discoveries.

Here are some famous ideas that were actually dreamed up!

The sewing machine

Have you ever considered the significance of the sewing machine? Perhaps never. The sewing machine is the most useful device in all human existence. It makes your clothes, yet you never consider it anything important.

The idea of the sewing machine came to inventor Elias Howe in a dream in 1845. Howe had been musing over the idea of a machine with a needle that would go through cloth, but hadn’t managed to figure out exactly how it would work. So one day, in his dream, he saw some fierce tribal men dancing around a fire, waving their spears. Although his dream was not detailed, he could not forget that at the top of each spear had a small hole. The up-and-down motion of the spears and hole remained fixed in his memory even when he woke up. He realised that this could be the key to a machine that would work — having the hole in the needle close to the point, instead of the traditional other end.

The model of the atom

For inventing the model of the atom, Danish physicist, Niels Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize of Physics in 1922. So how did it all occurred to him? Of course, in his dream.

In his dream, he saw that the planets were linked to pieces of string that circled the sun, and he woke up from his dream and envisioned the movement of electrons.

The theory of relativity

There’s a big debate whether the inspiration for Albert Einstein’s most famous theory — the mind-boggling idea of relativity — came to him in a dream or not.

Legend has it that once Einstein dreamt he was sledding down a mountainside at an enormous speed, which caused the stars to change their appearance. Other people believe that, once, Einstein was daydreaming while he was in a field of cows with a farmer. He noticed a farmer trying to fix the battery which would power the fence surrounding the cows. Once the farmer switched the battery back on, all of the cows simultaneously jumped at once. The farmer, learning of Einstein’s observation, contradicted Einstein and insisted that the cows all jumped separately one after the other. Einstein and the farmer remain engaged in a long argument about who was right, and the theory of relativity began to take shape.

The double helix structure of the DNA

James Watson, who together with Francis Crick, discovered the double helix structure of DNA — the building blocks of life. Seemingly, he dreamt of a spiral staircase, ultimately planting the seed of an idea for how DNA might be constructed. Other reports say that around 1953, James Watson dreamed of two snakes intertwined, this paved the way for the familiar double helix structure we see today.


In 1816, famous English novelist Mary Shelley was spending the year without a summer in Switzerland with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and some other literary notables when they decided to have a writing contest. Mary was stuck with a writer’s block, until she went to bed for the night, and had what she called a “waking dream” of a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Shelley decided that “what terrified me will terrify others; and I need only to describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”

And thus, came out the famous gothic novel of all times, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The periodic table

Russian chemist and inventor, Dmitri Mendeleev was said to have fallen asleep after working for three days straight to classify the 56 elements on the periodic table. It is said that, instead of slumbering for hours and hours, as normal people would, Mendeleev slept for just a few minutes and in those few minutes he dreamt of a configuration of elements that would change modern science forever.

When he woke up a few minutes later, he recorded it.

“I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. When I woke up, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper ... only in one location did a modification later seem necessary.”

Kubla Khan

The poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a well-known literary piece of work written in 1797. It is said that Coleridge was in an unusually deep sleep when he came up with his famous poem, according to a note scrawled on the manuscript on display at the British Library in London.


American novelist and producer, Stephenie Meyer claims that the idea for her hugely-successful Twilight franchise came to her in a dream on June 2, 2003. She dreamed of a human girl and a vampire who loved her, but still wanted her blood, and quickly set about writing the draft of what is now Chapter 13 in the book.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Unlike many of the other world-changing ideas mentioned here, the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde didn’t originate after a dream; the idea to write a story revolving around the personalities affecting humans. After thinking a lot, he had a writer’s block and the plot was not getting clear in his mind. Then he closed his eyes and slept for a while.

In his sleep, Louis Stevenson saw a dream, and his dream-induced screams disturbed his wife, Fanny, who woke him up from his nightmarish screams.

Startled, he said to her, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” Lesson learnt here: never wake a sleeping author, who knows he might be busy writing a classic story!


The most influential rock bands of all times, The Beatles remains on top of all other rock bands list. It is said that one day, Paul McCartney, one of the band members, woke up from his dream joyfully as he had a “lovely tune” in his head, “Yesterday”.

Although McCartney had the tune of the song, he didn’t have an idea for the lyrics, so he put together some lines about scrambled eggs as a placeholder.

The Terminator

To many of us Terminator may not be a nightmare, but an emotionless cyborg having the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, it was a nightmare for James Cameron, the director of many famous movies including Jurassic Park and Avatar.

One day, he was fighting a 102°F fever when a vision of a robot dragging itself along the floor with a knife came to him in his sleep. Apparently, Cameron brainstorms best in a dream state and, surprisingly, he went to sleep again.

Published in Dawn, Young World, August 20th, 2022



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