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Geeky television shows are filled with robots, spaceships, and various other gadgets and gizmos, but they didn’t get there by themselves. Someone, somewhere, has to invent, build, and maintain all of the technology we see on TV.
Occasionally, these engineers are put on screen in all their genius. Here, for your entertainment, are the greatest fictional TV engineers of all time. Prepare to be astounded by these mechanical geniuses and master gadgeteers.
Montgomery Scott, Star Trek
Thanks to Star Trek‘s perpetual appeal as a vision of a bright future many people are attempting to recreate in the real world, there have been a half-dozen series of the show in popular memory. There have been at least as many competent Starfleet engineers who could be on this list, but let’s be honest, everyone who came after Scotty was just doing their best to follow his lead.
Montgomery Scott (played by James Doohan) was Chief Engineer and second officer aboard the original USS Enterprise. Throughout Star Trek: The Original Series, Mr. Scott holds his beloved ship together and manages to pull off spectacular feats of mechanical genius while under duress.
He manages to restart the Enterprise’s engines from a dead stop in less than 10 minutes in “The Naked Time,” repairs the malfunctioning transporter in less than 30 seconds in “The Doomsday Machine,” and is somehow able to get a grounded shuttle into planetary orbit using the energy from phasers in “The Galileo Seven”.
Kaylee Frye, Firefly
The adorable Kaylee (played by Jewel Staite) was the mechanic in Joss Whedon’s scifi series Firefly. She was more an emotional catalyst for the crew of Serenity than she was a practical member, and whenever she was in the spotlight or b-roll of an episode, she was more often than not fretting over matters of the heart or providing a sunny outlook.
Kaylee’s biggest strength, however, was her aptitude for machines. When she had a job to do that involved engines, she proved herself to be a genius.
Kaylee is frequently called upon to hold together the engines of the persnickety Serenity. In “Out of Gas,” a flashback shows she was hired by Captain Mal Reynolds when she fixed the grounded ship after eyeballing the engine for a few minutes.
In the pilot episode of Firefly, she repairs the engine via dictation to Jayne while suffering a debilitating stomach wound. In “Bushwhacked,” she disables a booby trap left behind by the murderous Reavers, a process that, had she failed, would have resulted in an explosion.
Howard Wolowitz, The Big Bang Theory
Howard Wolowitz (played by Simon Helberg) is an aeronautical engineer with a Master’s Degree from MIT, which earns him the derision of his doctorate-possessing friends and colleagues. He is, however, wholly competent in his own field.
Howard might be the most straightforward and realistic example on this list, given that he has a Master’s Degree in Engineering and has worked for NASA. When one of his engineering projects is approved for use on the International Space Station, he is sent up on a Soyuz rocket to do maintenance, making him one of the few characters on a relatively mundane sitcom to breach Earth’s atmosphere.
Angus MacGyver, MacGyver
You know how much of a master gadgeteer MacGyver (played by Richard Dean Anderson) is? His name is now a verb which means to cobble together functioning tools out of unlikely materials that happen to be close at hand. But trust me, while others may occasionally “MacGyver,” they can’t possibly do it as well as Mac himself.
MacGyver’s skills lay in a thorough understanding of physics and chemistry, an easy talent for recalling such info while stressed, and the ability to turn any material into a tool.
Necessity is the mother of all MacGyver’s inventions. The show even took the wind out of the sails of those who would criticize it with a joke in the very first episode: a female character rhetorically asks Mac if he can make a bomb out of chewing gum, to which Mac non-rhetorically asks if she has any.
In that episode, he successfully disarms a missile with a paperclip. He would go on to do such things as build flares out of fertilizer and bamboo, perform facial reconstruction on a skull using pencils and clay, and override an elevator’s controls with a Swiss Army knife. And those are just the ones I personally remember.
Joel Robinson, Mystery Science Theater 3000
If resourcefulness is a measure of engineering proficiency, then Joel Robinson from Mystery Science Theater 3000 (played by Joel Hodgson), another face in a red jumpsuit, is up there with MacGyver in terms of what he’s able to accomplish with limited tools at his disposal.
Originally a janitor at the Gizmonics Institute, Joel was shot into space by his boss Dr. Forrester, who forces him to watch the world’s cheesiest movies to see what will break him. What does Joel do? Build four robots to help him wisecrack through the movies.
Not only does Joel build functioning, self-aware robots, he participates in a once-an-episode skit called the Invention Exchange with Dr. Forrester. Joel managed to cobble together such sundry items as a Fax Machine Tissue Dispenser, a Polaroid camera that prints money, and a bottomless salad bowl.
If you find yourself wondering how Joel can possibly keep building his inventions considering he’s on a spaceship and therefore should have no surplus supplies, repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show…”
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Engineers are staple characters on television because of the practical elements they bring. They ground more fantastical elements of science fiction. Practically, they are the characters that manage the literal nuts and bolts of the universe. Sentimentally, however, they are characters who embody the human potential for invention and ingenuity.
Obviously there is more to being a mechanical engineer than what we see in these small-screen characters, but they can always inspire real people to follow in their footsteps through their intelligence and technical acumen. The greatest fictional engineers can actually inspire people to become engineers in the real world. Which may just be their greatest gift of all.
Tell Us What You Think!
Who are your favorite fictional engineers and gadget-masters? Plenty of others almost made it onto this list, including The Doctor from Doctor Who, The Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and any one of the other Star Trek engineers. So please let us know who your favorites are in the comments section below!
Image Credits: technology project via Shutterstock