By most accounts, Rob Niosi is a relatively normal guy. He’s happily married to Sally Lee, the editor-in chief of Ladies’ Homes Journal; has two young daughters, Grace and Pearl; and was a highly regarded stop-motion animator with a career in film and television that spanned nearly three decades.
But one visit to Niosi’s home in Briarcliff Manor will convince even skeptics that he is, in fact, miles away from normal. At 60, he’s spent the last 11 years of his life meticulously recreating a full-scale replica of the time machine used in the eponymous sci-fi film starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux and based on the novel by H.G. Wells.
Niosi’s fascination with The Time Machine began on a brisk winter day in 1960 when his father, a butcher and part-time usher at the local movie theater, took him to see the new movie. While his father attended to his duties as an usher, Rob, along with his two brothers, sat captivated.
“It had everything—an overzealous scientist, the Warlocks, adventure, action, a moral, and science—and this beautiful gizmo, the Time Machine,” says Niosi. On the ride home, his father regaled his sons with the possibilities of time travel. “At the end of that week, my father handed me and my brothers our first watches—our first time machines.”
The image of the Time Machine stuck with him for the next 40 years, and, in 1999, just before Christmas, he decided to build a miniature scale model of the prop as a present to his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Hannah Grace Wells—named after H.G. Wells. After presenting the gift, which now hangs in the foyer of the family’s home, Niosi decided to “take things to the next level” and build a full-scale model.
“I had just got hooked up to the Internet and came to realize that I belonged to a club of men—mostly men, though there is one woman—of a certain age who have a particular connection to the film and the book, that have made attempts at making full-scale models,” Niosi explains.
With help from his fellow Time Machine enthusiasts—whom Niosi playfully refers to as “a bunch of kooks”—he was able to obtain original specifications and drawings from the film prototype, along with a single surviving example of the exact make and model barber’s chair used in the film.
“What I thought was going to be three months turned into something that evolved over time,” Niosi says, standing proudly next to his machine. “I started making it and I wasn’t satisfied. So I started to use noble materials; instead of using plastic painted to look like metal, I tried to use metal.”
In the years that followed, Niosi spent hours poring over instruction manuals and how-to books, learning how to handcraft each component of the machine. “It’s afforded me an education in all these different disciplines: turning metal on a lathe, turning stone, woodworking, upholstery—which turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. I actually ended up upholstering the chair three different times,” he says.
Today, Niosi’s time machine is about 80 percent complete, and he anticipates finishing the project within a year. His passion for the film along with his interest in time travel has attracted the attention of Jay Cheel, a Canadian documentary filmmaker, who interviewed Niosi for his upcoming feature-length film, How to Build a Time Machine.
To add a touch of personality to his creation, Niosi installed several secret compartments in the chair to house personal mementos, including the watch his father gave him in 1960. “I got to look at this project, not so much as I was building a replica of the time machine,” he says, holding the small silver watch in the palm of his hand.
“For me, it’s a sculpture.”