Stretching back 50 years to The Nutty Professor, inventors are almost always portrayed as bumblers in film and television. That’s not always the case, but for every MacGyver—who’s more of an on-the-spot inventor than professor type—there are about 100 Dr. Emmett Browns, guys who do nothing but fail until they succeed, usually spectacularly. With CNBC now broadcasting the first three seasons of Shark Tank and The Profit, we did a quick skim of some other notable inventors in pop culture.
Professor Farnsworth, Futurama
Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth (named for Philo Farnsworth, one of the creators of the television) specialized in inventing seemingly useless devices on Matt Groening’s futuristic show. The Smell-O-Scope helped save Earth from a garbage asteroid hurtling through space, but inventions did little (the Fing-Longer) or were outright dangerous (the Nose Machine, which produced glow-in-the-dark noses and a toxic byproduct). Some of the Professor’s inventions turned out well; perhaps his best creation, the What-If Machine, served as the premise for Futurama’s standout “Anthology Of Interest” episodes.
Angus MacGyver, MacGyver
The ultimate DIY escape artist, able to construct impossible devices for any situation, MacGyver is like a blue-collar James Bond who doesn’t need Q because he builds everything himself. Over the course of 139 episodes (and two made-for-television movies), MacGyver’s inventions included a rocket-powered combination harpoon gun/zip line, an avalanche-prevention explosive device (out of a sleeping bag, vodka, and an oxygen tank), and a beer-keg torpedo. He’s not only a master of spontaneous engineering, but also one of the greatest examples of divining exactly what a daring situation requires and producing it with few supplies.
Bulma, Dragon Ball
The second character to be introduced in the Dragon Ball series, Bulma is the inventor of Dragon Radar, which measures the energy emitted by the orbs sought by everyone on the show. She’s an integral part of the massively popular Japanese animated series, and the most prominent female character. Without her inventions, like the Micro Band (which allows her to shrink) or a time machine (used by her son to retroactively defeat a catastrophic android attack), the Dragon Ball world wouldn’t look the same.
Dexter, Dexter’s Laboratory
The protagonist of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Cartoon Network series is a certifiable boy genius, which makes him a complete outcast at school, easily annoyed by his meddling social butterfly of an older sister, Dee Dee. Though he comes from a clean-cut, typical American family, Dexter speaks with a thick accent, since, as Tartakovsky put it, “He considers himself a very serious scientist, and all well-known scientists have accents.” Dexter’s inventions focus mainly on androids and other robotic technology, but he also produces a time machine, an inter-dimensional doorway, and a device that turns people into animals.
Dr. Emmett Lathrop Brown, Back To The Future
Perhaps the most significant fictional invention of the 1980’s was Doc Brown’s DeLorean, which could travel back in time once it reached 88 miles per hour (and generated 1.21 gigawatts of power). But perhaps more comically, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) also invented a brain-wave analyzer meant to allow him to read other people’s minds. When Marty shows up in the 1955 and seeks out Doc in the past, he answers the door wearing the giant metal contraption, and vaguely guesses that Marty has traveled a long distance (which he has, through time) and that his puffy vest suggest he’s associated with the Coast Guard Youth Auxiliary. Not a great track record, but turning a DeLorean (and, later in the series, a steam train) into a time machine is a mighty impressive achievement even without a second successful creation.
Data, The Goonies
Although he prides himself as an adolescent 007, Data (played by Jonathan Ke Quan) has much more in common with Bond’s gadget man, Q. Throughout the beloved ’80s adventure-comedy, Data deploys a number of his inventions, with mixed results: His massively bright lights (“bully blinders”) exhaust batteries quickly; his slick shoes help sideline the Fratellis; his mechanical punching arm deploys erratically; his sticky dart works too well; but his “pinchers of peril” save his life. Well, you only need one good invention.