The Innovations of Star Wars and How They Inspire

There’s a simple rule to most movies: Amputees are bad guys.

Almost without fail, if there’s a guy with a hook for a hand or one who walks with a limp or has a glass eye, then he’s a bad dude. It’s an easy metaphor to slide into movies and it extends past just amputated limbs. A character wears some disfiguring mark or bears the burden of some horrible malady, and you leave the viewer with the idea that there’s a dark past explaining it or some bad moral compass that led to it.

Tattoos and robot limbs make for a strong reputation.

Tattoos and robot limbs make for a strong reputation.

Darth Vader was the poster child of disfigured villains. When I saw him on the big screen breathing like a scuba diver and hearing him described as “more machine than man” I was satisfied this was one guy dripping with evil (and lots of baggage). The cliché was perfect; there was no sense arguing with the formula.

So it came as a big surprise to kids like me everywhere when Luke Skywalker got his hand lopped off in The Empire Strikes Back. By the end of that movie he was outfitted with a super cool robot hand and off he went, one more guy with a hook for a hand. Now I was too young to appreciate that it was a metaphor being transferred to the good guy underscoring the temptations and consequences of evil. No, as a child I was just bummed that my hero was now a one-handed Jedi, damaged goods, wearing the same shame label as a bad guy.

But sometimes you don’t appreciate the lessons being taught by a story until much later. Even a story you’ve watched a hundred times. In 1994 a swerving car made like a lightsaber to my leg and all of a sudden I was in the amputee club too. Before I knew it, I was being fitted for with a prosthetic leg made of dark black titanium and carbon fiber. All I could think of was Vader’s armor, the black gleam of polished metal. It was heart-breaking. Was I one of the disfigured bad guys now, too?

Then it struck me. If my childhood hero Luke could make it as an amputee then why couldn’t I? For the first time I realized something that any non-amputee (like myself up to that point) would totally take for granted. Star Wars had shown an amputee as a good guy! Not only that, he was someone fitted with technology that got him back into the fight. Images of medical droid 2-1B testing the delicate electronics of Luke’s new hand came to mind. I could be a hero on the mend instead of a tragedy case. It was quite the change in perspective! I’m not sure anyone else has pointed it out, but that was a very progressive move for a popular movie to make about physical disabilities.

Luke gets a prosthetic hand. Suddenly it's cool for heroes too!

Luke gets a prosthetic hand. Suddenly it’s cool for heroes too!

I mention all this because the Star Wars universe, like a lot of sci-fi, has heralded innovations that are slowly emerging as reality. The awesome power of the Death Star’s main laser cannon was the stuff of fantasy. But recently the Lawrence Livermore National Ignition Facility combined 192 laser beams into a record-breaking laser shot that packed over 500 trillion watts of peak power — a thousand times more power than the entire United States uses at any given instant. Pretty impressive, especially since it might hold the key to fusion power and clean energy. Luke’s landspeeder might not be available at your local dealership, but hovercraft have long been available to buy for use over water. And we may not have C-3P0 just yet, but Honda has put together the world’s smartest android, A.S.I.M.O., which at 120 pounds has a magnesium alloy structure, powerful computers, and 34 servo motors allowing it to walk, run, cycle, and carry on a conversation that isn’t quite as annoying as a protocol droid.

Honda's ASIMO comes close to being C-3P0 (without the annoying personality!)

Honda’s ASIMO comes close to being C-3P0 (without the annoying personality!)

Stories like Star Wars dare people to dream, and when they dream, they don’t think of what’s currently possible — they think of what hasn’t been done yet. Every time I slip on my carbon laminate robotic leg I take for granted just how much better my life is because of innovation that arises from imagination. It’s my hope that a new generation of kids will see the new Star Wars movies and have their imaginations awakened. In the meantime, I count myself lucky to have had a movie teach me that a handicap didn’t have to be such a bad thing. I mean, if Luke could beat Darth Vader with a robotic hand, there’s no telling what I can do. And isn’t that what a good story should teach us?

The Star Wars Science line of toys teaches kids how robotic hands work

The Star Wars Science line of toys teaches kids how robotic hands work

Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.

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