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Originally published on May 22, 2012.
By Michelle Dee
Across various modes of media, from comic books to movies, Batman has distinguished himself from other superheroes through his unique superpower: technology. He may not have laser eyes like Cyclops, but you’ll find no cooler car than the Batmobile. Even if he can’t punch nuclear missiles in the face like Superman or run at the speed of sound like the Flash, Batman always gains the upper hand with some sly gizmo for just about any situation.
Batman possesses the most cutting-edge engineering and devices that still only exist in the realm of the theoretical. His technology reflects current scientific breakthroughs and values of the past while pointing to the future of science. Whether the populace finds itself fascinated with rocket ships, stealth technology, computer hacking, or killer robots, Batman will utilize it.
There is no problem he cannot solve with a little science and guile. For example, Batman’s arch-enemy, Bane, soundly defeated the Dark Knight in the episode “Traction” of Michael Goguen’s animated television series The Batman. Bane, drug-enhanced to elephantine strength, is Batman’s equal as a strategist and problem-solver. However, not one to give up after being smashed through a brick wall, Batman builds a giant battle robot and trounces the malefactor. Batman’s robotic-enhanced-science strength conquers Bane’s drug-enhanced-evil strength. Outmatched in muscle and equaled in intelligence, the Caped Crusader turns to an engineering solution.
Batman exemplifies the popular culture perception of engineering and technology. This article will assess the use of various bat-technology, namely the safety of his suit, the infinite capacity of his belt, and the voice comprehension abilities of his car throughout their respective histories.
BAT SUIT: Not Just Pajamas
If one fights crime under the prestigious title of Batman, one is expected to dress up like a bat. However, most bullet proof suits don’t look like bat costumes. Adding spiky ears to the helmet easily solves this first design problem.
Batman is also expected to place himself into extremely dangerous environments, ranging from sub-zero battles with Mr. Freeze, to superheated infernos set off by the Joker, to free-falls out of buildings to avoid machine gun fire from the Penguin’s tricky umbrella. It’s a dangerous job. Batman’s survival often hinges on being fireproof and is contingent on being bulletproof.
So when Batman jumps in front of innocent civilians and protects them and himself from an assault by flame-thrower with only his cape, is that even possible? Certainly. He can use a thermal, chemical, and radiation resistant material called Nomex worn by firefighters and racecar drivers. Nomex is capable of resisting up to thirty seconds of intense heat and direct flames. It “will not sustain combustion in air or melt when exposed to flame. Because Nomex carbonizes and becomes thicker when exposed to intense heat, it forms a protective barrier between the heat source and the skin” (DuPont Nomex). In the episode “Harley and Ivy” of Batman: The Animated Series, barrels of toxic chemicals explode, setting the entire toxic waste pond on fire. Batman has to avoid the flames and tackle the Joker before leaping into the Batmobile, which had been roasting in the flames for about a minute. Nomex can give him those precious, yet action-packed, thirty seconds.
The innovation protecting Batman from fire is closely linked to that protecting him from bullets. Both Nomex and Kevlar, a bulletproof material created by DuPont, are constructed of tightly woven layers of polymer fibers. Each layer of Kevlar weave carries out a function in slowing, blunting, and stopping a bullet, while also absorbing energy to save the wearer from the impulse force. “It has been estimated that the risk of dying from gunfire is fourteen times higher for an officer not wearing body armor. Kevlar brand fiber is five times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis, yet, at the same time, enables body armor to be lightweight, flexible and comfortable” (DuPont Kevlar). Flexibility is important so that Batman can still ninja kick bad guys while dodging a hail of bullets.
Combining the two types of fiber into one material with both properties is not only possible, it actually enhances the effects. Because Nomex and Kevlar are similar in their polymer properties, they are easily combined into one tightly woven, albeit heavier, fabric that provides protection from both fire and bullets (Barker). The added weight from the Kevlar polymer increases the thermal resistance of the Nomex polymer. “Greater fabric weight slows the rate of fabric heating, prolonging the time required for the fabric to become a significant reradiator of thermal energy” (Barker).
