Last installment, I listed seven nutty devices from sci-fi films and serials released in the 1930s and 40s.
As I stated last time, the devices are scientific rather than supernatural, they have some sort of logic to their origin or purpose, and of course they’re also fictitious.
In order for the device to be applicable the following conditions must be applicable:
- 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
Now, here are seven more from the 1950s through the 60s, plus one bonus 80s device that I couldn’t resist.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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!