The Suffix That Tells the Story of Modern Science
October 24, 2017 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Why did words that end in “tron” once sound so futuristic? By David Munns at The Atlantic. Defeated it might be, but like victory, tron has many fathers.
posted by blue_beetle (66 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Greetings programs!!!!
posted by theartandsound at 12:06 PM on October 24 [7 favorites]


I come from a boring town in New Zealand called Hamilton.

Hamilton, like many small towns, experimented with slogans. The Fountain City. Hamilton, Where It's Happening. ("It" was never clarified).

At some point in the 90s, they settled on Hamilton, City of The Future. And magically, the young people started calling it Hamiltron. And eventually, just "the Tron". Where are you from? We live in the Tron.

I'm proud to be born and bred in the cynical retro-future.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:08 PM on October 24 [54 favorites]


My first thought was of the Gravitron* - and there it is.

* Specifically the one at Funland on the Rehoboth, DE boardwalk. It seemed like a 70s artifact even in the 1980s. It's still there, broadcasting "tron" to new generations.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:15 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


I have very recently visited the FOREVERTRON and this is relevant to my interests.
posted by jessamyn at 12:18 PM on October 24 [6 favorites]


I really don't follow the author's point. The word -tron to me conjures physics and engineering, not biology. The suffix -tron, despite the author's insistence, comes from the word electron, at least according to both Merriam-Webster and Random House. Random House even gives a mention of the "tool" theory, and says it is a interesting coincidence: "by initial shortening of electron, with perhaps accidental allusion to the Gk instrumental suffix -tron, as in árotron plough". While I am open to considering alternative theories, there needs to be more proof about -tron in contemporary usage coming from the Greek, rather than a odd, copyrighted name for the vacuum tube.
posted by Hactar at 12:25 PM on October 24 [8 favorites]


but like victory, tron has many fathers.

Imagine if they made a science fiction sequel to Escape to Victory, with a robot Pele and a robot Stallone, called Escape to Victron. Exciting and futuristic.
posted by biffa at 12:29 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


In a few years, the embodied symbol of the i-prefix will have the same fate. But for now, we can relish how the iSnack 2.0 marks how modern, sophisticated, and digital our snack foods have become.
posted by anem0ne at 12:31 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


by initial shortening of electron

Which comes from "electric ion," so maybe not derived from earlier meanings of "tron"? (It's possible resonances with other -tron words made "electron" seem like a good contraction for "electric ion.")
posted by straight at 12:31 PM on October 24


Tronc
posted by Kabanos at 12:33 PM on October 24 [10 favorites]


I'm so happy to be commenting here on MetaFilTron.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:35 PM on October 24 [5 favorites]


There is a company based in Quebec that provides mobile phone service, internet access, cable TV and the like called Videotron. Videotron. I understand it is the largest telecommunications company in Quebec.

It has stuck with the name since its establishment in 1964 as "Télécâble Vidéotron Ltée". Many, many organizations have changed their names and branding over the years; I do not know why they are doggedly clinging to something that probably already sounded dated when showing programs "in living colour" was a snazzy new thing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:35 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


In a few years, the embodied symbol of the i-prefix will have the same fate.

As has befallen "cyber-" anything.
posted by briank at 12:39 PM on October 24


by initial shortening of electron

Which comes from "electric ion," so maybe not derived from earlier meanings of "tron"? (It's possible resonances with other -tron words made "electron" seem like a good contraction for "electric ion.")



That's an interesting modern etymology for electron, since the ancient Greeks used a word ἤλεκτρον ("elektron") meaning amber. Which, they knew, when rubbed against wool would give rise to electricity.

I wonder if the modern etymology of electron from "electric + ion" is a type of folk- or back-etymology, when the original concept for the term electron actually hearkens back to the Greek word.

In any event, the term elektron has been around a lot longer than the beginning of the 20th Century...
posted by darkstar at 12:43 PM on October 24 [11 favorites]


"once"? ALWAYS.
posted by symbioid at 12:44 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


DOT Jr. is affectionately known in our home as "Monkeytron."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:46 PM on October 24


Integratron. Confusitron.
posted by anazgnos at 12:50 PM on October 24


"As has befallen "cyber-" anything."

Though it must be said that it has definitely made a strong come back in 2017 as "the cyber".
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:51 PM on October 24


As has befallen "cyber-" anything.

Try telling that to the computer security industrial complex.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:51 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


This is further confused by "tron" meaning Trace On, which is the origin of the title of the movie Tron.

