Way back in time, in the mid 1950s, 10-year-old Ron Mallett was growing up in the Bronx when he happened upon a comic-book that had a curious contraption on the cover. A man in a dark suit, smoking a pipe, sat at its centre, apparently busy with the finer details of its construction. The machine’s frame was two large hoops, connected in such a way that they made a hollow sphere, and inside that there was a seat with wires, vents and tubes coming out of it.
The book was called The Time Machine by HG Wells. Lifting it from the shelf, Ron read the first sentence: “Scientific people know very well that time is only a kind of space. We can move forward and backward in time just as we can move forward and backward in space.”
He could hardly believe what he was reading. “It was the most incredible feeling in my life, at that time,” he says. “It was like a thunderbolt. Is this true? Is it possible? It said ‘scientific people’ so that meant it must be serious.”
Back in his basement Ron began constructing his own time machine in secret. “I kept it to myself because I didn’t want to be discouraged.” Using the pictures in the comic as a guide, he used old bicycle tyres and pieces of electronics left over from his father’s television repair business.
“It was very, very crude,” he says. “And of course, nothing happened.” Ron was disappointed not to find himself travelling back in time. “I wasn’t discouraged,” he says. “I knew I was going to have to learn about science.”
And that’s just what Ron did. Today, aged 71, Professor Ron Mallett is a theoretical physicist at the University of Connecticut and the originator of a theory of time travel that some believe might represent humanity’s best chance yet of breaking the bounds of now.
The film rights to Ron’s life have been bought by Spike Lee, but right now his incredible story is told in Canadian director Jay Cheel’s feature length documentary film How to Build a Time Machine. Beautiful, meditative and memorable, the film focusses on Mallet and another time machine obsessive, Rob Niosi, whose project of recreating the prop from George Pal’s famous adaptation of the HG Wells tale was supposed to have taken him around three months to complete, but has now passed the 12 year mark.
What pushes these narratives into a realm beyond stultifying nerdery is Cheel’s thoughtful exploration of the reasons behind both Niosi and Mallet’s projects: reconnection with fathers. For the model maker, the obsessive drive seems to come from a memory of a perfect day with his father at the cinema, watching the 1960 motion picture, after which he fascinated him with talk of real time travel and then, a few days later, gifted him a beautiful watch, “my first time machine.”
But Ron’s story is both odder and sadder that Niosi’s. It begins about a year before he happened upon the comic that would alter the course of his life.
‘The sun rose and set on him: he was literally the centre of my universe’
It was sometime in the early hours of May 22nd 1955 that Ron woke to the sound of his mother’s sobs. “I was in my bedroom and I went out and she was in the kitchen,” he says. “You’d have thought I would’ve gone to see her but, for some reason, I didn’t. I went to the other bedroom. I saw my father lying on the bed. He was in his pyjamas, under the covers. He didn’t move at all. It wasn’t really clear to me what was wrong.”
As Ron tried to puzzle out what was going on, a police officer appeared. “He took me into the kitchen where my mother explained to me that my father was dead. I just couldn’t process it. It didn’t make any sense.”
The days passed as if in a trance, only to break the moment he saw his father’s coffin being lowered into the earth. “It was like waking up from something beautiful into a cold new reality. I was inconsolable. I just didn’t care whether I lived or died.”
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