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Phlebotinum thought by its creators to work on scientific principles, at least according to their Techno Babble. Actually, it's powered by some supernatural or magical ability of the creator and cannot be duplicated. Also, if the creator dies, it stops working or malfunctions. Often, these gizmos can only be created by someone who possess The Spark of Genius.

Becoming an increasingly popular way to explain science-fiction style super-gizmos in Speculative Fiction settings. It's a good way to justify why Reed Richards Is Useless and there's No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup. These wondrous inventions cannot be mass-produced to improve mankind or make their creator a profit because they're not actual inventions so much as temporary manifestations of their subconscious superhuman abilities. Thus, application of them will usually boil down to either fighting crime or committing it. The setting maintains the status quo of the real-world's level of technology and the Gadgeteer Genius gets to keep all of their Phlebotinum to themselves and not risk becoming less unique because the Jones family can purchase his powers from Walmart.

A subtrope of Doing in the Scientist. Alchemy Is Magic may be considered a subtrope.

Related to Clap Your Hands If You Believe, Magitek and Placebotinum Effect. Related to and sometimes overlaps Magic Feather. The person who creates these devices possesses The Spark of Genius. Contrast with Clarke's Third Law, Magic from Technology and Doing In the Wizard.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Ah! My Goddess, most, if not all, of Skuld's inventions work because she subconsciously infused her goddess magic into them while building them.
  • Academy City, the setpiece for the A Certain Magical Index series, boasts a training curriculum that gives its students Psychic Powers through super-science ahead of its time. The dirty secret, however, is that the curriculum is actually an exercise in applied Thelemic magic, and that the General Superintendent who designed the curriculum (and who still runs the place) is none other than archmagus and Thelema founder Aleister Crowley. In a world where Academy City's "science" is constantly at odds with actual magicians, the implications of this secret are immense.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable: Tonio's Stand creates food that cures various illnesses, albeit with horrific temporary side-effects. He attributes the effects to the hard to find (but mundane) ingredients he makes the food from.

    Comic Books 
  • The Silver Samurai of Marvel Comics was introduced with a sword that can cut anything. Turns out he's a Mutant and that's his power; even a toy sword would work just as well for him.
  • Something similar was done at Marvel for the Molecule Man, who could originally control and rearrange molecules only with his wand. It was retconned that he is using his own power and just thought he was using the wand.
  • In Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool, it is eventually suggested that the "technalchemy" that the tool runs on is actually a form of magic.
  • Steampunk city Milton Keynes in Survival Geeks is initially portrayed as running on steam power. While steam is a significant part of the grid, Clive realises it's not enough to power the entire city, and observes that most of the pipes are just for show. He's right - the city is actually powered by Cthulhu.

    Films — Live Action 
  • Done in Daybreakers, though not to limit the effects or reproducibility of the Applied Phlebotinum. Everyone in the vampire world of the future refers to vampirism as a "virus" in their research papers and news reports. What kind of virus could possibly give people all the traditional supernatural vampire traits of undead immortality, needing human blood to survive, extreme vulnerability to sunlight, glowing eyes, no reflection in a mirror, and exploding in fiery chunks when staked but not when beheaded? None, really, but since their condition spreads like a virus and the remaining normal humans and their sympathizers are seeking a cure for it like a virus, a "virus" it is by their working definition.