The late 60s and 70s had a similar issue with the use of the word "holo" in everything.

In biotech you used to (still do) see a lot of "gen" names like Gentech, and a quick google search reveals that this has readily bled over into non-biotech company names.
posted by loquacious at 12:52 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


As has befallen "cyber-" anything.

After the disappointing box office for the last Transformers movie, I bet times are pretty tough on Cybertron.
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:55 PM on October 24 [9 favorites]


If it's big and made of metal that's painted/enameled gray or green, how can it NOT end in tron?
posted by ikea_femme at 12:56 PM on October 24 [3 favorites]


That's an interesting modern etymology for electron, since the ancient Greeks used a word ἤλεκτρον ("elektron") meaning amber. Which, they knew, when rubbed against wool would give rise to electricity.

I wonder if the modern etymology of electron from "electric + ion" is a type of folk- or back-etymology, when the original concept for the term electron actually hearkens back to the Greek word.

In any event, the term elektron has been around a lot longer than the beginning of the 20th Century...


Well, Stoney initially called the particle an "electrolion." It's possible he switched it to "electron" because of the Greek word (which is the original source of "electricity"), but it seems pretty clear that coining a word from "electric (or electrical) ion" was his original intent.
posted by straight at 12:57 PM on October 24 [5 favorites]


Ik zal een burrito opwarmen in de magnetron.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:00 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


I have very recently visited the FOREVERTRON and this is relevant to my interests.

Now I have to know where the heck the sculptor obtained that many survey markers, and I'm really hoping they didn't dig them out of the ground. As far as I know you're not even supposed to be able to have those as they're generally supposed to be destroyed or melted down if they're pulled to prevent shenanigans with re-use.
posted by loquacious at 1:02 PM on October 24


If it's big and made of metal that's painted/enameled gray or green, how can it NOT end in tron?

It's hard to tell from the photo, but the Gravitron - at least the one I know - is actually covered in a faux chrome flake paint like a 1960s hot rod. A more midcentury object you'd be hard-pressed to find.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:03 PM on October 24


Well, Stoney initially called the particle an "electrolion." It's possible he switched it to "electron" because of the Greek word (which is the original source of "electricity"), but it seems pretty clear that coining a word from "electric (or electrical) ion" was his original intent.


Yeah, that's what I was getting at, but didn't express very clearly...that although the etymology was a modern one, that it may have been modified in usage because of the historical term elektron that was probably in many educated minds at the time.

By way of weak illustration: I had a cat once I (ostentatiously) named Osiris. But after repeatedly, accidentally calling him Otis, I just decided that was his official name. But I probably wouldn't have done that had Otis not already been a name I was familiar with.

Then there was one of my roommates who had cats officially named Allegro and Minuet, but who were known by all and sundry as Ardra and Feklar.

Wait, what were we talking about, again?
posted by darkstar at 1:06 PM on October 24 [6 favorites]


Well, Stoney initially called the particle an "electrolion."

How bad-ass is that? I'M AN ELECTRO-LION *ROAR*

But electron does trip off the tongue more easily.
posted by GuyZero at 1:08 PM on October 24 [10 favorites]


GuyZero, electro-lion reminds me of the "Electro Woman and Dyna Girl" live action show back in the 70s.

Which - wait, before you run me out of this establishment - I maintain is relevant because the prefix "Dyna-" is another one of those mid-century tech signifiers that was used a lot.
posted by darkstar at 1:12 PM on October 24 [5 favorites]


I always thought of it as an elec-trolion.

ELECTROLOLOLOLOLOLOLION

(Clearly the "futuristic" sense of -tron comes from the nonsense syllables that the Soviets used to replace the too-American cowboy lyrics in the original version of the "Trololo" song.)
posted by straight at 1:15 PM on October 24


My favorite -tron?
The Mercitron , which along with the Thantron provides a 50% -tron ratio to the most famous products in the suicide machine product line.

Was also a good song title
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:15 PM on October 24


MetaFilTron

Then there's Metatron, who I always manage to confuse with Megatron or some other -tron for the first ten seconds.
posted by finka at 1:16 PM on October 24 [6 favorites]


When I first read a reference to Metatron, my reaction was WHO IS TRYING TO RETCON THIS RIDICULOUS CYBERDREIDELPUNK JARGON INTO MY HEBREW MYTHOLOGY AND WHY? I was certain "the archangel Metatron" had to be some sort of anime nonsense.

