Monday, April 1, 2019


This is the second of a multi-part series of stories regarding a research project covering original series Star Trek Tricorders and Phasers. 

Part 1 can be found HERE.

An overview of the project can be found HERE.

Throughout the three season run of the original Star Trek (TOS), the intrepid crew beamed into any number of circumstances holding that greatest of all scientific gizmos, the Tricorder. The device permitted the characters to analyze and report on the various conditions that they were facing. And as Mr. Spock gave the Captain his analysis of things on Cestus III ("Arena"), he was also telling us, the viewers, what was going on as well.

With the need of such a vital prop on a week-to-week basis, the Tricorder was one of the first props developed for the production. Gene Roddenberry called on special effects artist Wah Ming Chang to develop the Tricorder prop as well as the Communicators. Roddenberry gave Chang an overview of how the prop would be used and the overall functions that were required. Below is Wah's sketch with one of his finished props to the right. While the pieces are similar, the details changed a bit between concept and execution. Be sure to click on images to see larger versions.

According to a surviving copy of his invoice, Wah delivered two highly detailed Tricorder props to Roddenberry. Unfortunately, only one of the props has a surviving beauty shot (above). A lot of detective work had to be done to determine whether or not the second version was the same (it's not). The beauty shot gives us the single best shot of a Wah Tricorder, which I will refer to from this point on as the "Heroes". A Hero prop is one that is highly detailed and can be used for close-ups.

Let's see exactly what this great shot shows us.

The true nature of the materials used in the Heroes is known to us because one of the two survived and is in the possession of a well-known Star Trek prop maker and collector. His version has been screen-matched to TOS episodes so it is a conformed authentic piece. This is a very important fact and informs much of this story.

Anatomy of a Hero Tricorder
Unlike the Phasers (which were neither designed nor built by Wah Ming Chang), the Tricorders and Communicators were meant to be companion pieces with both using the same materials and design elements. Let's take a look at the two props side-by-side
Comm as seen in "Patterns of Force" (left) and Wah Chang's Tricorder archive photo (right)
It's a simple thing to see the commonalities:
  • Same black plastic
  • Same moire disk
  • Same control buttons
  • Same use of speaker material
Because there are surviving Communicator props as well as a Hero Tricorder, we know for certain that the same types of materials were used.
  • Body created with vacuum-formed Kydex plastic (a very common material in the sixties).
  • Aluminum frame and detail parts – lightweight and easy to mill and cut 
  • Transistor radio speaker material
  • Colored "lights" made from watch-winder crowns (they did NOT actually light up)
  • Silver "knobs" made from Aurora slot car hubs
Surviving Tricorder showing hood details (courtesy Greg Jein)
The view-screen on the Tricorder was simply a heat-slumped piece of clear plastic that was back-painted. The Tricorder also had a leather strap for easy carrying.

Not-so-identical Twins
We know that Wah delivered two Heroes, and this is clearly confirmed by analysis of scenes from early episodes. The above version is identified here as Hero #1 and is easily defined by its blue control buttons and moire disk. Hero #2 is identified by buttons of three different colors and a light diffusing disk (known as a "jewelarama" effect). The moire disk detail mirrors the same detail used on Communicaters, while the Jewelarama disk is a one time detail.

Here are the best shots of Hero #1 (H1):
Left is Wah's photo taken prior to delivery. Right is a shot from a PR photo shoot (colorized by
Here are the best shots we have of Hero #2 (H2):
For Hero #2, the image on the left is taken from the episode "Charlie X" while the one on the right is from "Balance of Terror". We can see that the three top buttons are not all blue but are three different colors (green, red and blue, we think) and we can clearly see the Jewelarama disk. The detail is soft because the prop is simply in the background of the frame and is blown up in size. In three seasons worth of episodes, these are the only times we get a full look at this specific Tricorder. It's worth noting that this level of detail, though not perfect by any means, is only available because of the sharpness of Blu-Ray. Before Blu-Ray these would have been a smudgy mess!

Along with the differing details already discussed, there were some other, more subtle differences between the two.

