Who—or What—Is Iron Man Really?

Iron Man as an invention represents the ultimate in human creativity.

Posted May 03, 2013

Iron Man first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 from March 1963. As with so much of the Marvel universe, this story was the brainchild of creative genius and writer Stan Lee with synthetic contributions from scripter Larry Lieber, and artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby.

 Just to make sure readers could not fail to note how powerful Iron Man was supposed to be, the cover of Tales of Suspense #39 says “Who, or what, is the newest, most breath-taking, most sensational super-hero of all…? Iron Man! He lives! He walks! He conquers!”

 What is the Iron Man suit of armor when you get right down to it? It’s an invention—a device that flies, protects, and amplifies your strength. Unlike the Marvel Universe, the truth is we don’t have an Iron Man suit of armor in our actual real universe right now. But how could we get there and who might help us?

 The skills needed to invent and produce Iron Man require someone with a pretty fantastic mix of creative thinking, an unflagging will to succeed and pursue success at all costs, a knowledge of electrical and mechanical engineering, and a deep appreciation of neuroscience and kinesiology.  (*and a ridiculous sum of money to support this as a hobby).

 An interesting quirk about Tony Stark isn’t just an inventor who creates a fancy device. He is also the end-user. An end user trying to build an automated suit of armor that amplifies, protects, and flies! Which begs the question—who are the modern-day inventors and pioneers of technologies that could bring Iron Man to life?

 Trial and error testing is a common component of research and development. (You can read my Top 10 R&D moments for Iron Man here.) Thomas Edison (1847-1931), famous inventor of so much is said to have commented “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” This speaks to determination and commitment.

 This process also means danger if the inventor risks being part of the error. And, if the eventual application of the Iron Man exoskeleton is a neuroprosthetic that links directly to your nervous system or allows you to make very large powerful movements—even flying—errors could be fatal.

 Here are 3 pioneers who have not only developed fantastic technology that would be needed for Iron Man—they also used what they created. Presenting: Yoshiyuki Sankai—creator of the HAL robotic exoskeleton; Phil Nuytten—diving pioneer and inventor of the Newtsuit; and Yves Rossy—inventor and pilot of the jetpack fixed wing.

 Taking Flight With Yves “The Jet-Man” Rossy

 Yves Rossy was born August 27, 1958, in Neufchâtel, Switzerland. He remember that his dream was always to fly like a bird. He initially trained as an engineer and then qualified as a fighter pilot in the Swiss military where he piloted fighter jets and later commercial jets.

 But he still felt the itch to fly like a bird. His goal was to be able to fly—covering horizontal distance with no drop. In 2003 with his carbon-fiber-based fixed wing design Yves covered 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) of horizontal distance while falling only 3 kilometers (1.9 miles).

 So of course he then added a pair of kerosene-fueled jet engines in June of 2004 made a historic flight going horizontally (about 15 meters above the ground) at almost 190 km/h (120 mph) for over four minutes. Yves has also flown over the English Channel and the Grand Canyon.

 During an interview I did with him for Inventing Iron Man, Yves said “I had many failures! I had to drop my wing many times. But I learned a lot from my mistakes and from the bad test flights. Every incident allows me to optimize the wing. I have two parachutes. In case of a problem, I always have a plan. For example, I sometimes lose the control of my wing and there are oscillations. My military experience taught me how to move my arms in order to stop the oscillations. So, I’m ready to face each eventuality.”

 I also asked him what he, as an inventor things are the important parts of his personality that helped him along: “Discipline, perseverance, and above all, passion! I think it is important to try to achieve your dreams. To be able to go back and start from the very beginning when necessary. To keep believing in your projects and in your dream!”

 Feeling Protected In Underwater Exosuits From Deep Diving Pioneer Phil Nuytten

 Protective exoskeletons that exist now originated as protection against harsh environments. The harshest environment on earth—the deep ocean seabed—and the harshest environment not on earth—outer space have both spurred a need.

One of the first commercial exoskeletons was the “Newtsuit” invented by Phil Nuytten of Vancouver, British Columbia. Nuytten has dedicated four decades of his life and founded multiple companies while improving and developing systems that range from passive suits to active powered movement.

Phil Nuytten’s inventions are used by scientific, military, and sport divers to get to the deepest depths of the oceans. His first “Newtsuit” was a revolutionary hard diving suit—not to mention a name so cool that it should be in a comic book. Described as a “wearable submarine”, the Newtsuit is used at depths up to a thousand feet and protects from the crushing pressure at depth.

This powered exoskeleton concept has been as deep as 610 m (2,000-feet) and was contracted by NASA for recovery of booster rockets after shuttle missions.  Even more, though, Phil continued his inventing and produced the “Exosuit” in 2000 that brings us close to something that looks like Iron Man. It is a “swimmable,” ultra lightweight diving suit that is a stunning example of invention and innovation.

 Amplifying Our Abilities With Yoshiyuki Sankai And His Robot Suit

 HAL is the name of the robot suit created by Yoshiyuki Sankai at Cyberdyne Inc. in Japan. In 1968 when he was a young boy, Sankai read Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot. Yoshiyuki was inspired by the idea of a robotic device that could help people and this motivated him to pursue a career in electrical engineering.

 Sankai was fascinated by the idea of linking humans and machines. And how such links could be used to improve human lives and abilities. This became a mission to help increase the mobility of people with nervous system damage.

 He decided to focus on the idea of a robot suit. In 1997 he created a kind of “robot pants” that could be used to help support the walking of a person inside. The control for the motors in the suit was triggered by activity in the muscles of the legs.

 HAL (version 5) suit became available in 2010 for use as physical rehabilitation and physical training support, for activities of daily living in people with disabilities or weakness. In “Inventing Iron Man” I interviewed Sankai about the development of HAL.

 Sankai strongly emphasized that combining medicine and engineering is “…the most meaningful when it helps human beings.” The Cyberdyne project was initiated in 1991 and has continued to this day—over 20 years to go from the concept of commercially available mechanized arm and leg robotic exoskeleton.

 Because there have been many versions of HAL (similar to the many versions of Iron Man’s armor), I also asked Sankai what the end goal was? He said he wants to continue to “develop technologies that will help and make people smile. And we hope to create the future of the new field by developing a new HAL which nobody has ever seen before.”

 Returning to my title: who—or what—is Iron Man? Iron Man is an invention found at the peak of human cleverness, creativity, and industry. Iron Man reflects the human aspiration to go beyond our limitations. And bits of that invention—that concept of creativity—are being built even now.

 © E. Paul Zehr (2013)