  • The various futuristic technology and weaponry in The Reckoners Trilogy falls into this. Around the time Epics began showing up, humanity made incredible advances with technology, a lot of which should be near-impossible to make. David, not knowing much better, assumes that the technology is made through research into the processes through which Epics violate and ignore the laws of physics. It's later revealed that the "technology" just motivates dead cells from Epics to stimulate a similar effect to their powers. That's right, all but probably three or four bits of futuristic technology the heroes used were powered by dead people. This process can be done using the cells of a living Epic, but an Epic feels incredible pain whenever someone else uses their powers (which is also why twin Epics always kill each other), so they always track down all the devices and destroy them.
  • Discussed in the Land of Oz Series after Dorothy meets Tik-Tok, the clockwork automaton. Though the purely mechanical invention of two geniuses, Dorothy wonders aloud if he would remain operational outside of a Magical Land like Oz and in a "civilized" place like Kansas.
  • Snapshot: The novel takes place in the Reckoners universe in order to take advantage of this trope. Using a comatose Epic, the city can create a perfect snapshot of the city on any given day, which they use to investigate crimes. The author wrote it into the Reckoners universe because if they had more understanding of the technology, this would be the stupidest way to use it.
  • The "matrix technology" of the Darkover series. While matrix devices are not technically limited to one user, they nonetheless only work for telepaths (and often specially-trained ones at that), which prevents their widespread adoption by society overall. This might be a good thing, as the science has the capability to violate the normal laws of physics.
  • In Wild Cards, Jetman and several other Aces can invent wondrous machines that only work for them, because they're just an expression of their superhuman abilities. It's mentioned in one book that when researchers cracked open the choice device of a "tech Ace", they found only schematics and apple cores.
  • Aaron Allston's Galatea in 2-D has artists that are able to magically pull items out of their paintings into the real world, but they find that they're no more able to reverse-engineer a science fictional raygun than they are a fantastical magic wand. One artist mentions that trying to go a step removed doesn't work either - painting a super-genius to invent a real-world cure for cancer would result in him producing magical elixirs that were merely dressed up in the trappings of science.
  • Cranston in the Temps shared universe. He was responsible for cloning the Marcias, an experiment later found to be impossible from the word go:
    That was the trouble with Cranston, you see. He could get anything to work, but only from the pseudo-science end of things, his grasp of scientific reality was shaky to say the least. But what he did worked.
    Rarely — very rarely — his results were reproducable by the researchers who came after him. Mostly they just threw up their hands and asked to be transfered to another department.
    He died in an unfortunate accident — he was trying to split an atom. With a chisel. Terrible mess...
  • Skyward: One of the plot elements in the first book is that the humans of Detritus have lost the secret of faster-than-light travel and communication after their ship crashed there. It turns out that both things can only be done using cytonics, all the technological apparatus does is focus and augment the cytonic's gifts.
  • In Lisanne Norman's Sholan Alliance, it turns out that Vartra was using his own telepathic abilities (unwittingly) to mutate DNA, which was why only his experiments resulted in more powerful telepaths.
  • An unusually in-depth example in A.L. Phillip's The Quest of the Unaligned. The fire-magic of aeshes can be used not only to power devices designed to run on electricity but also to give devices far more power then mundane physics would provide, or even to do things that are physically impossible, like flying cars. Interestingly, it also cuts the other way, in that Magic Items can sometimes run on electricity. Word of God explanation.
  • Please Don't Tell My Parents I've Got Henchmen: One of the girls in Penny's class believes herself to be a Mad Scientist, but it turns out that she is actually controlling and powering her inventions with her own inherent ability. The adult mad scientists tell her that in many ways this power is actually more useful, since no one can steal her inventions or use them against her, and they'll grow more powerful as she does.
  • In Worm, the ability to create impossible technology is explicitly a superpower that can be granted by a trigger event, much like invincibility or energy blasts. Attempts to reverse-engineer Tinker technology fails (outside of one character whose power includes the ability to duplicate Tinker-tech) and only the original Tinker can properly maintain the equipment.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: In the episode "Where No One Has Gone Before" a scientist comes on the Enterprise to test an upgrade on its engines. It looks like the upgrades are working but actually they are (almost) useless. It turns out the scientist's assistant is actually a super-powerful being who was making the engines work better with his mind.
  • The Vampire Diaries: Johnathen Gilbert was a crazy inventor trying to build devices to let the town destroy the vampires in their midst. None of them worked, until the vampires' pet witch enchanted them to work as intended, assuming they were put together properly.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: It is suggested in the show's RPG that Warren's inventions (androids, mind control devices, etc.) only work because of the Hellmouth's power. Same for things like the chemical formula that turned the swim team into sea monsters, the bluebeard robot Ted, and the dead footballer revived by his brother as a Frankenstein.
  • In an episode of Eureka, a germophobic and anxiety ridden scientist causes an accident during a cellular regeneration experiment and is fired for it. He attempts to commit suicide but ends up regenerating, making him believe he finally succeeded. However, it turns out he didn't get the powers from his compound but the explosion from the accident breached the chamber containing an artifact pre-dating the Big Bang that gave him these powers.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons settings that bother to include any Magitek tend to play with this, one way or another.
    • In the Hollow World subsetting for Mystara, the people of Blackmoor believe their technology is for real, but it's actually magic and will stop working if removed from their native valley. Zigzagged in that it used to be real technology, but has been replaced by divinely powered magical equivalents (robots replaced with unique golems, for example). The Immortals, who preserved the Blackmoor culture from extinction, set it up this way partly so the people couldn't export their technology to any other preserved culture, which would defeat the entire purpose of the Hollow World as a giant unchanging museum for extinct races and cultures; but mostly because when Blackmoor's technological civilization was at its peak, it caused a global disaster sounding suspiciously like a nuclear war that almost destroyed Mystara, and the Immortals would like to avoid that happening again.
    • In Ravenloft, the Mad Scientists believe the golems that they craft are a product of science, but it's actually the Dark Powers that grant animation to these obsessives' creations. Likewise, while Victor Mordenheim is convinced he single-handedly created Adam, it's alleged that the gods of his native world are the ones who imbued the creature with true animation to spank Mordenheim for his hubris.
    • In the Dragonlance setting, the tinker gnomes are racially cursed to be insanely fixated on doing "science" experiments but incapable of doing science sensibly. As such, any gadgets or gizmos they produce that work often do so because they are inadvertently incorporating magical items. The race lives in strict denial of this truth, as they are firm advocates of the idea that science is superior to sorcery, despite their complete inability to prove it. In 3rd edition when the race gained the ability to take magic-using classes anyway, it was explained that gnomish mages are either trying to find a way to "prove" magic is a form of technology, seeking to find a way to reverse-engineer magic so that their technology can emulate it, or in strict denial of the fact that their "successful technology" is actually magical items and spells.
