The Many, Surprising, Real-life Uses of a Comic Book Gadget

Former MIT student built a working Batman winch, then unexpected orders started pouring in.

September 8, 2017 5:00 am

About 15 years ago, Nate Ball was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The U.S. Army approached MIT with a request, writes NPRThey needed someone to build a device that could pull somebody up a rope, kind of like Batman uses in comic books and movies.

The Army wanted this device for rescue operations, for example, lifting someone out of the water or moving wounded soldiers, explains NPR. 

Ball immediately thought the idea sounded awesome, and something he could easily accomplish. His idea was to build a battery-powered winch that could be worn around the waist, much like Batman’s famous utility belt. So in 2005, Ball started Atlas Devices, a company that would work on the project. After 12 years of “blood, sweat and tears,” he finally had a viable product.

As expected, the Army began buying, as well fire and first responder departments. But Ball noticed something kind of surprising: utility companies were also buying them to install live power lines (which are called conductors).

Ball told NPR that this led to an “ah-ha” moment: you think you built something for one purpose, but there are always going to be other unexpected uses.

Ball isn’t the first inventor have this moment of clarity. Pfizer chemists were once looking for a drug to treat high blood pressure and chest pain. The drug they created wasn’t a great solution for those ailments, but Viagra eventually found another, much more popular use.

Ball has since been re-approached by the Army to build a ladder that is lightweight and easy to carry. Again, the final product was adapted for used in unexpected ways. Members of the military had begun taking the ladder apart and converting it into a stretcher. Ball has since added straps to the ladder for when it is being used as a stretcher.

Ball told NPR that he now sees this as part of the design and invention process: work closely with the people who need the device so you can figure out what they’re really going to use it for.

You can listen to the full story on NPR.

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