"The trouble with too much genre SF is that it's so obviously the product of the conscious mind."
Knowing gravitational field gradients is extremely helpful when navigation around crowded parts of space, like planets and their moons.
The theory that there must be an 'ether' needed to transmit electromagnetic radiation had many adherents well into the twentieth century. Shown below is a 1932 German apparatus intended to measure ether drift.
(Ether drift apparatus)
The device was described as follows:
It consists of four arms on a perpendicular axis, containing a series of mirrors, lenses, and reflecting plates. A ray of light enters at the top of the device and is bounced back and fourth thousands of times, finally emerging at the bottom, where its passing leaves a record on a photographic plate.
The experiment demonstrated that if there was any drift, it must be less than one and a half miles per second.
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