aTelevision shows have been a rich source of inventions, both real and fantasy. At any moment in an episode, the main characters can introduce an existing device or invent a new one.

Cartoons, fictional characters and real scientists all create new gadgets. They use these gadgets to fight evil, escape from harrowing situations, bust a myth or just prove a point. Remakes and extensions prove the staying power of these shows, some of which include:


“MacGyver” (original show 1985-92) features a man working for a fictional Phoenix Foundation. He goes on various missions, such as rescuing captured people or gathering information. MacGyver is well known for the Swiss Army knife that he always carries in his pocket, but the show became popular in part due to the number of invented gadgets he created out of everyday objects: household chemicals, rope, metal objects in the vicinity.

The show’s producers tried to base his inventions on science whenever possible. Details about explosions created to escape from evil were vague; they did not want fans to reproduce these chemical reactions at home because of the obvious dangers. The MacGyver franchise expanded into movies, as well as a new series on CBS that premiered in late September.

Richie Rich

Richie Rich is a comic book character who first appeared in 1953 and got his own title in 1960. His affinity for inventions is such that there’s currently a monthly Harvey comic book called “Richie Rich Inventions.” He moved to TV with an animated Saturday morning series on ABC in 1980-84 in which he’s slightly older than the child in the comics; was the subject of the 1994 non-animated movie “Richie Rich,” starring Macaulay Culkin; and was the name of a Netflix Original Series starring Jake Brennan that debuted last year.

Richie’s a single child with lots of gadgets because his parents are wealthy. The gadgets can do just about anything on an as-needed basis, which comes in handy with thieves always trying to steal from his estate. They’re conceived by Professor Keenbean, the family’s personal scientist. A human-sized robot maid named Irona maintains his mansion and serves as a bodyguard. She can convert her body into various modes, including changing her body into a jet plane when Richie calls on her.

In the 1994 movie, Professor Keenbean invents the Smellmaster 9000, which translates smell into sound for a spin in an effort to find some chocolate hidden among the presents. Other inventions by the professor include an acidic mixture called Hydrochloricdioxynucleocarbonium that eats through almost anything; a molecular reorganizer that turns garbage into anything that’s typed in on a computer control panel; and a spray that makes any fabric bulletproof. In the Netflix series, Richie earns a trillion dollars by turning vegetables into green energy.

In the ABC cartoon series, the good professor tops everyone—including himself—in the episode that originally aired on Dec. 20, 1980: He invents a machine to invent inventions.  

Inspector Gadget

Another popular cartoon featuring inventions (1983-86, in syndication into the late 1990s), Inspector Gadget is a thin character in a hat and trench coat. Voiced by Don Adams—who played Maxwell Smart in another gadget-related series, “Get Smart”—he conjures up whatever he wants by saying “Go Go Gadget.” For example, if he wants a helicopter, he says, “Go Go Gadget helicopter.” The contraption then springs out of the top of his hat with handlebars.

His talking car, the Gadget-Mobile, also has some unique capabilities. Most of the time his sidekick is his daughter, Penny, who tends to be the brains of the two.

Inspector Gadget has a tendency to overcomplicate situations. His abstract reasoning usually leads to an incorrect gadget appearing. For example, he could say “Go Go Gadget water” with intentions of putting out a fire, but gasoline sprays out instead. Many variants of Inspector Gadget have aired on television and in movies.

Junkyard Wars

This show (1998-2009) consisted of teams building functional items from scrap parts. Team members consist of people from different walks of life, such as engineers and mechanics.

The start of every episode began with teams learning what they’re going to build. Team members then went out to the junkyard and stole parts from existing items. For example, if a task included building a boat, they might have used an actual boat hull or patched one together from metal pieces. The boat engine could originate from a motorcycle or lawnmower. The propeller attached to the engine might be the radiator fan from a car.

At the end of an episode, the teams competed on an obstacle course. In the case of a boat, they navigated a course either against the clock or the other team’s boat. An international version featured teams that all originated from the same country and competed against other countries.


Recently ended on Discovery Channel after a 14-year run, “MythBusters” featured Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. They would review myths from the internet and television shows (including MacGyver) to determine if there’s any truth.

