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How Sci-Fi Classic ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ Got its Peculiar Name

Helen Flatley
Douglas Adams. Getty Images
Douglas Adams. Getty Images

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a British cult sci-fi classic and continues to thrill new generations of fans 40 years after it first appeared on British radio.

The Guide originally aired as a radio series in 1978 on BBC Radio Four and went on to spawn a series of novels, TV shows, comic books, video games, and even a feature-length film.

This tongue-in-cheek, irreverent sci-fi spoof mixed the themes of travel writing and space exploration to create a devastatingly sharp satire. The story follows the character of Arthur Dent, a British everyman who is lost in space after his home planet (Earth) is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Flyer for a 1979 stage production of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

Flyer for a 1979 stage production of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

Dent is saved by his friend and traveling companion Ford Prefect, an alien tasked with updating and writing the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a friendly electronic travel guide filled with helpful tips for intergalactic tourists. After teaming up with another surviving human, Trillian, and a paranoid android named Marvin, Dent traverses the galaxy armed with The Guide.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was the brainchild of author and scriptwriter Douglas Adams. According to Adams himself, the idea behind the story and the title of the book came from an unexpected source.

Douglas Adams as a keynote speaker at Internet Security Conference in San Francisco, March 15-17, 2000. Photo by John Johnson CC BY 2.0

Douglas Adams as a keynote speaker at Internet Security Conference in San Francisco, March 15-17, 2000. Photo by John Johnson CC BY 2.0

In 1971, Adams set off on a backpacking trip, hitchhiking across Europe to Turkey. Poor and on a very tight budget, he had stolen a copy of the recently published Hitch-hiker’s Guide To Europe and was using it to find cheap places to stay and eat. According to The Guardian, one night he found himself in Innsbruck, Austria, drunk and, in his own words “frantically depressed.”

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While watching the night sky, Adams was struck by a sudden revelation. According to The Guardian, he later wrote, “When the stars came out I thought that someone ought to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because it looked a lot more attractive out there than it did around me.”

Artwork depicting the effect of the “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster”, an alcoholic beverage invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox which, according to The Guide, is the “Best Drink in Existence”. Photo by Nsh2g2 CC BY 3.0

Artwork depicting the effect of the “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster”, an alcoholic beverage invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox which, according to The Guide, is the “Best Drink in Existence”. Photo by Nsh2g2 CC BY 3.0

Adams woke the next day in a better mood and continued his journey, hitchhiking all the way to Istanbul. However, the idea stuck, and seven years later he found himself pitching an idea for a radio pilot show under the name The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Adams was given significant freedom in the early episodes of the show, and the storyline often took unexpected twists and turns depending on his daily whims and ideas. However, he consistently riffed on the formulaic style and themes found in popular travel guides.

Arthur Dent finally found the planning application to demolish Earth – on display in a dark cellar “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’”. Photo by Bogdan CC BY-SA 3.0

Arthur Dent finally found the planning application to demolish Earth – on display in a dark cellar “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’”. Photo by Bogdan CC BY-SA 3.0

In one long-running gag, Dent is advised to “bring his own towel,” which, according to The Guide, is the most important possession of any self-respecting traveler.

The significance of the towel in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was inspired by another trip taken by Adams as a young man. According to Pan Macmillan, on a holiday to Greece, Adams was the source of constant frustration for his friends and traveling companions because “every morning they’d have to sit around and wait for me because I couldn’t find my blessed towel. I came to feel that someone really together, one who was well organized, would always know where his towel was.”

Towel Day 2005 in Innsbruck, Austria. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide around the world pay tribute to Adams’ much-loved creation on May 25th of each year. Photo by Bazillus. CC BY SA 3.0

Towel Day 2005 in Innsbruck, Austria. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide around the world pay tribute to Adams’ much-loved creation on May 25th of each year. Photo by Bazillus. CC BY SA 3.0

Indeed, fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide around the world pay tribute to Adams’ much-loved creation on May 25th of each year, in a celebration known as Towel Day. This festival, marked by people carrying towels with them wherever they go, is particularly celebrated in Innsbruck, the city where the inspiration for the story first struck.

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In 1981, Adams recognized the debt he owned to the Hitch-hiker’s Guide To Europe’s Australian author, Ken Welsh. In a letter addressed to Welsh, he explained that he had read the guidebook and that it had inspired his own work, expressing his gratitude and telling him, “your book was really very useful to me.” While it may not have been exactly the outcome that Welsh intended, legions of Adams’ fans are very grateful too.