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”
I’ve always heard it referred to as the Wilhelm Device, because it shows up almost as often as the Wilhelm Scream.
why are hackaday articles matching my youtube suggestion’s ? this one, the space pen one, whats next Tom scott?
Because the people sending in submissions and writing articles are getting some of the same youtube suggestions you are?
All must submit to The One True Algorithm. I mean, uh… you have good taste in hackery, so it’s bound to happen.
“why are hackaday articles matching my youtube suggestion’s ?”
Google knows exactly what you are doing. This site pulls in a ton of scripts from G and YT.
I tend to see them in recommended on YT, skip them from lack of context, then watch them when I find them here.
Me too! I literally just watched a video about this!
The gold painted cap in the bottom picture looks like a gold painted soil pipe inspection cover.
Why they didn’t just use Arduino and LEDs? :)
Decent high power LEDs didn’t exist back in the 70’s.
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
Have you ever seen LEDs from 80s? They were much dimmer than today’s power LEDs. The technology wasn’t ready yet for such application.
This is a better sci-fi move than anything after 2010!
The movie Space Odyssey 2010 or the year 2010?
Pfff. I could have done that with a.. Oh sorry..
I don’t know why they used a 555, they could have done it with discrete transistors!
(calling to those waiting in the wings; “Next!”)
Relays? Back in my day we could’ve done it with and rock and two dry sticks!
While walking uphill in a blizzard… Both ways.
they actually DID build it with relays initially, but it was too noisy so it was redesigned with quieter gear. ;)
A PUT would have served. You could even find them back then.
(Programmable Unijunction Transistor, for you kids.)
More like, people doing things with a Raspberry Pi that could have been done with a transistor and a capacitor these days. Apparently an Arduino is too weeny to flash an LED.
You just destroyed the next time i see a SCIFI again. I will be looking for those dam blinking tubes. It even made into a animated series.
Yeah, seeing it used in “Lower Decks” was icing on the cake!
What movie (shown) had the red blob? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it before…
Thanks, I’d never heard of it.
555 is a power source?
Up to 200ma, and a voltage doubler as well if you know your stuff.
It powers the Tardis!
it’s used as a clock source , the other chips mentioned in the article are to randomise a bunch of outputs to drive power transistors to drive neon tubes on and off.
It is sad to see that era (Modern Props) come to an end. But, as the LA Times article touched on, computer graphics have displaced the need for a warehouse full of props.
I’d say 3D printers helped with that.
As for “TMIDITU” I’d say it was ubiquitous because it was a plot armor generator and every fictional story needs one of those.
Said before smartphones….. “There’s a 555 for to that…”
Article came up just as I’m watching Star Trek: Voyager S4:E17, and it’s in background shots *loads*…
Well I have no idea what it is but considering it shows in so many different hi-tech societies if must be really damn important!
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
Unfortunately, now that it became “As Seen On HaD!”, it is worth 10 times more than you sold it for!
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.
Does anyone know if the circuit diagram has ever been posted online??
I’m certain it hasn’t. Honestly, though, this is the kind of stuff you brew up from reading Lancaster’s “The TTL Cookbook”. It’s not rocket surgery.
Mine just says “TTL Cookbook”, no “The”
Way back in high school I built this device, very similar in design to that stated in the article. It was intended to mimic KITT from Knight Rider and you could see the schematic yourself, if so inclined, at this link: https://archive.org/details/modern-electronics-august-1986
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