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Strange futuristic machines, robots, or vehicles are just what we mean when we say "science fiction."  They're scientific rather than supernatural, they have some sort of logic to their origin or purpose, yet of course they're also fictitious.

I thought it would be fun to list nutty devices from classic science fiction films and serials.  The list could get very long; some 1930s or 1940s serials alone have more than a dozen devices.

So I chose these conditions for the list:

1. The device must be specifically named

2. The device must figure prominently into the plot

3. Emphasis on underdog devices from older films

4. Emphasis on nutty devices

5. Limit one device per film

My domain is the classics, so here come 14 devices from the 30s through the 60s.

THE WRITING TRANSMITTER - from Mystery Liner (1934).

Here's a boring spy movie from "poverty row" studio Monogram.  The story stinks.  But the Writing Transmitter gets used many times.

It's a two-part device used for remote communication.  It's like a combo of a two-way TV and an Etch-a-Sketch.  You write on the pad, and the message is sent to the other guy's screen.  It comes out in flowing script.  Then he writes his reply, and flowing script appears on your screen.

The movie also features a remote-controlled ship, which probably excited audiences since the military was actually experimenting with remote control at the time.

But the Writing Transmitter is much more fun.

THE RADIUM REVIVING CHAMBER - from The Phantom Empire (serial, 1935).

Gene Autry the Singing Cowboy stars in this pre-Flash Gordon sci-fi Western serial.


Autry plays himself, and he's the hero, so you know he can't possibly die during his struggles with the evil Muranians…

But then in Chapter 7 he actually dies!  No kidding!  Luckily, Autry is quickly brought back to life in the Muranians' Radium Reviving Chamber, because radium has the power to restore life.

He briefly speaks "the language of the dead" (gibberish) when revived.  But before long, he's back to his old singing self.

The Chamber is a typical 1930s science lab, where the dead person is laid on a table beneath a glass cover.  In the 1930s, radium was known to be toxic but was still widely used for luminescent clocks, dials, and instrument panels.

THE BRAIN DESTROYER - from The Lost City (serial, 1935).

Believe it or not, this device is designed to destroy people's brains.  You see it midway through the first chapter, and it's surprisingly frightening in a simplistic serial aimed at adolescent boys in the 1930s.

When we meet the machine, a super zombie black guy grabs a regular screaming black guy and straps him into a rack with a metal dome that lowers onto his head.

"You must obey my commands!" shouts the evil Zolok after he flips the switch.  A minute later, the poor guy's brain is destroyed, and he is a zombified slave.

The serial is racist, sure, but the black guys are the white villain's victims and we feel pretty bad for them.

THE RADIUM RAY - from Ghost Patrol (1936).

Here's radium again.  But now it's a ray.  The device is first visible at 3:30 into this short feature film, a dull Western that uses the ray for a sci-fi gimmick.

Ray guns had been mentioned in science fiction stories from the 1920s and earlier, but unless you count sparks shot from robots, the first genuine rays in science fiction film date to 1936, in The Invisible Ray (the Karloff-Lugosi film) and Ghost Patrol.

I would have loved to pick The Invisible Ray for this list, but Karloff's ray is actually never named in the film, and it's actually radium (again) flowing from a radioactive guy who focuses the radiation through a telescopic lens.  So it doesn't really count as a device.

Here in Ghost Patrol, a device creates a "radium ray" that can be aimed at planes to destroy their engines, causing the planes to crash.  You never see the ray itself (as in The Invisible Ray), but you do see the device, which looks like a thin Tesla coil that makes sparks on top.

THE NITRON BEAM - from Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (serial, 1938).

Also referred to as the Nitron Ray, it will suck all the "nitron" from the Earth's atmosphere!  This causes earthquakes, gravitational collapses, and natural disasters!

You'll see it first at 6:30 in the first episode, a giant wavy ray traversing space from Mars and striking Planet Earth.  You can see the control room first at 17:10, with enough 1930s-style lab equipment to fill the whole place.

Watch Emperor Ming pull the giant lever and turn the giant dial to control the "firebox" (the power chamber).  Finally, at 18:50, you can see the giant gun shooting the beam toward Earth.

The first cliffhanger (end of Chapter 1) sees the beam striking Flash's spaceship!

