Technobabble’s Founding Document?

37 MinutesWhether it’s the third Doctor reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, or Geordi LaForge recalibrating the thermal interferometery scanner, or even Jules Verne’s amazing Bunsen Battery, fans of science fiction have grown accustomed to reading and hearing characters lob complex strings of semi-plausible Latinate terminology to explain how things work.

Technobabble is so common in sf that most of the time we don’t even really notice it anymore — or if we do, we end up judging it on its artistic merits; we know it’s fake, but do the characters act like they believe it? That’s good enough for us. If it serves the story-telling purpose without breaking our willing suspension of disbelief, then it’s done it job.

It’s not just sf writers who love technobabble, either. Every scientific and technological discipline has its jargon, and every so often a member of the tribe will poke fun at it. What was perhaps the seminal example of engineering technobabble was written in the dark days of August, 1942 by an unknown wag at the Arthur D. Little Company. Written in the form of a memorandum, it begins thus:

24 August 1942

SUBJECT: Technical Description of the Turbo-Encabulator

TO: Engineers Concerned


For a number of years now work has been proceeding in order to
bring perfection to the crudely conceived idea of a machine
that would not only supply inverse reactive current for use in
unilateral phase detractors, but would also be capable of
automatically synchronizing cardinal grammeters. Such a machine
is the "Turbo-Encabulator". Basically the only new principle
involved is that instead of power being generated by the relative
motion of conductors and fluxes, it is produced by the modial
interaction of magneto reluctance and capacitive directance.


The original machine had a base-plate of prefabulated amulite,
surmounted by a malleable logarithmic casing in such a way that
the two spurving bearings were in direct line with the pentametric
fan. The latter consisted simply of six hydrocoptic marzelvanes,
so fitted to the ambifacient lunar waneshaft that side fumbling was
effectively prevented. The main winding was of the normal lotus-o-delta
type placed in panendermic semi boloid slots in the stator, every
seventh conductor being connected by a non reversible tremie pipe to
the differential girdlespring on the "up" end of the grammeters. . . . 

(you can read the full text of the original here)

This little masterpiece, which goes on to offer semi-plausible sounding mathematical formulas, chemical names, and more mechanical terminology, was copied and distributed throughout the rest of World War II, eventually ending up catching the notice of a writer who wrote a brief tongue-in-cheek news item about it for Time magazine in 1946 — thus introducing it to the world at large, where its popularity has never ceased to grow with each passing generation. In 1962, GE engineers even created an authentic-looking data sheet for the Turbo-Encabulator that was actually included in the GE Handbook.

Eventually, as legend has it, around 1977 the actor Bud Haggart, who specialized in playing serious-sounding engineer types in industrial training films, persuaded a director and crew to stay late one night in order to render the Turbo-Encabulator story on film — as far as is known, the first time it had ever been recorded for posterity. His version has become a legend, copied from 16mm film to VHS and eventually, as all things must, to YouTube:

(Thanks to Bad Astronomy for the link).

One can’t help wondering if perhaps, one day, a young Geordie LaForge will watch this video and decide, “Hey, I want to be an engineer too when I grow up!”

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