Great makers on the silver screen

Bill Gurstelle is a Contributing Editor for MAKE magazine. His most recent book is entitled Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously. You can follow Bill on his danger-quest at He is a guest Make: Online author for the month of August.

frankenstein.jpgI love the way movies and television glorify the maker spirit. From billionaire weapon inventor Tony Stark in Iron Man to the coconut-happy Professor on Gilligan’s Island, there’s often a heroic geekiness that shows how cool inventing and building really are.

But, watching something like Iron Man gives me a bad case of maker envy. I have a pretty nice workshop and decent tools. But try as I might, I’ve had no luck building a decent powered exoskeleton or even a radio that uses coconut fibers for an antenna.

With a few exceptions, the era of the great lone inventor, making commercially-viable inventions in their garages, ended 75 years ago. Except in Hollywood. On the silver screen, the amateur inventor is still able to turn out everything from Doc Brown’s time machine to Wallace and Gromit’s BunVac 6000. To me, they’re more inspiring than NASA.

Here’s a list of top movie inventors. There are no doubt, many, many others. Add your favorites in the comments.

  • Dr. Fred Brainard (Fred MacMurray) in The Absent Minded Professor
  • Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit) in The Wrong Trousers
  • Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Ben Chapleski (Dian Bachar) in Orgazmo
  • Navin Johnson (Steve Martin) in The Jerk
  • Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in Back to the Future
  • C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in Metropolis

22 thoughts on “Great makers on the silver screen

  1. …the era of the great lone inventor, making commercially-viable inventions in their garages, ended in 75 years ago….

    Double piffle. 90% of the content on the Internet is from “garage” inventors. But even if you exclude software (why exactly?), 99% of the “cool builds” linked from places like Make Online are just regular people. “Commercially-viable” is a red herring and usually code for “won’t share their ideas”.

    Also, I wouldn’t put Navin on the list. He was serendipitous, not really an inventor in the “99% perspiration”, mad scientist sense. But Val Kilmer from Real Genius probably should be on there.

  2. Hi Bill. Love this topic. How’s about we add:

    Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: I think the claymated man-dog duo deserves mention on this list. Have you seen their incredible rabbit-sucking machine?

    Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, in dozens of Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts: Less successful but no less determined to catch the roadrunner (or the rabbit).

    Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) and his best friend Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) in Weird Science: Just because a) they get pantsed and b) the soundtrack is Oingo Boingo. No rabbits.

  3. how about Dr Fredrick von Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein ? he’s recycling his grandfather’s work! A Green ReInventor!

  4. How about “Allie Fox”, portrayed by Harrison Ford in “The Mosquito Coast”. (A movie, based on a novel, is that OK?)

    I thought it was a great, distinct portrayal of the “maker genius” as both admirable and arguably despicable.

    OK, and this is obvious, probably dumb, and on TV, but how about “MacGyver”? I never really even watched it, but the name is synonymous with improvised “making”. I guess Batman, in the same vein, but “bigger”.

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William Gurstelle is a contributing editor of Make: magazine. His new book, ReMaking History: Early Makers is now available.

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