One terrific idea, beaming right up

Curio & Co. looks at how deadlines and small budgets created the most iconic technology of Star Trek, the transporter. Curio and co.

Sometimes, small budgets and short deadlines can be the best thing to happen to a project. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.

One of my favorite stories is about the development of Star Trek’s most innovative technology: the Transporter. According to legend, the original plan for the show was to have the Enterprise land on each planet to allow the crew to explore.

However, this presented a number of problems. First, they’d have to do some pretty hefty special effects each time the ship landed, and secondly, the Enterprise is supposed to be a huge ship and landing the model they used on the planets would require a lot of suspension of disbelief. (Just where the heck would they park it?) The crew could use the shuttlecraft of course, but even that was too expensive to build for the first few episodes. (Aluminum Model Toys later offered to build a full size version of the shuttlecraft for use on the episodes – at no cost – in exchange for the rights to market the model kids. Smart move!)

In addition, landing either the ship or a shuttlecraft would require a lot of time in each episode, which creator Gene Roddenberry thought would slow down the storytelling. So without any feasible means to get the ship to the planet, creators came up with the Transporter to “beam” people and equipment – or tribbles – from one place to another.

The special effects required for this were pretty simple: turning a Slo-Mo camera upside down and filming shiny grains of aluminum powder. But the results were huge. The transporter revolutionized science fiction and changed the way we think about space travel. In a 2008 Discovery Channel magazine article, physicist Michio Kaku predicted that we might have this technology in 100 years.

Best of all? Transporter technology gave us one of the coolest catch phrases ever (even if Kirk never actually said it).