On the shots of Hero #1, above, take a close look at the area between the row of aluminum disks and the moire ring. In the first shot there is nothing there. But in the second shot, there is clearly some kind of detail that was added between the two shots. The first was taken before Wah Ming Chang delivered the props to Roddenberry, while the second shot was done midway through Season 1. Along with several other shots, that Tricorder was photographed for the book, "The Making of Star Trek". Here's two blown-up shots of that detail:
This particular aspect of this Tricorder was the source of a ton of discussion in our research group. It was a mystery due to the fact that the interior detail that was originally seen in the surviving Hero was now missing. More on that later. At no time was this detail ever seen on screen and we were never given any hint that it existed, let alone its function. The consensus that we arrived at was that this was probably a device used to eject the disk to its immediate left. Why? Two reasons.

First off, we can clearly see that the last disk on both Tricorders had more space between it and the rest of the disks in the row.
Note the gap between disks is consistent until the last piece.
We felt that what we were likely seeing was a single piece of aluminum with grooves lathed into it that ended before the last disk. We felt that the last disk was not attached to the rest of the row so that it could be removed by an actor. According to the original sketch made by Chang, it was apparent that these disks were meant to be inserted into/onto the moire disk in order to be "read".

The second reason that led to the "ejector" theory was the fact that John Dwyer, the set decorator on TOS, was attributed to speaking about this very detail. The magazine "Star Trek Communicator" (#155) contained the following quote in a story about the various props:

"Not only did Dwyer confirm that a number of tricorders had this feature, but it turns out the disks were a headache for prop master Irving Feinberger. The disks had a tendency to get lost. In the end, Feinberger just glued the disks in place on some of these tricorders."

Combine this quote with the wider gap and we felt is was likely that the last disk could be removed. So why would an ejector be added? We assume that the removable disk was originally pressure-fitted but without a way to specifically grab it. The ejector was probably just a simple "L'-shaped piece of metal that could be pulled out and bring the disk with it. But since it would have been difficult to see on screen, we think that it simply was never used as it was too small and too fussy. Bummer. Be aware that this is ONLY a theory, however, as the surviving Tricorder no longer has this feature so we simply cannot know for sure. But it's logical. (See what I did there?)

As for the H2 Jewelarama Tricorder, it had its own strange details. Since we never get a good look at its interior, we can't definitively say that it didn't have the ejector retrofitted like its twin. But we CAN say that it got a retrofit of its own – a mysterious black switch on the top crosspiece.

We get glimpses of that area during several early episodes so we can definitively say that it wasn't there at the beginning. It's in "Miri" that it can first be seen clearly. In that episode, Kirk does something that we had never before seen. While on the planet with McCoy and Spock, Kirk makes a log entry into a Tricorder like we had seen him do in prior episodes. But in this case, when he is finished, he reaches up to the crosspiece and seems to flick a switch! We even hear a sound effect for it.
Here we see Kirk flicking the switch.
Here's that area a few frames earlier. The black switch can just be discerned on the crosspiece.
Sure enough, if we blow up a frame from that scene we can actually see the switch on the crosspiece. It's more evident in later episodes like "Shore Leave" when Sulu obligingly leaves his Tricorder open and facing the camera:
Seen here in "Shore Leave" is the mysterious black switch.
The switch can be seen in a number of later episodes including "The Galileo Seven", "The Squire of Gothos" and "This Side Of Paradise" so this isn't a fluke. In "Bread and Circuses" Kirk once again makes a log entry, this time on the bridge. And, once again at its conclusion he reaches up and flicks the switch.

So what, exactly, did this switch actually do? As far as we can tell: nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if the actors asked for it so they had something to do and have a way to tell the audience that something (like a log entry) was beginning and/or ending. Other than the swiveling hoods and operable doors, this little switch is the only moving part on any Tricorder! For what it's worth, we seldom see anyone else use it other than Kirk. It's true function will likely never be known for certain.

Along with the switch, the Jewelarama had another distinctive trait, starting with "Charlie X". In that episode we can see a new addition to that specific Tricorder – a dent in the hood.


The dent can be seen in the rippling nature of the hood's shadow in "Charlie X"

The dent shows up in "Balance of Terror".
The dent can be seen clearly in "The Squire of Gothos" and many more episodes.
The dent becomes an additional way to identify the Jewelarama piece without actually needing to see the control panel or the interior.

Lastly, there's a small detail that changed early on for both Tricorders: the door handles.

The H1 Tricorder started life with thin handles that were inset into the doors:
The handles were originally thin and inset into the doors per this shot from "Miri".
The shot above probably demonstrates why these were changed. The thin style would have made them very difficult to grasp and and open the doors easily. I wouldn't be surprised if the actors complained about that detail which led to slightly larger "L"- shaped handles that were undoubtedly easier to grab. For some unknown reason, the H2 Tricorder had easier to grab handles.

