The Most Important Device In The Universe Is Powered By A 555 Timer

The Most Important Device In The Universe on display at Modern Props

The Hackaday comments section has become infamous for a recurring theme that goes something like “I don’t know why they used an Arduino, they could have done it with a 555 timer!” If you’ve ever thought the same way, then this post is for you!

What is The Most Important Device In The Universe, then? It’s the Modern Props #195-290-1, a movie prop originally built in the 1970’s. It’s a product of the creative mind of [John Zabrucky] who founded Modern Props in 1977 to serve Sci-Fi television and movie productions that wanted to invent the future with their props. Known for their high quality and impeccable craftsmanship, Modern Props’ products were in demand until the day they closed the doors so that [John] could retire.

This particular piece is called The Most Important Device In The Universe due to its ubiquity in modern productions that we’ve all heard of: several Star Trek franchises, The Last Starfighter, Knight Rider, Airplane II, Austin Powers, and countless others. The next time you sit down to watch a Sci-Fi show, see if you can spot it! Be sure to check the video below the break to see several examples.

Nobody is sure what The Most Important Device does, aside from the fact that it has red lights that go back and forth. What we do know, thanks to a comment by the man who installed the electronics, [Gene Turnbow], is how it’s powered. [Gene] explained that 45w NPN power transistors drive the neon tubes through step up transformers. The transistors themselves are connected to a 74C4514 demultiplexer, which is itself driven by a 7493 binary counter. What’s the 7493 driven by? You guessed it: the venerable 555 Timer. And so it is that the 555 timer runs The Most Important Device In The Universe.

We did think that [Gene]’s final comment was rather indicative of how much things have changed since the prop was originally built. After explaining the device, he says “These days we would just use an Arduino to do the same job.” Indeed.

Don’t worry, 555 lovers. We’ve got you covered with this Vacuum Tube 555, and and the Trollduino, a 555 on an Arduino Shield. Thanks [Matt K] for the great tip. Don’t forget to submit your favorite hacks to our Tip Line!

43 thoughts on “The Most Important Device In The Universe Is Powered By A 555 Timer

    1. Because it was built in the late 1970’s Leads were not exactly cheap or plentiful at then. Then there’s added need for corrective optics to make the individual tubes light up uniformly. There are times when LEDS are not optimum solution, as hard it may be for youngins to imagine. Cheap and easy is often the better choice. Specially when you SFX budget is only slightly more then your lunch money for the week. :D

  1. In July 2016 I made a 3d model of this device and put it up for sale on turbosquid, september 23 2021 rolls around and I get an email notifying me that it made its first sale. I just found this article and noticed it was published the same day. LOL, now I know why it finally sold. XD

  2. As of a few years ago according to a 555 fan site, the humble 555 was the most produced integrated circuit ever, numbering in multiple billions. As the story goes, Signetics did not anticipate the 555 chip’s popularity, having originally intended the part to be a technology demonstration of merging analog, digital and relatively high current output on the same die. The name comes from the internal voltage reference divider is composed of three 5K Ohm resistors in series between Vcc and ground. A annoyance of the 555 is that it may generate noise on the ground line when it discharges the timing capacitor. Power supply decoupling is important.

    The Signetics NE555 is kind of analogous for hobbyists in the 1970s for use-it-in-everything that the CK722 transistor was in the 1950s. Yes, I still have a few CK722s in a parts drawer.

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