In 1965 the American military approached Walt Disney for a very special project. They wanted Disney engineers to build them an exoskeleton—basically a real-life Iron Man suit.
The Navy sent a request for proposals to WED Enterprises—Disney’s design and architecture shop, now called Walt Disney Imagineering—hoping that they’d jump at the opportunity. But unfortunately for the U.S. military, Disney had no interest in the project.
Disney collectibles dealer Phil Sears has two internal Disney memos talking about the RFP up on his site. Despite the fact that there could have been considerable overlap with Disney’s research and the military’s needs at the time, there was a tremendous amount of skepticism by the big man himself. You can see Walt Disney’s own handwritten “NO” scrawled in thick red pencil.
From one of the memos dated June 11, 1965:
The Navy specifications call for a complex device to be worn by a man that would enable him to lift 1500 pounds to a height of six feet and carry that load twenty-five feet in ten seconds. Some of the areas of development might parallel with our research in servo control and programming of “Audio-Animatronics.” However, we cannot be sure of this fact until we investigate further, which would require additional correspondence with the Navy and probably visits with their technicians.
The Navy was apparently inspired by the robotics that Disney had displayed at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. The company had been working on everything from animatronic dolls on Pepsi’s “It’s a Small World” attraction to a robot Abe Lincoln that stood up and gave speeches at the Illinois State Pavilion. Robo-Abe was so impressive that one newspaper reporter at the Fair even wrote that this faux-Lincoln not only stood up, made lifelike hand gestures, and could talk—but that he could actually walk around.
Sadly, that last part wasn’t true. But it speaks to the realism that Disney was accomplishing with its robots at the time, as well as why the military was so impressed.
This wasn’t the first time that Disney was approached to serve its country. The mouse house produced a number of different propaganda and safety films for the government during World War II—most of which can be seen on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set, On the Front Lines.
After Disney declined to bid on the government project, General Electric wound up developing the exoskeletons for the military. But it’s quite a future that never was, left now for alt-historians to ponder. Perhaps we could have had an army of robo-Lincolns stalking the battlefield. That is, if Honest Abe could find time between vampire slayings. [Phil Sears via Jordan Reichek]
Images: Man-Amplifier featured on the cover of the November 1965 issue of Popular Science from Cybernetic Zoo and screenshot from Disneyland Goes to the New York World’s Fair (1964); WED Enterprises memos from Phil Sears; Stripped down robot Lincoln from Phil Sears and screenshot of Lincoln in action from Disneyland Goes to the New York World’s Fair (1964)