We’ve featured some of GE’s fantastic and futuristic creations from the past, from the original “Iron Man” suit to the “Walking Truck.” Less heralded, then or now, but still in use, is GE’s “Copper Man,” a quarter-inch-thick, electroplated copper mannequin from the early ’40s that the Army used to evaluate the thermal-insulating quality of protective clothing issued to B-17 and B-24 airmen.
At the request of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC, the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine recently agreed to donate its oldest Copper Man—built in 1944—for permanent display. “GE was using a similar Copper Man to evaluate electrically-heated blankets and then heated flight suits for the Army Air Corps at the beginning of World War II,” explains Thomas Endrusick, a Research Physical Scientist with the Institute. The Institute, Endrusick adds, continues to use a Copper Man from 1951 to test the thermal comfort of modern military attire.
Three GE Copper Men posing outside the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in 1968.
As test subjects go, GE’s pseudo soldier has proven its scientific and financial mettle. Copper’s high malleability and excellent heat conductivity make Copper Man an ideal stand-in for a human being in the early stages of testing. Endrusick notes that comparable studies using humans can cost the military $150,000 over five months versus $15,000 over two weeks with Copper Man on the job. That makes him an extremely cost-effective preliminary screening tool for determining which articles of clothing deserve more expensive human study, and which don’t.
With an original price tag of nearly $10,000 and a current scrap value around $400, Copper Man’s enduring worth is hard to calculate. Gold may get all the headlines today, but copper was once arguably the more precious metal. Endless miles of it wormed through the then-cutting-edge planes, tanks and radio equipment that helped win World War II. And by 1943 demand for copper—a critical component in many munitions—had so outstripped supply that the U.S. mint opted to produce a steel penny.