The protagonist, Professor Pinero, builds a machine that will predict how long a person will live. It does this by sending a signal along the world line of a person and detecting the echo from the far end. Professor Pinero's invention has a powerful impact on the life insurance industry, as well as on his own life.
Pinero is mentioned in passing in the novels Time Enough for Love and Methuselah's Children when the practically immortal Lazarus Long mentions having been examined and being sent away because the machine is "broken".
Heinlein was motivated to write the story by an editorial in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine, in which Hugo Gernsback wrote that he wanted to foster new talent in the field, and that "We shall endeavor to present one amateur writer's story in each forthcoming issue [...] until further notice." TWS's rate at the time was 0.5 cents per word. After Heinlein had written the 7000-word story, he submitted it first to a rival magazine, Astounding, which paid 1 cent per word. Astounding bought the story, and at their higher rate, Heinlein was paid $70. This was a significant sum in 1938 (approximately $1100 in 2015 dollars). In Grumbles from the Grave, on receiving the check for the story Heinlein is reported to have said, "How long has this racket been going on?" Later, Heinlein's fictionalized professional bio came to include an inaccurate version of the story, in which TWS had advertised a $50 contest. (At TWS's word rate, a story that was the maximum length of 10,000 words would have been bought for $50.)
The story made a later appearance in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, a collection of short stories published in 1966, in Expanded Universe in 1980, and in a Baen edition of "The Man Who Sold The Moon", ISBN 0-671-65623-6, 1987.
There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such a profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statute or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.
- Gifford, Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, pp. 110-111
- Lisa McHugh Cesarini, Paul Cesarini (2008). "From Jefferson to Metallica to your Campus: Copyright Issues in Student Peer-to-Peer File Sharing". Journal of Technology Studies 34 (1). ISSN 1541-9258. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
- McClure, Ian (2007). "Be Careful What You Wish For: Copyright's Campaign for Property Rights and an Eminent Consequence of Intellectual Monopoly" (PDF). Chapman Law Review 10 (3). Retrieved 2012-05-04.
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