Scientist of the Day - H. George Wells
Oct. 12 was the date on the dial when the time-sled in the film The Time Machine (1960) slid to a stop in the land of the Eloi. The year, however, was 802,701 (third image). The film was produced by George Pal, who had introduced the Golden Age of Sci-Fi into cinema by giving us Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953); he then brought it to a close with The Time Machine, his finest effort, in my opinion. The film starred Rod Taylor as H. George Wells, builder of the time machine and bearing the name of the author of the original novel, H.G. Wells, who published the book The Time Machine in 1895. We wrote a post on H.G. Wells just last month. In the film, Yvette Mimieux played one of the Eloi, human descendants of the far future, who were oppressed by the underground race of Morlocks. The Morlocks kept the Eloi like cattle and fed upon them – until Rod Taylor showed up and taught them about grit and the human spirit, that is!
The major prop of the film was the time-sled, which was beautifully crafted with curved runners of brass tubing, a cut-glass throttle handle, and at the rear, a large spinning disk, the speed of rotation of which served as an indicator of the rate of time travel (first image). George and his sled made stops in 1900 (the present-day of the film was 1899), 1917, 1940, and 1966, before fast-forwarding to 802,701 and commencing the battle with the Morlocks.
After the film was completed, the time-sled was stored on the MGM lot, along with lots of other goodies, such as the steamboat in Show Boat and the ship from the Mutiny on the Bounty, to say nothing of the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. In 1970, MGM auctioned off these and thousands more film artefacts (watch a 10-minute news preview of the auction, if you are interested; the time-sled appears at the 7:20 mark). The time machine was bought by a road-show owner, but five years later, it was spotted in a second-hand store in California and acquired by the noted film buff and collector Bob Burns III. The control panel and seat had disappeared (the dashboard having been removed for the close-up shots of the time odometer, never replaced, and subsequently lost). Burns owned the original plans for the time-sled, given to him by Pal himself, so he brought in some top Hollywood prop men to help him restore the missing pieces. Once refurbished, it went into the museum in the basement at his home. We include a photo of none other than Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, sitting in the sled in Bob’s Basement, as the collection is usually called (fourth image). The sled has been loaned out numerous times to next-generation film makers. The sled's most notable appearance was in Episode 8 of Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980). Discussing the plausibility of time travel, Carl flew in on the time machine and wondered: what if the Ionians of ancient Greece had prevailed? Would we now be travelling among the stars?
Lowering the level a bit, the MGM time machine also appeared in an episode of the Big Bang Theory in 2007. You can probably find the entire episode on YouTube, but here are two back-to-back scenes, one with Leonard in the driver’s seat, and another with Sheldon at the controls. Both are pretty funny, we must admit. In the latter, the Morlocks make what is, one hopes, their last screen appearance.
William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.