But bullets and heat aside, Nomex and Kevlar are still just fabric and won’t do much good against a good old-fashioned punch on the ear. A solid punch from Killer Croc or a miscalculated jump into a brick wall and Batman gets brained. Being a practical sort, the Dark Knight covers his head with something a little harder than just cloth: graphite. The material is commonly used in equestrian helmets. The graphite in the helmet protects your head against any potential horse hoof stomps. With that in mind, graphite protection will easily block angry criminal punches.
On top of those protective features, the guardian of Gotham City often finds himself in need of extra lift as he swings from rooftop to rooftop or plummets out of windows. To this end, the bat suit also has gliding capabilities. Batman can stiffen the spines in his cape and transform it into a glider. In The Dark Knight (2008), Batman visits Hong Kong to extradite Mr. Lau back to Gotham City, where he had been involved in mob activity. The plan is to kidnap Lau, jump out of a high building, crash through the target’s office building window and strap both target and self to a balloon for airplane retrieval.
Luckily for Batman, this is completely possible. Jeb Corliss, a man with no extraordinary features save for his “almost pathological desire to confront fear” and fly, performs gliding stunts on a regular basis that put Batman’s little jump to shame (“Superhumans!”). In a synthetic wingsuit, Corliss can glide at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour towards the ground until he pulls his parachute at the final moment for a safe landing (Superhumans!). Corliss has jumped off cliffs, out of helicopters, into canyons, maneuvered around the statue above Rio de Janeiro, and has come dangerously close to grazing the jagged ridges of the Matterhorn while flying in his wingsuit. Simply giving a falling body more surface area with an inflated wingsuit or a rigid bat cape is enough to greatly slow it down. Terminal falling velocity is inversely proportional to the square root of the falling objects projected surface area. Critics will note that Batman did not use a parachute. However, it should also be noted that Batman had a perfectly safe landing thanks to the armed guards substituting as makeshift pillows upon his crash landing into the office building.
UTILITY BELT: Fits Everything and the Kitchen Sink
Batman’s utility belt is the most important part of his ensemble, equipping him for any possible situation. He’s got an individual “bad-guy-be-gone” recipe for all manner of mischief sitting around his waist. But is his waist big enough? Is anyone’s waist big enough for half of the objects on his groovy belt, even when Batman pushes the limits of compactibility?
Typically, the belt holds a grappling gun, batarangs and other bat-shaped shuriken, mini-smoke bombs, mini-regular bombs, a small gas mask, rope, containers for evidence, first aid supplies, and a small chemistry set. Using the smallest rough estimates and assuming only width is important, let’s examine how fat Batman would have to be to wear his own belt.
o Grappling gun holster: 7 inches
o 2 pockets for bombs: 4in. x 2 = 8 inches
o Gas Mask: 6 in.
o 4 chemical vials: ½ in. x 4 = 2 inches
o 2 syringes: ½ in. x 2 = 1 inches
o Small Medical Kit: 6 inches
o Rolled up 20m Rope: 3 inches
o Flashlight: 1 inch
§ Total: 42 inches
The average male has a 33-36 inch waist. Maybe Batman could have a 42 inch waist (if all of the things on his utility belt are directly touching each other and not spaced apart). The World Health Organization specifies a waist-to-height ratio of 0.536 as “increased risk,” and 0.583 as “substantially increased risk” for obesity (Clymer). If Batman were 6’2’’ and had a waist circumference of 42 inches, he’d be in the “increased risk category” with a ratio of 0.568. If he were only six feet, he’d be in the “substantially increased risk” category with a ratio of exactly 0.583. Imagine how fat he’d be if he had to have room for spare batteries.
To fit all of these gadgets onto his belt, everything must be highly compact. Luckily, just about anything can be collapsible these days. However, Batman may be pushing the borders of the possible here. Collapsed to be as small as possible, an object necessarily has the same mass it does at full size, but in a different, more compact shape. It’s easy to imagine that eight-inch long, thin, steel plates cut into the shape of pointy bats can fold over onto themselves. But sometimes, like in those episodes when overwhelming infestations of aliens invade town, batarangs are just too small.
Similarly, in Batman: The Animated Series, Batman carries around a four-inch long yellow cylinder on his belt that he has the tenacity to call a rebreather. Any time he needs to swim anywhere, he simply applies the mouthpiece, which provides him ten minutes of air. The rebreather looks like a giant backpack. I repeat: nothing is that collapsible.