    • Since the primary gnomish race in Spelljammer consists of Krynnish tinker gnomes, naturally, this applies to "Gnomish Helms".
    Like most products from gnome ideas, they include a large number of bells and whistles and very little substance. Those that do work usually have a minor helm contained within, always hidden away so as to appear innocuous and unessential.
  • Warhammer 40,000
    • Many of the Orks' machines actually run on Clap Your Hands If You Believe, which only works because they think they're functioning technologically, not psychically. When no Orks are present, the machines stop working. Admittedly, this trait is heavily Depending on the Writer; some portray it in this fashion, others go for more of an "ork technology works fine on its own, but the psy-field corrects for any minor faults in the design" interpretation.
      • Oddly, some ork tech actually works better than the Imperial equivalent (such as teleportation) thanks to the meks inherently understanding the principles behind it, while enginseers operate rituals by rote and hope the machine spirits are willing to do their job (although again, it depends on the writer, some tech-priests actually do understand what it is they're doing).
    • Rather disturbingly, any long-range communication is this. Mostly they downplay the pseudoscience in that area, and make it perfectly plain that any technology involved in interstellar communications is at most an Amplifier Artifact for the Astropath working it.
    • Some of the feats pulled off by the Adeptus Mechanicus may be this, notably machine spirits. Are they the manifestation of the machine itself, actual A.I.s, the brains of large predatory animals hooked up to a vehicle's sensors? Who knows.
  • Due to the way the backstory in Mage: The Ascension is set up, all of the technology in the Old World of Darkness works like this, as "Reality Paradigms" basically run on the collective subconscious Consensus about how reality works. Also, before people began believing otherwise, the world really was flat and outer space didn't exist. Even now, deep outer space is really part of the Spirit World.
    • The major difference between the Technocracy (the primary antagonistic faction of Mage) and the Sons of Ether (a Steampunk/Dieselpunk-themed player faction) is that the former try to lie to themselves about this not being the case, insisting that what they use is "merely hyper-technology", whilst the latter accept that "science" and "magic" are really the same thing through different lenses. In fact, the Etherites originally began as one of the Technocracy's Conventions, but left it and joined the Council of Mystic Traditions after decisions amongst the higher-ups struck their particular branch of "science" (luminous ether) from the Technocracy's Paradigm — essentially, they complained that the Technocracy was "killing off all the cool science".
    • The same follows the newest Mystic Tradition, the Virtual Adepts, whose magic is Rewriting Reality through magic coding. Originally known as the Difference Engineers, they left the Technocracy after they killed off one of their own (Alan Turing). On the other hand, their style of "hacking reality" is the most like the Technocracy (in terms of structure according to some sources) though they are still Rewriting Reality in a way that defies the Technocracy's idea of conventional science.
    • Of course it's technically also true in this setting that magic is also Clarke's Third Law superscience. Mage is... complicated.
  • The bread and butter New World of Darkness fangame, Genius: The Transgression. All of a Genius' Wonders are based on some false theory that their Mania makes work, and on a larger scale there are entire nations of Manes, who are like natural Wonders that come into being when they're disproven (so yes, there is absolutely a Martian Empire out there, and has been ever since we sent probes to Mars and determined it was lifeless). Because of this, normal mortals coming into contact with Wonders or Manes tends to result in disaster as reality glances sharply in your direction and demands to know just what you think you're doing. There's one Genius faction that plays this up by explicitly describing their Wonders as Geometric Magic, and one of the main mantras of the Peerage is that no, you're not a revolutionary scientist, you're just a madman like the rest of us. The moment a Genius starts thinking that their Wonders are real science is when you know they've really lost it, and is often enough the first step towards the deep end of the Karma Meter.
  • In City of Mist, a Rift with technology-themed powers will often play like this. Notable example is Maximilian Drake, a skeptical scientist and Rift of Hephaestus whose hatred of the inexplicable magic of the City makes him deny the full extent of his powers, constantly telling himself and anyone who cares to listen that his impossible inventions are based on plain old science.
  • All hypertechnological devices in traditional roleplaying game Godlike are really focuses for the Talent powers and are useless without those.
  • John M. Ford's Paranoia adventure "Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues". R&D scientist Willis-G-EEP-4's inventions work well on the test bench, but fail when used in the field when he isn't around. That's because their success depends on his mutant powers of Minor Telekinesis and Luck. Of course, the fact that they work at all makes them significantly more reliable than most of the equipment Troubleshooters end up with.
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG rules that the 'superscience' found in the show (such as the Buffybot, the Trio's invisibility ray, Adam, Ted and so on) works like this and that people like Warren are essentially unwitting magical savants.
  • Dr. Stratos' Weather-Control Machine in Mutants & Masterminds. When he finds this out, he jumps from Magic Feather to A God Am I.
  • Many of the devices built by the Mega-Intelligent Novas of Aberrant operate at least partly on the inventor's subconscious manipulation of Quantum. Many can be reproduced and continue to operate without attention from their creators, but they all eventually fail spectacularly.
  • Deadlands subverts this. Mad Scientists run this in a complete Steampunk trifecta with Science-Related Memetic Disorder and The Spark of Genius: it's implied repeatedly that at least some of their gizmos wouldn't work it at all were it not for manitou contributing supernatural energy to power them. Thing is, though, that all their inventions are actually real technologies, just ones invented far in the future; the manitous just whisper the core idea of the design, and the mad scientist uses magic to reverse-engineer it despite it being hundreds of years early. Two hundred years later junkers weaponize this, and simply force the manitous to generate energy After the End..
  • The Ordo Dracul in Vampire: The Requiem uses various flavours of this to develop their Coils of the Dragon, which let them mitigate their vampiric weaknesses. One Ordo member might be a scalpel-happy Mad Doctor, another might be a neo-Freudian, and yet another might be a sociologist-slash-Serial Killer — the particulars don't matter as long as the discipline lets them channel their obsessive search for transcendence.
  • Invoked in the Gaslamp Fantasy roleplaying game Castle Falkenstein; the sourcebooks constantly make subtle implications, if not suggest outright, that the Steampunk technology seen in this world is merely its own form of magic, with the precise alignment of the various cogs, widgets and gizzards standing in for the arcane sigils and runes used to invoke normal sorcery.
  • Princess: The Hopeful: One of the first powers a Princess gains from joining the Embassy to Machines is an innate sense for the proper workings and maintainance of machinery, allowing her to use, repair, or build any machine regardless of whether she's ever seen something like it before. One side effect of this is that she can instantly identify any machine that runs on something other than the laws of physics, the blind spot in her instinctive understanding is like a neon sign to her senses.
  • The Kharadron Overlords of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar are a race of Steampunk-themed dwarven Sky Pirates whose "technology" is actually Magitek that is powered and made functional by drawing upon the Wind of Metal, one of the eight elemental forces that make up magic and, by extension, the multiverse. Hilariously, they still possess the typical dwarven aversion to magic and insist that what they do is "science".

