Fictional engineers – geniuses or mad scientists?

Fictional engineers – geniuses or mad scientists?

19 December 2018
Engineer Fiction innovation
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Ever since the 19th century, literature, comic strips and movies have been filled with scientific characters who are either villains or heroes, mad or serious, solitary or sociable. Whether they are inventors or tinkerers, doctors, physicians, chemists or explorers, they all share a streak of genius. From Captain Nemo to Professor Calculus, from Tony Stark to Emmet Brown, and more recently, Gru in Despicable Me, fiction paints a picture of the engineer as complex, adventurous, enigmatic and, at times extreme. A character we can either fear or love, but who always stirs our emotions.

Hill Valley, the United States.

Doc: You see, Einstein has just become the world’s first time traveller! I sent him into the future. One minute into the future to be exact. And at precisely 1:21 a.m. and zero seconds, we shall catch up with him and the time machine!
Marty: Wait a minute. Wait a minute Doc, uh, are you telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?
Doc: The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

Remember that? It was in 1985. When the world’s cinemas were screening for the first time the initial episode of Robert Zemeckis’s trilogy, Back to the Future. And audiences were discovering Doctor Emmet Brown, or “Doc” as he was known to his friends. Now a legend in his own right, Doc gives us a vision of an engineer who is a mad genius. He’s the type of inventor that gets us dreaming. But, because what he wants to invent seems impossible at the beginning and because every creation requires dogged determination and endless experiments, the director decided to depict Doc as a wide-eyed, scruffy-haired character living in a world of his own which makes him misunderstood by most of his contemporaries.

“Fake” engineers – all megalomaniacs? …

Well before Back to the Future, movies, literature and comic strips had long been inspired by engineers and scientists. And the picture painted by their directors and authors has changed with the times and the way that each social era views progress.

Authors and script writers often view scientists as power-hungry. Many fictional engineers are the villains of the story – megalomaniacs with a superiority complex that drives them to invent in order to destroy. These characters in fact reflect the fear felt by citizens and thinkers in the face of scientific progress, such as concern about the potential dangers caused by the creation of increasingly sophisticated weapons.

Back in 1869, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, Jules Verne plunged his readers into the ingenious but dark universe of Captain Nemo. A genius engineer, Nemo designed the Nautilus – a high-tech submarine – to explore the hidden depths of the sea but also as a weapon to take revenge against English ships.

Just as much of a misanthropist and megalomaniac is Rotwang, the evil genius in Fritz Lang’s movie, Metropolis, which is a reflection of people’s fear of mechanization in their towns and workplaces. The same fear has recently resurfaced in the age of humanoid robots and artificial intelligence. In his 1927 masterpiece, Fritz Lang depicts an engineer who creates machines that portray the bleak featureless face of the city of Metropolis. The film also contains one of the first robots to appear in cinema, namely the robot created by Rotwang to recreate his dead wife, Hel.

Similarly, two of the main characters in the Despicable Me series of animation movies are Gru, a super-villain, and his partner-in-crime inventor, Doctor Nefario. The two vie against each other to find an ingenious way to steal the moon. But the twist in the tale is that the characters’ megalomania can’t hold out against Margo, Edith and Agnes –three irresistible little girls who enter Gru’s life.

…or the super-heroes of our time?

Not all fictional engineers inspire fear or danger. Take Professor Calculus, the debonair scientist in The Adventures of Tintin. He incarnates a kind of surprising science that assists people, inventing a range of sophisticated devices to help Tintin solve his mysteries, such as a prototype of a shark-finned submarine and a lunar rocket.

The Marvel Universe also accords an important role to heroic, do-gooder visionaries. Tony Stark for instance – an emblematic character in Marvel Comics before joining The Avengers on screen– only becomes the Iron Man super-hero thanks to his extraordinary scientific skills. The suit of armour he makes for himself is ultra-resistant, has revolutionary weapons and sensors and can fly at a speed of Mach 8.

In the Marvel Comics, we learn that Tony Stark graduated at the age of 17 from Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) and that he then developed know-how in domains ranging from artificial intelligence, electrical engineering and materials science through to quantum mechanics.

Other stars of the Marvel Universe reflect this same vision of a scientist and engineer who is not only intelligent and revolutionary but also a pragmatic tinkerer. This is the case for Reed Richards, Hank Pym and Bruce Banner for example.

Reed Richards – also known as Mister Fantastic – is depicted as a visionary theoretician and a genius inventor who has developed technology for time travel, robotics and holography. He also designed the machines and equipment used by the Fantastic Four, such as Mister Fantastic’s suit of unstable molecules that stretches when he uses his powers, and the Invisible Woman’s suit.

As for Doctor Hank Pym, he became a super-hero thanks to his discovery of a size-altering chemical substance he named Pym Particles. After making his discovery, Pym would shrink down to the size of an insect to become Ant-Man. His character is also described as a chemist and an artificial intelligence specialist and he created the intelligent robot, Ultron.

Lastly, Bruce Banner, alias the Hulk, is presented as a brilliant nuclear physicist who invents the G bomb for the United States – a new type of bomb based on gamma rays. He pays the price for his invention, though, as he’s exposed to an enormous dose of gamma rays and eventually refuses to hand over the bomb because it’s so dangerous. Even when he turns into a Green Titan, he teams up with the Avengers to fight against all kinds of enemies and help protect the planet.

From fiction to reality

These representations that mix the idea of genius engineers with super-heroes also reveal individuals who have a strong sense of ethics as they are mostly always pitted against their villain counterpart. The Hulk, for example, is considered to be a modern adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

They are all portrayed as highly qualified, ingenious individuals and give food for thought – whether serious or not – about the roles and responsibilities of inventor engineers.

Whether megalomaniacs or altruists, baddies or goodies, fictional engineers are all associated with the future, resolving complex problems and determinedly researching and experimenting. They all share the common trait of possessing a kind of knowledge, which, depending on its use, could either help create a better future or harm others. Despite their caricatural aspects, their incredible abilities and the extraordinary universes they inhabit, ultimately these imaginary characters convey an essence of truth – about the challenges that engineers face and the resources they employ to meet those challenges.


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