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Cameras! Lights! War!

Cameras! Lights! War!

I just heard that the Defense Department/Pentagon will soon start asking Hollywood to brainstorm design concepts and features for future U.S. weapons and combat vehicles. With Hollywood's blatant disregard for physical law (Star Ships, Warp Speed, The Matrix) and a high propensity to overrun movie budgets, what could the government possibly be thinking?

The results of a straw poll around my office has identified some of Hollywood's best inventions that would be really cool candidates for some coveted defense department R & D funding:

Mr. Fusion: The power source used on the time travel machine from Back to the Future

Transparent Aluminum: Lightweight structural material used in a Star Trek movie

Deflector Shields: Impenetrable/invisible shield that protects everything behind it

Transporters: Ability to instantly beam people or soldiers through space (with all the carry-on baggage you want!)

Hollywood, with basic engineering support and guidance, has proven it can generate some worthwhile military ideas. The laser, for example, is already in use on today's battlefield and particle beam cannons are in engineering development and test. But what really troubles me is how the movie industry could possibly keep anything secret when their ultimate goal is to put their best efforts into 70mm and send the films around the world for everyone to see. Maybe that's the ultimate weapon!

Another problem often encountered in combat vehicle development is the "test incident" (not to be confused with failure, because everyone knows that failure is a bad thing). The issue here isn't whether Hollywood has anything to offer, but rather whether the enemy will allow our government to yell, "Cut!" and call for a retake whenever a design fails to function properly. And could unfriendly adversaries be depended upon to "follow the script," or would they be inclined to read ahead and see how the good guys plan to attack?

Even if these issues can be resolved, we need to identify some fundamental laws that movie makers will need to follow as they undertake to engineer these future weapon systems. I propose the following section be added as boilerplate to any new Hollywood/Military Specifications:

2.0 Combat Weapons

2.0.1 Design Constraints Bullets Bullets do not make a metallic "zing" sound when they hit dirt Vehicles/Tires Tires do not squeal on dirt Bombs/Explosions Bombs explode only once

Given the inevitable, and Congress awards a design-development contract to these Hollywood moguls, how long would it take for their design and control software to become commercially available in a $35 hand-held Gameboy? I guess this could actually be an unexpected benefit of Hollywood designers; the military would get some great special effects and they would also be able (for the first time) to benefit from lower costs, achieved through high volume commercial sales.

This report is one of a series of occasional columns exploring the not-altogether-serious side of engineering by Ken Foote, a mechanical engineer at GDLS. You can reach Ken at [email protected] or email your comments to us at [email protected]


Hollywood moguls plan a special effect in which two identical railroad cars, each having a mass of 20,000 kg and each moving on frictionless tracks towards the other with a velocity of 6 km/hr, collide. The car on the left is empty, while the car on the right has a crate of mass 25,000 kg resting on the car floor. The coefficient of friction between crate and floor is 0.5. The coefficient of restitution for impact between the two cars is e, and the time duration of impact is considered extremely small. If e=0.9, the loss of energy during impact is most nearly:

A) 0
B) 5,555 joules
C) 5,555W
D) 10,555 joules
E) 10,555W

See answer at below.

Adapted from the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination, Eugene L. Boronow, Prentice Hall Press, 1986. The worked out solution is at

Answer: D

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