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The Turbo Encabulator's long, weird and very funny history

How an engineering in-joke has survived, influenced culture and remained funny for more than 70 years.

Kyle Hyatt Former news and features editor
Kyle Hyatt (he/him/his) hails originally from the Pacific Northwest, but has long called Los Angeles home. He's had a lifelong obsession with cars and motorcycles (both old and new).
Kyle Hyatt
3 min read

It's time to fire up your prefabulated amulite, grease your lunar waneshafts and juice those differential girdlesprings to 11 because Roadshow is going to dive into the history of the Turbo Encabulator.

If you're already scratching your head and going slightly cross-eyed, we can help. The Turbo Encabulator is one of the weirdest, most esoteric and longest-running inside jokes that we've ever heard. The first recorded mention of the Turbo Encabulator comes from a British engineering grad student named John Hellins Quick, circa 1944.

It remained an engineers' in-joke until 1946 when Time Magazine felt it should get in on the fun and published an article called "For Nofer Trunnions," which naturally led to the confusion and consternation of many of its readers. A few erudite consumers got the joke though, such as Ernest N. Kirrmann who chimed in with this beauty:

"After being envised and cerebrally malleated by 1.5 nofer trunnions from a matitudinative 0451 GMT to an epinocturnal-proximate 1155 EST, I felt the need of a spirianimating filliperative and therefore submersinized my hypersensinate endoderm in a 5 percent fizzionate bicarboalkali-nating Cepsy-Pola."

After the initial uproar of Time's article died down, so did public fervor for technobabble. The Turbo Encabulator wasn't to be heard from for 20 years until engineers from General Electric's Instrument department published a spec sheet for the mysterious device which managed to find its way into the GE handbook. All of a sudden, we were off to the races with our logarithmic casings and spurving bearings!

In 1977, the Turbo Encabulator went, as baseball players say, to the big show. Actor Bud Haggart, a veteran of countless industrial training films, found himself with some cameras and some free time after filming a truck short. He managed to convince the film crew and director to stick around and shoot his "Turboencabulator" film, the script for which he derived from the original John Hellings Quick article, and thus history was made.

A few years later, the Chrysler corporation brought Haggart in to film a new version of the Turbo Encabulator video in which the company purports to have manufactured the device. This is the version to which most of the other nerds I know and I were first exposed. Haggart's deadpan delivery is so spot on that it could be easily mistaken for something real.

The next company to pick up the encabulator mantle was Rockwell Automation with its Retro Encabulator, though Haggart does not make an appearance in this film. Also, rather than a transmission-like device, Rockwell uses a series of electrical wall panels to demonstrate the nature of its Retro Encabulator.

Even the YouTube generation is getting in on the fun with Hank Green of SciSchow offering up his version of the Retro-Proto-Turbo-Encabulator as an April Fool's Joke. This shows off the best part of the Turbo Encabulator joke, and that's its versatility. It has even percolated out into other circles with the Amazon Prime series "Patriot" taking it and giving it a certain industrial piping flair:

"Hey, let me walk you through our Donnelly nut spacing and cracked system rim-riding grip configuration. Using a field of half-seized sprats and brass-fitted nickel slits, our bracketed caps and splay-flexed brace columns vent dampers to dampening hatch depths of 1/2 meter from the damper crown to the spurv plinth. How? Well, we bolster 12 Husk Nuts to each girdle jerry, while flex tandems press a task apparatus of ten vertically composited patch hamplers, then pin flam-fastened pan traps at both maiden apexes of the jimjoints," as said by Leslie Claret, played by Kurtwood Smith in Patriot.

While it may be hard to understand precisely why the Turbo Encabulator still makes nerds titter after more than 70 years, we can only look forward to the technobabble getting weirder thanks to the digital age in which we live.