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:
- The device must be specifically named
- The device must figure prominently into the plot
- Emphasis on underdog devices from older films
- Emphasis on nutty devices
- Limit one device per film
This installment, I’ll list seven nutty devices from the 1930s and 40s. Next installment, I’ll list seven more from the 50s and 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.