(And yes of course I said it in all caps; at least I added some vowels so you could read it better.)
posted by straight at 1:24 PM on October 24 [8 favorites]


The late 60s and 70s had a similar issue with the use of the word "holo" in everything.

In biotech you used to (still do) see a lot of "gen" names like Gentech, and a quick google search reveals that this has readily bled over into non-biotech company names.


As has befallen "cyber-" anything.

Try telling that to the computer security industrial complex.


My new biotech security startup CyberGen HoloTron is a surefire winner.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:24 PM on October 24 [7 favorites]


As has befallen "cyber-" anything.

Unfortunately "Cyber" will never, ever die now that the US military has adopted it as the official military term for anything involving computer networks.
The two swords on the shield represent the dual nature of the command to defend the nation and, if necessary, engage our enemies in the cyber domain. The lightning bolt symbolizes the speed of operations in cyber, and the key illustrates the command's role to secure our nation's cyber domain.
posted by straight at 1:29 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


I was certain "the archangel Metatron" had to be some sort of anime nonsense.

It sort of is, if you count Japanese RPGs as being anime-adjacent. And speaking of anime nonsense:

How bad-ass is that? I'M AN ELECTRO-LION *ROAR*

Electro-Lion? Don't you mean Volt-Tron?
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:37 PM on October 24 [4 favorites]


AnalTech is one of these old school mid century tech companies. Their business is the technology required for laboratory analysis.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:38 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


AnalTech is one of these old school mid century tech companies. Their business is the technology required for laboratory analysis.

I've heard that AnalTech's retention strategies are the best in the industry.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:47 PM on October 24 [10 favorites]


Yes, they've really impacted the field.
posted by nickmark at 1:51 PM on October 24 [12 favorites]


I briefly considered replying to this using my brand new penciltron-4000 and my papertron-2K and sending it to cortex directly using USPStron-2020. But i filled out the envelopeatron-2 in binary and the mailer daemon (my wife calls him Mailman Steve) said he couldnt deliver it because the format wasnt supported yet. I'm living in the future!
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:51 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


I really like -dyne which seems to be from roughly 100 years before -tron but is still around in companies and devices that have survived since then. I don't read the tron, matic, cyber, stat, dyne names as dated in a bad way, but I already see iAnything and cute misspellings like Lyft, Flickr, Tumblr as tired naming trends.

I need to get a patent on the Hyper-Astro-Cyber-Tron Stat-o-matic. I'm going to incorporate 'GeneDyne Heavy Industries Consolidated Holdings, Inc. 2000' to do so.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 1:51 PM on October 24 [3 favorites]


But I was assured at ThimbleCon '87 that the vacuum tube technology behind the FaceTron 3000, FingerTron 3000, HotelTron 3000, BloodTron 3000, and ArrestTron 3000 was the future!
posted by palindromic at 1:54 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


Does this also apply to ladies? Ladytron...sure it does!
posted by NoMich at 2:00 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


I predict astro- is about to make a comeback!
posted by TedW at 2:02 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


DOT Jr. is affectionately known in our home as "Monkeytron."

Elizabeth the Cat, who had particularly large, round, googly eyes, went by the nickname "GoogleTron 2000."

(And now I've got the Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl theme stuck in my head.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:18 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


went by the nickname "GoogleTron 2000.

We might need a follow-up article about how, when, and why the suffix -2000 stopped signifying the future.
posted by straight at 2:30 PM on October 24 [4 favorites]


Well, there's me. (self-linky)
I got the url hexatron.com about one second after I found hexagon.com was already taken ( in 1997).

I had made a few hexagon-based games & cellular automata.

I can't be the only -tron on MF. Can we have a list?
posted by hexatron at 2:42 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


Now I have to know where the heck the sculptor obtained that many survey markers,

I was wondering the same thing entirely!! Will let you know if I find out.
posted by jessamyn at 4:38 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


> while the sadder cases played with their Radio Shack Armatrons

Hey now, you take that back!

If you ever took one of those things apart, you found out it was a mechanical engineering marvel. It had 5 powered joints plus the gripper, controlled with two joysticks, each of which could also be twisted left or right. And how many motors in this thing? Just one, that ran all the time. The mechanisms were entirely mechanical.
posted by smcameron at 4:57 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]




If you ever took one of those things apart, you found out it

Was nigh impossible to put back together for a 10 year old, even a clever one.

