Monday, September 27, 2010

Comic Book Engineering

Who put that radio on Dick Tracy's wrist? Who designed Wonder Woman's invisible jet? Who built Iron Man's suit? Engineers.

Engineers and superheroes have been meeting in back rooms for... well, since the Green Hornet ran down villains in "Black Beauty," a car super-packed with advanced technology. Using gadgets and unearthly powers, superheroes turned into a billion-dollar business - first flooding the entertainment market in print, then exploding onto the big screen in movie blockbusters. With an eye for business, the agents of superheroes followed up with merchandising, novelizations and fan conventions - like Comic-Con International, which happens to have an engineer on its board of directors.

Eliot Brown is an artist who inked the supergadgets that appeared in two books from Marvel Comics (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and The Iron Manual). Brown did some detailed background work, consulting IEEE Spectrum, for example, to create schematics of the workbench and wardrobe that Tony Stark (Iron Man) uses. Elsewhere in the comic world, writer Stan Lee created Reed Richards, an electrical engineer who, as one of the Fantastic Four, was rocketing through space when cosmic rays turned his body into a rubbery mess. A radioactive spider took a healthy bite out of Peter Parker (Spiderman), after which he concocted a web fluid and designed the web shooter that he wore like a wristwatch. Bruce Banner was a scientist who developed a gamma-ray bomb; unfortunately he slipped up and turned himself into The Hulk. The deaths of Frank Castle's family twisted his life as a weaponry expert into a high-tech vigilante (The Punisher) who murdered, kidnapped, tortured and extorted in order to get his revenge.

Technology transformed comic books into stimulating texts for engineers - or for kids who had the right stuff to be engineers but just needed a gentle nudge. One of the better-known books about this approach to promoting engineering is The Physics of Superheroes, a 2005 volume that University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios, who saw the potential of comic books as teaching tools: "Reading comic books is perfect training for how to be a scientist or engineer," he said. "In comics, you have to learn the rules of the game - what the superhero's powers are and how he can use them. Science has rules in the form of physics and chemistry. Not to mention that superheroes and scientists both have a dashing sense of fashion."

A young engineer's email supported Kakalios' theory, saying that reading The Iron Manual at age 9 inspired him to pursue engineering. The book also planted the seeds that grew into two graduate research projects in robotics.

Engineers like Jorge Cham and even write comics. Jorge Cham, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and a former Instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology, writes "Piled Higher and Deeper," a "comic strip about "life (or the lack thereof) in academia." A lot of non-engineers pen comics like "Future Shock," a single-panel cartoon that covers topics like nanotechnology, cloning and alien life.  The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA is the first in a series of graphic novels devoted to explaining concepts such as DNA, genetics, cloning and stem cells in a user-friendly manner. HP created The Coder, an episodic graphic novel about an engineer whose software designs becomes the subjects of intrigue.

The American Society for Manufacturing Engineers (ASME) has jumped on the comic-book wagon, creating a monthly comic strip that introduces and educates young readers about the history and contributions of mechanical engineering. Readers, young and old, flock the the ASME site to follow "Heroes of Engineering," which chronicles stories about engineering accomplishments - notable and obscure - during ASME's 125-year history. Check out the first edition (PDF) It features the contributions of Robert Henry Thurston (1839-1903), an author and pioneer in mechanical engineering education. He Thurston earned a reputation as an engineer who showed students how to bring the theories of engineering into practice. He established the first mechanical engineering laboratory model, in 1875, at the Steven Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. And he served as the first president of ASME (1880-1802).

Comics tell us that engineering can be entertaining - even humorous. They show us that behind every superhero in tights there's an engineer conjuring futuristic devices that can save the world. They demonstrate how imaginative engineering and engineers must be.

Don't be surprised if you happen to hear one engineer say to another: "See you in the funny papers."

Want to read more about comics in general? Here are a few places to go. 

The Significant Seven: History's Most Influential Super-heroes
Superheroes Throughout History