THE DEVISUALIZER - from The Phantom Creeps (serial, 1939).

It's funny how it takes society years to find a good name for something.  Until Victorian times, science was called "natural philosophy."

If I had a belt that turned me invisible, I'd call it an Invisibility Belt.  Here, the villain - Dr. Zorka played by the amazing Bela Lugosi - calls his belt a Devisualizer.

This decent serial is most famous for the grotesque-looking robot ("the cops'll never let anything like THAT walk down the street!"), but Zorka actually uses his belt more often.

Most available prints of this serial are of poor quality (it's not a classic like the Flash Gordon serials), but you can get the idea.

"Get the Devisualizer!" Zorka commands his servant at 7:30 into Chapter 1.  Then he turns invisible so that he can hide his dangerous inventions from the government.  You see the belt right afterwards, and it's basically a thick leather belt with a control box instead of a buckle in the front.

Sometimes Zorka is totally invisible, but at other times he's a glowing shadow - and this is why we call Zorka a "phantom."

THE ELECTRO-ANNIHILATOR - from The Purple Monster Strikes (serial, 1945).

Being from Republic, this fast-paced serial is best for a spy-oriented plot, a few shootouts, and a lot of fistfights from Republic's legendary stuntmen.  But it has its share of devices used by the nefarious Martian known as the Purple Monster as he plots to invade Earth.

Chief among the Martian devices is the Electro-Annihilator (a disintegration beam) which figures prominently into Chapter 5.  It was designed to disintegrate meteors before they strike airplanes, but it's handy at disintegrating other things too.

"When the object moves into the beam, it is completely destroyed," says the unscrupulous scientist during his demonstration. It looks a small anti-aircraft gun that swivels on a stand.  The operator stands behind it and shoots.

The beam is invisible, but not so the results: watch it explode the hero's sedan at 11:00 into Chapter 5, and then the heroine's car a minute later.

I know, I know, it's the same car explosion footage twice, but don't worry, the Electro-Annihilator will get used again in Chapter 15, the conclusion.

THE COSMIC VIBRATOR - from Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (serial, 1951).

I figured you'd be curious about this one.  It's actually a type of stun gun used by the Captain to startle his enemies so that he can disarm them.  (He used it in his 1949-1955 TV series as well.)

Like several devices on this list, it makes its first appearance in the serial's opening chapter, at 4:45.  "Use the cosmic vibrator!" he tells an agent getting pummeled by a bad guy.

Actually, the vibrator really appears at the start of the opening credits, with Captain Video and one of his agents aiming the guns the audience.

This Captain Video serial features at least one nutty device in every episode, which is probably a record.  There are too many to list here, but one of my favorites is the Isotopic Radiation Curtain, without which no shower is complete.

THE INTEROCITOR - from This Island Earth (1955).

Here's one of the most famous of all sci-fi movie devices.  While fans best remember the interstellar voyage to Metaluna in the movie's final third, the construction of the Interocitor takes up most of the first third.

Our scientist-heroes receive a mysterious shipment of electronic parts and instructions.  One condenser channels "33,000 volts and no leakage!"  It has 2486 parts.

Eventually, when the scientists assemble the parts, the resulting Interocitor allows them to communicate across the galaxy.  The instructions imply that Interocitors can be modified for other purposes, even as "electron sorters."  Maybe there is no limit to what it can do.

Some movies on this list are gimmicky and simplistic, but This Island Earth takes itself seriously, and the extended Interocitor sequence exudes an innocent sense of wonder about technology's potential to enhance our lives.

THE PRESSURE PHOTOMETER - from The Night the World Exploded (1957).

At the start of this obscure sci-fi cheapie, the scientist-hero presents his newly-invented Pressure Photometer.

It's actually an earthquake detector.  It resembles a backyard barbecue grill combined with a printing press.

Coincidentally, the Pressure Photometer arrives just in time to detect some menacing black rocks ("element 112") that had remained dormant beneath the Earth but are now rising to the surface.  When exposed to surface air, they explode in flames.

It's interesting that the machine predicts quakes by measuring pressure within the Earth just as barometers predict storms by measuring pressure in the air.

The movie deserved a higher budget since it's more literate and serious than most sci-fi films of the late 50s.  Alas, most of its action sequences consist of stock footage of natural disasters.