    Video Games 
  • City of Heroes / City of Villains
    • The clockwork creations of archvillain "The Clockwork King" are actually powered and controlled by the King's unconscious psychic abilities.
    • Also, the "electric power plant" providing cheap and plentiful energy to one of the villainous cities is actually getting all its power from a bound demon.
  • Mecha-Hisui in Melty Blood is a Heavily-Armed Robot Maid. She was created by Kohaku, under the influence of the Tatari. Regardless, it is extremely unlikely this is the traditional robotics. Should one play as Mecha-Hisui against a certain mage end-boss, she refers to her as a "Magic Doll".
  • This is the most likely explanation for the Collapse in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, the sequel to The Longest Journey. After the end of the first game, most advanced technology, such as anti-gravity and FTL travel, failed in Stark, forcing people to go back to older, more reliable, technology. Since this is when the new Guardian took control of the Balance that directs the flows of magic and science, it can be assumed that this advanced technology was, in fact, unknowingly powered by magic. The unusually high number of crashes involving anti-gravity in The Longest Journey also seems to confirm this possibility, as magic is inherently chaotic. When the magic disappeared from Stark, technology now had to deal with pure science.
  • The Eternal Alchemy of the asura in Guild Wars 2 is somewhere between this and more conventional Magitek. Some of their fantastical devices can be and are reproduced on a large scale, but others call into question where the science ends and the magic begins. Then again, knowing the asura, they'd ask why they have to be mutually exclusive.
  • The backstory for Knights of the Old Republic explains that this is how the ancient Rakata empire functioned, their advanced machines and starships were powered by the Force abilities of the Rakata people. When the Rakata species became deafened to The Force (which coincided with deadly plague and a slave rebellion), their empire collapsed.
  • The city-state of Laurentia in the Nexus Clash universe was a technologically advanced society that led its world in bionics. When the world ended and Laurentia became the supernatural battlefield of the Nexus, most of the human expertise needed to keep Laurentian bionics going by mortal means were wiped out, but plenty of bionics are still in action as a Magitek "focus" for Nexus magical powers.
  • Everything in the Dragon Age universe draws power from two magical sources: the Fade and lyrium. Since Dwarves are cut off from the Fade, Dwarven technology tends to be built entirely on lyrium. Ancient Arlathan technology may have been powered by both.