I was tired of the weak strength and lack of smoothness and I remember taking mine apart because I wanted to try to upgrade the motors and stuff, and I still remember the intense dismay and disappointment I felt when I realized that it was just one motor and all gears and no wonder the thing lurched around like an old drunk with a case of barstool palsy with all that sloppy gear lash.

I did get it back together but it was never worked the same, not unlike taking apart a Rubix cube, and it lost most of its charm after that. Yeah, I didn't really appreciate how clever that geared system was, but the disappointment of learning that all those plastic bits on the arm weren't motor housings at all, and that the silly plastic tubes and everything else was essentially just cosmetic.

I had a lot of really intense feelings about robots at the time.
posted by loquacious at 5:12 PM on October 24 [3 favorites]


Also, I'll take the Mellotron link since it hasn't been mentioned yet.
posted by loquacious at 5:23 PM on October 24 [2 favorites]


I found a video that shows the innards of the Armatron.

Aaaaaargh *phear*
posted by loquacious at 5:27 PM on October 24


Came in here to mention the 80s practice (which seems to have died out) of calling members of a restaurant's waitstaff by the unisex moniker "wait-tron". What was that all about, anyway?

We might need a follow-up article about how, when, and why the suffix -2000 stopped signifying the future.

Well, the when part is pretty easy to determine.
posted by Rash at 8:35 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


I'll just say that there's something called the Omnitron iConverter that you can buy, and there exists a company called Itron that does the cyber.
posted by PandaMomentum at 8:57 PM on October 24


Why is this article described as being in The Atlantic magazine, and tagged with "TheAtlantic", when the link takes me to AEON magazine? Is AEON a part of The Atlantic?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:29 PM on October 24 [1 favorite]


Speaking of the military and loving the term "cyber", I was just asking for a CyberFeds account yesterday. It costs money, so I'm sure someone is going to ask me why I want that. "Well, obviously, I'm a fed, and I want to... never mind."
posted by ctmf at 9:49 PM on October 24


Then there's the least memetically successful high-tech suffix of all. Pylon and nylon begat the Skylon; and... that's it.
posted by Segundus at 5:19 AM on October 25




Another late and unlamented ’tron is the Selectron, RCA's over-promised and under-delivered thermionic valve memory.
posted by scruss at 7:07 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


I'm into Eurorack modular synthesizers, and had a module called Synchrodyne for a few months. I love the name and the imagery it conjures up. Like some sort of orbital super-weapon or an early brand of microwave oven.

At the Missouri Botanical Gardens (aka MOBOT) in St. Louis, there's a butterfly house named the Climatron. It's mandatory to exclaim "CLIME-A-TRON!" in your best Dalek/Cylon voice as you walk by.
posted by Foosnark at 7:51 AM on October 25


Ctrl-F "cyberdyne"

No results on this page.

Hmmm...
posted by darkstar at 7:52 AM on October 25 [1 favorite]


Cyberdynatron. Not to be confused with the Cyberdymatron, who runs a retro-futuristic orphanage.
posted by clawsoon at 7:57 AM on October 25 [3 favorites]


At the Easter Show (Sydney version of a county fair) I sent the kids on the Gravitron.
I was delighted to spy the tiny commemorative plaque recording the ride had been opened by Greg Evans and Debbie Newsome from TV's Perfect Match game show in the 1980s.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_Match_(Australian_game_show)

It seemed incredibly apt, though a little concerning as I pondered how many times that 30 year old ride had spun.
posted by bystander at 3:12 AM on October 26 [1 favorite]


I spent a few years working in the Phytotron at Duke. I had no idea of the history of phytotrons, and mostly just thought it was a funny name for a building that was in really bad shape but still managed to host cool science.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:36 PM on October 26


After what seems like forever, but must have been at least ten years, I have been calling the nude body scanners at the airport "the Porn-O-Tron," and have actually heard a few people I don't know use the term. Hopefully by putting it out here I can whip up some more support. After all, it seems it's historically relevant.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:35 PM on October 27 [1 favorite]


Pylon and nylon begat the Skylon; and... that's it.

Tell that to the Trylon, symbol of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.

And in the 80s there was a restaurant called the Sushitron in downtown LA. Supposedly it had touch-screen monitors embedded in the bar you ordered with. I looked in the window once, but it wasn't open on weekends, so I never ate there.
posted by Rash at 9:18 PM on October 27 [1 favorite]


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