By the time Season 2 started, the Heroes all had the same type of handles:
The new handles would have been easier to grab – as seen in "Metamorphosis".
The Old Switcharoo
There's one more issue to deal with regarding the Heroes and it's a bit confusing. That black switch that we mentioned earlier? Well... it moves from one Tricorder to the other. Kind of.

Say what? Here's the deal.

At the end of Season 1, the switch is still on the H2 Jewelarama (we can see it in "The City On The Edge Of Forever", the next-to-last episode of Season 1). But when we get to the beginning oif Season 2, the switch has vanished! In the second episode of the season, "Metamorphosis", we can clearly see that it is no longer present on the Jewelarama when McCoy uses it:
The red center jewel identifies this as the H2 Jewelarama but there's obviously no switch. It's also worth noting that the handles are now changed. So, no switch and new handles. What the...?

What about the H1 Moire Tricorder? It doesn't show up until the ninth episode of the season, "The Apple". But when it does, we get a surprise:

There's the switch, but now on the OTHER Tricorder! This is confirmed in several other appearances going forward. Also, this one has the new handles as well.

So between seasons, the handles were replaced and the switch switched props. We can assume the handles were about usability. But why move the switch?

Our theory is that between seasons the props were undobtedly cleaned up. This would have not only been logical but necessary. After a whole season of getting used and banged around, all of the regularly-used hand props – Phasers, Communicators and Tricorders – would have all been showing wear and tear. Surviving Phasers show multiple paint layers from just that kind of thing. Apparently the Tricorders were taken apart, their parts cleaned, the handles replaced, and then reassembled. But not everything got put back to where it had originally been. So from this time forward, the switch would be associated with the H1 Tricorder, the one with the moire disk.

Though that brings up yet another wrinkle. About that moire disk...

Vanishing Act
It's gone. After Season 1 we never ever see the insides of ANY Tricorder again. The Jewelarama disk? We never see it again. The moire? Same there. The row of disks? Vanished.

The obvious question, of course, is why go to all the trouble to create such a detailed interior and then never use it again? By Season 3, we can see that those details are not just hidden but that they are GONE – removed from the Tricorders altogether. Here is a shot of the H2 during Season 3's "That Which Survives". Notice that the guts have been totally replaced by all new stuff. This episode required a Tricorder to be set up with a "homing beacon", so the H2 was converted into what we call the "Geology Tricorder" because it was ostensibly used by geologist D'Amato.

With a little adjustment to the image we can see that the center gem on the control panel is definitely read which makes this the H2 Jewelarama without its original guts. What happened to them? Unfortunately, that's not a knowable thing. But since Spock went out of his way during Season 1 to show off the interior details, I think it likely that they were removed between Seasons 1 and 2 and never restored. Perhaps they were a little easier to lug around with a little less weight? Who knows? That's a mystery that's lost to history.

The above image also tells us a lot about the state of the Heroes in general by Season 3. Look at how the crossbar is not solidly attached. And what's with that big blob of – what, glue? – on the inside of the door. Overall this is looking a bit the worse for wear. For what it's worth, this prop is never seen again in any subsequent episodes. Where did it end up?

The Wrap-up
The two Heroes were the only Tricorders seen through the first 18 episodes of Season 1. The nineteenth episode, "Arena", had a story demand that had never come up before. It required that Tricorders be used in heavy action scenes including one being thrown by Spock, no less. The Heroes were too valuable to risk in these kinds of scenes, so three new Tricorders were introduced. These were made of fiberglass and were simplified in detail as well as being lighter in weight. They would never be shown in close-up as that was not their role. The Heroes would be saved for that need. At least for a while.

Throughout the first two seasons the two Heroes were the workhorses for most episodes. Hero #1 was usually used by Spock while Hero #2 was usually in McCoy's hands. Did the actors decide that one or the other was "theirs"? Did the prop master make that choice? We can't know but in 90% of the time when a Tricorder could be identified (and they can be identified a LOT!) H1 was Spock's and H2 was McCoy's. It's too regular to be coincidence in this writer's opinion.

But by the beginning of Season 3 this completely changed. The Heroes were effectively replaced by the new Leatherettes that were created for Season 3. Look for that story as well as the scoop on the Fiberglass versions.

So with all this information, we're still left with one great mystery: where is the second Hero?

Maybe it will pop up in someone's attic. You never know.



No comments:

Post a Comment