  • El Goonish Shive:
    • Tedd invented a Magitek glove to allow him to create magical watches that contain spells, making them basically small and compact Magic Wands. He is later informed that the glove is mostly ornamental—while the glove allows him to store data and create wands with more precision than would normally be possible, he's doing the vast majority of the heavy lifting himself, and the glove won't work for anyone else. He's very disappointed, since he was proud of his invention.
      Tedd: I should have known something was wrong when it worked on the first try.
    • It's several years into the strip's run before we learn that all Uryoum gadgets, including the famous Transformation Gun, are actually powered by magic, which explains a lot about how the TF-Gun works in general, and how its effects interact with "regular" magic such as the Dewitchery Diamond.

    Web Original 
  • In the Whateley Universe, mutants with this as their power are known as devisors. Depending on the skill of the devisor, their creations (called 'devises') tend to be rather unreliable when used by people other than the creator.
    • Dr Macabre, a non-mutant Mad Scientist who has killed over 500 victims in his quest to unlock the secret of the classic supernatural monsters For Science!, eventually learns that his 'technology' is actually powered by a spirit that has been possessing him for decades.
  • The majority of Linkara's "Arsenal of Freedom" in Atop the Fourth Wall is actually literal toys he's enchanted with magic. This includes many things that are technological in the series they are based on, such as Pokeballs, Tricorders, and sonic screwdrivers. This does not however include any of the robots or AI Linkara has worked on, as Nimue, Pollo, and Holokara remained functional when he lost his ability to use magic.
  • SCP Foundation: In the tale No Joke, Mad Scientist Doctor Joseph Greenburg turns out to have been making/using this, as it's deduced after the mission that he was just a Type Green making up all of his "science."

    Western Animation 
  • The Venture Bros.: The Joy Can presents whoever goes in it with their greatest fantasy. There is a debate between Dr. Venture and Dr. Orpheus about whether it is magic or science, but ultimately Venture reveals that while he built it scientifically, it's Powered by a Forsaken Child, pretty much pushing it into this category.
  • Downplayed by Phineas and Ferb, wherein the title duo have canonically supernatural luck, such that they can build improbable, but not quite impossible per their universe's rules, technology.

    Real Life 
  • Claimed by one of Bill O'Neil's backers with the SPIRICOM, to justify why it only worked for him.
  • The field of parapsychology known as Psychotronics is based around developing electronic devices that help psychics use their powers more effectively. Early on, it was discovered that if you left out the electronics and just included a picture of the circuit board, the devices worked just as well! In retrospect, that should have been a tip-off.
  • This is the premise of the occult tradition called Chaos Magick. The idea behind it is that mysticism works only because the individual practitioner believes in it, and thus anything, from a traditional encounter with a demon to masturbation, given the correct amount of focus and a clear goal it's supposed to accomplish, can achieve a supernaturally-influenced outcome.