Sunday, October 25, 2009

1933 Walker: Fact or Fraud?

This newspaper piece claims to show an Italian boy in the 1930s riding a four-legged walking machine powered by a gas engine.

As a fan of all walking machines and backyard inventers, I want to believe it, but something doesn’t ring true. Here’s my pro and con list:

Believe it
1. Italian fascists apparently wore the fez (link). The tassle shows action.
2. The jointing of the legs look plausible; someone must have built at least parts of this thing.

Doubt it
1. There doesn’t seem to be any power linkage between the engine and the legs. Nor a flyweel; the torque and power distribution issues would be pretty challenging.
2. Doesn’t seem to be any way to steer the thing. What’s the boy holding onto?
3. “Canter across a rough field with ease?” What happens if you step on some soft ground with those little feet?
4. Balance and control issues for a four-legged walker are too sophisticated for a straight mechanical solution. Even a walk would be tricky. Change of gait would require computer control. Six or eight legs might be more likely, giving you tripod balance at all times. (See 8-legged spider at Burning Man Festival.)
5. Lighting doesn’t seem consistent on the boy vs. the rig vs. the background. There’s no cast shadow on the far rear leg. No depth of field or motion blur, which you’d expect to see on an action shot taken in the 1930s.

My reluctant conclusion: Hoax. The inventor’s name must have been Bubbolone Bugiardo. What do you think?

Source: Modern Mechanix
Previous GJ posts: Timberjack forest walker, Walking Vehicles, Part 1 and Part 2.


Karin Corbin said...

Looks to be a hoax. Canter on a road or field with equal ease? That is a true statement as it can't canter on either surface so they would be equal in ease. There is a lot of detail blacked out on the upper areas near the boys hands. Not a clue what is there. The cast shadow issue is not clear cut, who can tell what is shadow or change of value and color on the grass by that back leg?

Does it remind you of a recent news story about a missing boy and a balloon that could never have carried him away?

Mario said...

"Bubbalone Bugiardo"? Ah ah, I hope you will eventually translate that for non italian people... :)

I can't say anything about that machine, except one thing: in that period of italian history (and unfortunately not only in that period) some people tended to lie, invent or strongly exaggerate...

As to walking machines, do you know this guy and his wind-driven creatures? They should be true:

(sorry, I don't have the time to check if you have already written about that).

Andrew said...

That thing looks incredibly uncomfortable to ride on. It definitely looks like a fake, just for the fact (as you said,) there's not really any indication of something feeding power to the legs. It just looks like a motorcycle engine strapped to a mutated swingset.

I imagine that thing, if it did work, would be a really jostling ride. Doesn't it look like it'd swing too much left and right as it shifted weight?

bzyglowi said...

Reminds me of the "big dog" robot, as seen here: which really CAN traverse different types of terrain with ease. This thing, though, looks like a hoax.

draigstudio said...

There are so many things from the past that could be amazing machines. Look at the Antikythera machine. But I'm with you on the lack of mechanical connections between the engine and the legs. Unless it was run through the steel tubes, which doesnt seem practical if something broke.

Got your package. I'll email you about when we can talk sometime soon!

James H. Fullmer said...

Um... I would be most concerned about a very hot engine in my nether regions - and if one is jostled around, well, I'm just saying - OWCH

To me it really looks like an illustration rather than a photo especially with how the grass fades out on the left. I know the photo might just lack detail but it looks drawn to me.

James Gurney said...

The name Bubbolone Bugiardo means "Tall-tale-teller liar." A man after my own heart.

Christopher Thornock said...

Yep, hoax. However, if you want to see a real cantering contraption being designed for the military you have got to watch this clip.

NortonVirus said...

It must have tricked alot of people back then. But the lighting to me is the dead giveaway. The rig is frontally lit like an indoor flash going off in the studio. The clever bit on their part was airbrushing the tree to have a flash highlights as well to match the background to the rig. But...why would you use a flash in what the sky tells us is broad daylight? Hoax.

By the way, thank to James for the beautiful signature with a parakeet on top! I will treasure my copy of Imaganative Realism, always!

Brandon Cline-Jones said...

yea the lighting is the dead give away....

it seems to be a splice of a scene, a boy actually that is riding a motorcycle, spliced with a picture of hand built miniture metal legs...

but yea the grays and blacks are too different in the pic to be all the same pic.