THE FLUOROSCOPE - from Night of the Blood Beast (1958).

Here's another cheap sci-fi flick from the late 1950s, co-created by the famous Roger Corman and his less famous brother Gene.

In a story that presages Alien, an astronaut appears dead after an alien encounter, gets revived, and turns out to be impregnated by baby aliens.

How do we know he has baby aliens inside him?  Because we can get a live look into his stomach by means of the Fluoroscope.  It's like a stand-up x-ray machine.

"I think we should see what I look like under the Fluoroscope," says the worried astronaut at 33:33 into the short film.  "It operates on a radium cathode tube."

This is probably the least "nutty" of the devices on the list since it was an emerging technology at the time, and we have real fluoroscopes now.  But it gets used in a nutty way.

For three seconds on screen, you can see nine alien embryos inside the guy's stomach.  "They're using his body for a breeding ground!"  Yet the guy's paternal instincts kick in… and he doesn't want to harm the little guys.

Not a masterpiece, but not a bad movie.

THE FOCUSING DISINTEGRATOR RAY - from Teenagers from Outer Space (1959).

This beloved independent science fiction picture, ridiculous and exciting in every scene, features the greatest beam weapon on this list: the Focusing Disintegrator Ray, shot from a small pistol, aimed at a living target, able to instantly disintegrate all living matter except bones.

"It projects an isolated beam which separates the molecules of living material," the helpful teenage space traveler tells a frightened Earth girl, "all but the solids, the skeletal bracers."

The small pistol has a great retro look (to us), but it was actually a Hubley Atomic Disintegrator, readily available in toy stores in the mid 1950s.  As of this writing (early 2017), these vintage cap pistols average $200 on eBay.

The ray gets used half a dozen times in the picture, most memorably at the opening to disintegrate a dog.  The ray effect was created by fitting a small mirror into the muzzle of the pistol and then having the actor flash the reflection toward the camera.

THE KLYOTRON - from Secret of the Telegian ("Denso Ningen," 1960).

Here's the one international entry on our list, a Japanese sci-fi thriller directed by Jun Fukuda, who later made kaiju classics like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

Wronged by some of his fellow soldiers in World War II, our angry anti-hero plots revenge by teaming up with a scientist to turn himself into a sort of projected ghost by means of his Klyotron (or "cryotron," depending upon your translation and spelling).

The device itself resembles a Transporter from Star Trek.  It's an imperfect teleporter and needs to be kept constantly cold.  It should have gotten more attention in the film, but it's used most memorably when it malfunctions at the conclusion as our cruel yet tragic anti-hero is destroyed.

The film is mostly a gangster thriller, which might explain why it has fallen into obscurity.

THE DUOTHERMIC IMPULSATOR -from Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966).

Too bad such a wonderfully named device is stuck in such a dumb movie.  On the other hand, the movie's fame is due to its being "so bad it's good," and so the Duothermic Impulsator gets to share that fame.

It looks like an old-fashioned typewriter combined with a reel-to-reel tape recorder attached to typical Victorian-style science lab equipment.  What does it do?  Well, if you're trying to assemble and resurrect dead body parts, it activates the brain.

"What a fool I've been!" the villainess chides herself after a temporary failure early in the film.  "I've allowed the Duothermic Impulsator to be attached only to the body."

Now she realizes it must also be attached to a living brain "to transmit living vibrations to the artificial brain."

But Ms. Frankenstein makes the fatal mistake of attaching it only to a dead brain and not a living one as well.

She wants to use "artificial brains" created by Grandfather (not Father) Frankenstein to make a slave "who can't be put to death."

In fairness, the Estonian character actress Narda Onyx is very entertaining.  "You are Igor!" she shouts at the unconscious victim.  "I am Maria Frankenstein!  As I think, you will think!  You are always under my control!"

BONUS DEVICE: Although I wanted to cover older devices for this list, and although my territory usually stops in the early 80s, I felt I just had to mention what's probably the most popular device in 20th century science fiction film: the Flux Capacitor from Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels.  It's what makes time travel possible!

Please Note: Photos & videos are presented for illustration and review purposes only under the 'fair use' provisions of copyright law, and remain copyright respective rights holders.  Date of post: November 2022