One task included putting a rocket on a car, driving it at high speeds, and jumping off a ramp to see how far it could fly. Another revisited myth involved having several people hold up mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays. The goal was to determine if they could start a fire.

Every episode involved having to invent a new gadget or technique to test their theories. The rocket-powered car was too dangerous to drive by even the best stunt driver, so they created a remote-controlled vehicle system that allowed control of steering, acceleration and brakes from a safe distance.

In the end, they determined whether a myth is “busted,” “plausible” or “confirmed.”

Frank Laughlin is the creator of ideas2apply and Invention Ideas For Kids Of All Ages To Enjoy. He’s committed to inspiring ideas, sparking creativity and encouraging problem-solving.

We were so excited about Frank Laughlin’s story that a couple of our regular writers joined in with their own contributions, from a few shows even farther back. Editor Reid Creager remembers “Get Smart” and Mr. Peabody from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons; Eye on Washington writer Gene Quinn discusses innovations from “Star Trek.” See his post on the 50th anniversary of the show and industry insiders’ observations at

Get Smart

Originally written by comedic geniuses Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, this classic 1965-70 James Bond spoof was a crafty blend of satire and sight gags—the latter including the famous shoe-phone and Cone of Silence.

The Emmy-lavished “Get Smart” was hardly a pioneer when it came to TV spy inventions. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (1964-68) featured many gadgets, most notably a fountain pen communicator with an extending aerial and distinctive transmission sound. But the two main “Get Smart” inventions are more memorable because of their outlandish aspects.

The notion of taking off one’s shoe to dial a phone was both ludicrous and visionary. Some call the gag-prop revolutionary because it popularized the idea of a portable phone; a 2008 Wall Street Journal article was titled “How Maxwell Smart and His Shoe-Phone Changed TV.”

Entertainment website The A.V. Club says the Cone of Silence is “one of the best TV visual jokes of all time.” Don Adams as Smart (Agent 86) insisted on having the large plexiglass bubble slowly drop down from the ceiling for classified conversations with the Chief. But the cone, which covered the Chief’s desk area, often malfunctioned—and no one could hear the other when it did work, which meant they had to use flash cards to communicate. Barbara Feldon as Agent 99 (her character never had a real name in the show) didn’t get to use the Cone of Silence during the series’ five-year run but finally got the chance in the 1989 TV movie “Get Smart, Again!”

“Get Smart” has also been re-made in the form of a theatrical movie (1980’s “The Nude Bomb”), a 1995 TV reunion series, and a movie starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway just three years after Adams died in 2005. Missed it by that much.

“The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”—Mr. Peabody

“Peabody’s Improbable History,” the adventures of the cartoon dog Mr. Peabody and his “human” son Sherman, began as a filler interlude during “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” (1959-64). After saving the geeky Sherman from bullies in an alley, Peabody adopts the boy following a court appearance and talking with the president.

Voiced by Bill Scott, Peabody invents the WABAC time machine (pronounced “wayback”) as a birthday gift for Sherman, and they go back in time to see a Roman speaking in Latin. Peabody adds a translator circuit to the WABAC so that everyone seems to speak English. Their next trip is to see Benjamin Franklin flying his kite that discovered electricity, only to find they can’t interact with the past. So Peabody turns the WABAC into a “should-have-been machine”—although it causes famous people to behave out of character.

The original Jay Ward cartoons are known for their smart dialogue and (usually) artful puns; subsequent Peabody and Sherman efforts, including a 2014 movie, generally have been dogs. Oh, for a trip in the WABAC machine to relive the real thing.  

Star Trek

The iconic show, which originally ran from 1966 to 1969, has inspired generations of scientists and engineers who continue to attempt to bring into being the gadgets and technology written into the storyline.

For example, several years ago the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent on the first cloaking device; last year, scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory created transparent aluminum; IBM’s omnipotent computer known as Watson can easily be likened to the all-knowing Star Trek computer; and a real-life food replicator can prepare a meal in 30 seconds.

Countless scientists have theorized about the possibility of a real-life transporter, described as the holy grail of Star Trek technologies. Just a few months ago Russia embarked upon a path to achieve transporter technology within the next 20 years, and researchers believe through the use of quantum mechanics they can create a transporter-like device for data.