GE’s Very Own Iron Man?
Robert Downey Jr. is back on cinema screens with one of the summer’s Hollywood blockbusters, Iron Man 3; entertaining us with his portrayal of Tony Stark, the US billionaire-playboy-industrialist who turns superhero with the powered robotic suit of armor he develops. The movie has been a hit around the world, including in the CEE region. It was the biggest opening weekend in Hungary and Romania for a Marvel Comics movie; and in Poland it took over $4 million at the box office, just over $2 million each for the Czech Republic and Hungary, and over $44 million in Russia!
But an Iron Man of sorts existed before Marvel Comics gave life to Tony Stark and his company, Stark Industries, back in 1963. In 1958, the American Ralph Mosher working for GE developed the “Handyman” for the joint AEC-USAF Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program.
GE needed to develop a unique manipulator capable of aiding in experiments with an atomic aircraft engine. The manipulators might have been big, but they needed to work with delicate operations. Mosher, a mechanical engineer, was the man asked to provide the necessary hardware.
“I realized that after a certain point, improvements in mechanical dexterity added little to a manipulator’s performance,” said Mosher. “I began wondering why a human is so efficient and a slave robot so awkward. Soon it was obvious that the manipulator’s operator was missing what he ordinarily experiences, a sense of feel.”
That was, arguably, one of Mosher’s greatest contributions to the project – adding a sense of tactile feel. It enabled the Handyman’s manipulators to be sensitive enough to stack eggs, but strong enough to left heavy objects. At Handyman’s debut press conference, Mosher lifted and moved a hammer and also spun a hula hoop to illustrate the versitility of his creation.
Later, Mosher’s work led to him creating the ‘Hardiman’, mechanical arms that could be ‘worn’ by the user. Not as elegant as Tony Stark’s creation, and not sporting Iron Man’s hotrod red and gold colors, but still an impressive achievement from GE’s technical team – one grounded in real world use.
And who knows, perhaps Mosher’s work helped inspire the creators of the Iron Man comic books back in the 1960s. As Tony Stark told us in the first Iron Man film: “It’s not a piece of equipment, I’m in it – it’s a suit. It’s me!”