Thursday, December 01, 2005

Days of Future Past

There were a few other notable action figures of the 60s that I consider worthy to be compared to GI Joe. One of these was Mattel's Major Matt Mason. Matt Mason was a 6" rubber astronaut figure with "bendy" joints in his otherwise hard-rubber limbs.

The figures themselves were attractive, but unremarkable. The wire inside those bendy joints was infamous for breaking, the visor on Matt's removable helmet was fragile, and for all his wonderful gear, Matt didn't even come with a life-support pack, and therefore had to hold his breath during his several-year stay on the Moon. What made Matt excel as an action figure, in some respects eclipsing GI Joe, was his amazing assortment of gear and vehicles.

The largest of is accessories was the Space Station, a huge, three-story, tree-house in space. The top was enclosed by translucent blue panels, and featured a command chair, storage shelf light-up center console, sink, and two-burner stove. (no microwave oven for 60s-centric Matt!)

Beyond that, Matt had an amazing variety of gear: several battery-operated vehicles, with treads, wheels, and legs, space-probe launchers, weapons, and two varieties of powered exoskeletal armor. This brings me to one of my favorite accessories in the line, the Supernaut Power Limbs.

You can see the original toy in the center inset of the picture at right. Matt (or one of his friends) was strapped into a large backpack that formed the center frame of the device. His feet snapped into foot rests on the inside of the jointed, telescoping, legs (shown retracted in the picture). The two arms were clearly designed for construction. The one on Matt's right, had a serrated claw, and the one on the left had a scooping bucket. The arms were designed so that a child could hold onto the levers at the top of the arm, remotely move the arms, and open and close the "hands" using push-button levers next to the handle. As a bonus, the backpack had a small crane arm and hoist with lifting hook.

Now, this was an idea just ahead of its time. In the 60s, General Electric tried to build a working exoskeleton called "Hardiman," seen at left. Unfortunately, Hardiman was never completed, other than a single arm (that could lift 600 pounds, but thanks to feedback circuits, would allow an operator to pick up an egg without crushing it). Walking, unfortunately, was more of a problem, and then there was the question of how to power it without a long extension cord.

But in the late 60s, the hope was alive, and the Supernaut Power Limbs were a pretty good model for what a real exoskeleton might be like. Now, if you think that the SPL suit looks a lot like the Power Loaders in the movie Aliens, I find it difficult to imagine this is an accident. I'll just bet if you could go back in time, you'd find young James Cameron (or one of his production designers) had a pile of Major Matt Mason toys.

Of course, if you've studied the first picture closely, you have some idea how this relates to 1/6th scale.

Back when I was first getting into the hobby, my first major custom project was to create 12" analogs of the old Major Matt Mason figures, and a few of their toys. Perhaps a few of you remember pictures of the mammoth 12"-scale version of the Space Station I was building from PVC pipe. Like GE's Hardiman,was ever a case of my reach exceeding my grasp. The station ran into more and more problems the closer if came to completion, and work on completing my 1:1 scale office took precedent. I eventually disassembled the station, packed it away, and there it remains. If I get back to the project (and I might) I anticipate I'll start most of it over from scratch.

I did create some decent 12" versions of Matt Mason, kitbashed around Lanard Ultracorps space suits. Late in the project, I found a good-sized stash of Robotix construction toys at a thrift-store. This line is ideally suited to creating sci-fi props for use with 1/6th figures, from things as mundane as shelves and tables, to -- well -- Supernaut Power Limbs.

This was actually a fairly easy project, done in an hour or two, but I think it looks pretty good. It stood about two and a half feet tall, I believe. The legs and arms in this version are fixed (If I did it again, at least the arms would move). The claws, however, were electrically operated from switches on the backpack, which also contained the batteries. One nice improvement over the original, is that the astronaut had some head and face protection in the form of a transparent shield that lowers down from above. Another nice addition is that there were two functional spotlights on either side of the astronaut's head (it's a little difficult to see them in this somewhat fuzzy flash picture).

Like the Space Station, this has since been disassembled and packed away, but with this picture, I could recreate it in just a few minutes, and I now have more Robotix parts, to do an even better job. It might even be possible to add electrical operation to the arms as well.
Impractical or not, some ideas are just too cool to let die.

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