Roberto said...

I say this article has got to be TRUE!, because I personally know that little kid in the picture!! His name is Scott Maxwell. My wife and I have adopted him as our long lost ‘Foster-Child’ What a small world! We are very proud of little Scotty, he’s now the Mars Rover Driver at JPL. And to prove it, here are some links to enjoy on your Journey. -RQ

Fantastically Great Video on a lecture by Scott Maxwell, the Mars Rover Driver (42 Min.). Includes the ‘Mars Death Ray’ and JPL's planned invasion of the moon by an army of 12ft. tall metal spiders on roller-skates! (Steve: I know you’ll enjoy this.)

Video: National Geographic Five Years on Mars (3min.)

Here’s the story from the “JPL Library Stories Series” of the Rover mobility mechanism from Don Bickler, (affectionately known as the Father of the Rover Bogie):
scroll down to: ‘Romancing the Rover’ / Presented by Don Bickler / Thursday, September 28, 2000; and select the Word file in the right hand column.
(There are a bunch of great links at the end of the article.)

Rover Bogie Technical Report:
click on: 98-0011.pdf

Rover Bogie Patent info (with some sketches):
scroll down and click on: Download PDF D488093

Video: “5 years and still Roving” (6min.) with John Callas, the Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager:

brueggert said...

There is the distinct possibility that Bubbalone first invented a time machine, and then went back in time to design this anachronism (even if badly lit...)

I have seen old press clippings of the Italian one-wheel motorcycles similar to what Francois Schuiten draws in his graphic novels - and those are amazing.

Tyler J said...

Pretty crafty, both the photo-doctoring job and the machine concept.

That Big Dog robot is both cool and creepy. Jim might have said it best when he commented earlier (March 17 '09):
"Like most people, I suppose I'm simultaneously fascinated and repelled by such mechanical marvels."

Roberto, you make me laugh. My best to your adopted mecha-cavalier!

kev ferrara said...

This machine may have originally been photographed on a complex background which would not have given a good view of the apparatus. So the photo retouching could have consisted of simply removing the apparatus from its original backdrop and placing it against a clearer field.

If this were so, it could very well be that the chain or pulley or linkages to the back end were removed in the photo retouching because they were too difficult to cut around (if the manip was done as a collage) or to frisket out (if the manip was a double exposure process in a darkroom).

kev ferrara
Bureau of Semi Dubious Explanations
CEO (Chief Extrapolating Officer)

Smurfswacker said...

I agree this is a hoax. Still, I caution viewers not to rely too heavily on photo retouching as proof. This article appeared during a boom time for clumsy retouching. Look at any of the cheaper magazines (including "Popular Science" and its ilk) and you'll see the airbrush and retouch grays spread around like pb&j on a sandwich.

Huge sections of photos were completely repainted, often rather poorly, resulting in fake-looking backgrounds, inhuman-looking humans, and fake lighting even in photos that weren't fakes. The worst examples I've seen were from 1the 1920s. By the early thirties retouching wasn't as common, but there was still plenty around.

The changes were usually made in the name either of picture clarity or of pushing contrast to make up for poor printing. Sometimes it was simply restructuring reality.

If anyone can find a copy, I suggest leafing through Michael Lesy's "Real Life" (1976), which reproduced 1920s promotional photos taken inside factories alongside the "slightly reworked" versions that were published. You don't need Photoshop to lie with a photograph!

chemolithoautotrophic said...

On a different blog, in 2012, someone claimed in the comments to be the son of the inventor (D.G. Alzetta) and having the machine still. No one replied.

alzetta gerardo says:
July 25, 2012
3:44 am
Dear Laura from Rome, by chance I’ve seen your comments of January 12, 2008: The mechanical horse was not a fake and there is nothing phony either about the story or the photo. It was built by my father in 1932-33 and a second improved version was built the following year. The horse was tested, was functional and moved also in open fields. What is left of this invention is still visible in Grizzo (PN), where my father was born in 1892. The daughter Giuliana was able to keep it thoughout the war years and stored the mechanical horse in a country house with other inventions of my father. I can send to you a recent picture of the horse.