This July, millions of Americans will head to the air-conditioned confines of their local multiplex to take in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and other summer blockbusters. A military relic that foreshadowed a sci-fi vehicle featured in perhaps the most popular summer movie franchise of all time – the Star Wars series – is on exhibit at the US Army Transportation Musem at Fort Eustis: GE’s Pedipulator, or “Walking Truck,” developed for the US Army in the mid-‘60s. GE’s quadroped was first imagined and lumbered through its testing paces in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, starting in 1962, 18 years before George Lucas’s AT-AT walkers debuted on the big screen.
From Jules Vern-esque dream to reality (then back to dream in Star Wars).
GE’s Walking Truck was officially called a Cybernetic Anthropmorophous Machine (CAM). According to Chris Hunter, curator at the Schenectady Museum, which is home to some 15,000 GE documents and artifacts, the Army wanted a vehicle that could navigate rough, steep terrain. It had to be able to push through dense vegetation, step over felled trees, and sidle around standing ones, all while nimbly carrying up to a half-ton in men and material.
The Army liked what GE had been testing and awarded a contract for building the experimental vehicle in 1966, a year after America began sending troops to Vietnam. But the same super-sensitive, hand-and-foot-controlled hydraulics that enabled the CAM to casually push aside a jeep, or gently paw a GE light bulb without breaking it, also made it impractical for prolonged battlefield use. Operators found the constant manipulation of the controls very fatiguing, leading the project to be mothballed.
Eventually, the CAM’s sophisticated “force feedback” capability found reapplication undersea, where GE developed hydraulic arms for the world’s first aluminum submarine, the Aluminaut. Today, robotic arms on everything from Hazmat vehicles to space shuttles – not to mention the terrifying BigDog quadroped – owe some technical debt to it.