He could not carry all of these objects with him at all times. He’d have to pick and choose essentials based on the situation. For example, there’s the “Official Batman Equipment Set” that the Ideal Toy Corporation produced in 1966, selling a version of the belt that can fit around a child’s waist with just the essentials. It includes a batarang, rope, radio, flashlight, handcuffs, a small grenade launcher, a bat grenade, and a secret message sender, which for some reason is shaped like a lollipop (Daniels 100). Essentials.
Verdict: Not feasible. Batman is not magical and his belt pockets do not teleport his supplies into another dimension for storage. His belt is too small.
I have to reiterate that there is no cooler car than the Batmobile. The car has had many incarnations over the decades of its publications since its modest beginning in 1941 (Daniels 50). The original was a sports car with a battering ram and a large fin, “presaging the decade’s coming fascination with fins” (Daniels 50). Since then, everything about this vehicle has changed, even its color. However, its voice command system has remained through the years.
The Batmobile is constantly alternating back and forth between sleek design and maximum damage capacity (Kastner). Usually it embodies a fusion of societal automotive trends with military accessories. Sometimes the Batmobile has been hardly distinguishable from a normal car, where only the spiked fins indicate its identity. Other times, subtlety is thrown to the winds in favor of intimidation and firepower, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s conception of the Batmobile in his recent films. No matter what form the Batmobile takes, it can always take direct spoken orders from Batman.
While every facet of this vehicle is an engineering achievement, I’m going to focus only on its telematics, a branch of communication technology involving wireless voice recognition, which seems to be the car’s one and only constant feature. While the appearance and abilities of the Batmobile change with the times, the Batmobile consistently operates in response to Batman’s voice commands.
The Batmobile doesn’t just recognize vocabulary words, it seems to comprehend Batman’s commands. He can tell it to drive to a certain address or over a cliff and it will obey. The first time speech recognition technology was made available to consumers was in 1995, twenty-four years after the first development of any kind of speech recognition systems that could distinguish single numbers and words (“History of Speech Recognition and Transcription”). Understanding language and commands was entirely more complicated. In 1997, Dragon Systems established a program that could understand continuous and complete sentences rather than just individual words (“History of Speech Recognition and Transcription”). The ability to control electronic devices vocally has been invaluable to disabled persons and in medical applications in dictation software (Zwass). However, only recently have telematics been heavily implemented in cars for hands-free commands and communication while people are driving (Canadian Press).
The need for regular cars to become more Batmobile-like arose when driver distraction from cell phones started causing too many accidents (Canadian Press). When several states and many countries in the European Union banned the use of cell phones in cars, engineers began work on maintaining driver communication with both hands on the wheel. Now, not only can drivers make phone calls without raising a finger, they can also access email and change radio stations with voice commands (Canadian Press).
The Batmobile preceded this relatively new technological development in the automotive industry by no less than thirty years. In 1969, engineer John Pierce of Bell Labs predicted that speech recognition would not be feasible for another several decades (“History of Speech Recognition and Transcription”). The Batmobile from the 1966 to 1968 Batman TV series was way ahead of its time on this one.
Verdict: Feasible now, but once again, 30 years too early.
Batman is a well-known franchise that demonstrates science and engineering’s influence in the media and popular culture. If some of this technology is unbelievable, it is also undeniably fun. Who’s to say the rest of Batman’s technology is impossible in the coming decades? His theoretical technology is the gateway between imagination and reality.
While artists may take certain liberties with spatial arrangement, as in a utility belt with all the qualities of Mary Poppins’ travel bag, much of what is portrayed is perfectly feasible and possible. It’s impressive that Batman was utilizing technologies like telematics and fireproof clothing decades before their time. “Superheroes have long provided a window into our national psyches” (“Superhumans!”). Whether preceding realistic applications by decades or even just a few months, the technology in Batman both inspires and is inspired by the cutting edge engineering of the era, a mirror reflecting collective cultural imagination and innovation.
Batman is the Odysseus to Superman’s Hercules. While everyone loves the thought of a hero with the strength of the gods, they are equally fond of the wily and resourceful mortals who play on the level of gods with only their cunning. Technology and engineering are an integral element of culture, and fiction and myth allow for a medium to mix science with fantasy and the feasible with the fantastic.
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