Long has mankind yearned to fly through the heavens like a bird. Yet without a powerful set of wings, we’re cursed by gravity to cling hopelessly to the earth. Of course, this hasn’t stopped our imaginations from taking flight. From Star Wars to Iron Man, there’s one tool that remains consistent across pop-culture, one object we perhaps long for above all others.
From humble fiction to larger-than-life reality, join us as we map the birth of… the jetpack.
Like many of today’s most iconic stories, we can trace the jetpack all the way back to the science fiction pulp stories of the early 1900s. We can credit Edward E. Smith for the first appearance of jetpack-powered human flight in his story The Skylark of Space, first published in the 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. The cover features a flying every-man soaring peacefully through the skies.
While writing his first story, Smith was working as a food scientist researching, no joke, doughnut mixes — the sign of a true genius. Skylark joined other early sci-fi stories in creating the classic space opera genre, whose pantheon would one day include such pop-culture touchstones as Star Wars and Star Trek. Smith’s contributions to science fiction go well beyond the jetpack, and in 2004 he was fittingly inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Though the titular Skylark of Smith’s work may now be forgotten, our cultural fascination with the jetpack continued into other pulp stories. It even made its way onto the silver screen for the first time ever with the 1949 movie serial King of the Rocket Men and again in the 1952 Zombies of the Stratosphere. The jetpack also took flight across our TV screens in 1955 with Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. Even so, it would still be another decade before the jetpack earned its rightful place in the mainstream.
Making Jetpacks Cool
The jetpack achieved new heights when the dashing MI6 agent himself, James Bond, wore a rocket belt in the 1965 film Thunderball. The belt was actually inspired by a real product created by Bell Aerosystems. Bond used the jetpack to escape Colonel Jacques Bouvar‘s French château, but in the 1960s the U.S. Army was hoping to use the hydrogen peroxide fueled mechanism to transport soldiers across future battlefields. With a maximum flight time of 21 seconds, Bell’s rocket belt was too limiting for the military, but that didn’t stop Bond from soaring into our collective imagination and bringing the jetpack with him.
Tycoon-turned-superhero Tony Stark continued the tradition of using military technology to zoom around in style. Stark actually donned the Iron Man suit in 1963’s Tales of Suspense, well before Bond took to the skies. Even so, Stark didn’t have true jetpack flight until he later improved his armor in the comics. Today in the cinematic universe, Stark flies around in the Mark XLV, the peak evolution of the jetpack and a highlight of the series.
Iron Man is joined by other jetpack-wearing comic book heroes and villains. Heavily inspired by earlier pop sci-fi, The Rocketeer took a more classic approach to the jetpack when it first appeared in 1982. The concept of a DIY jetpack hero still proved it had wings when Disney premiered The Rocketeer on screens in 1991. Meanwhile, Batman has been facing-off against the jetpack-wielding Firefly since he showed up in 1952. The serial arsonist most recently took flight in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Knight, where his wing-like jetpack let him fly through the Arkham City with ease.
The Jetpack Legacy
Perhaps the most influential jetpack villain in pop culture first appeared a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away — a.k.a. 1980 in Hollywood, Calif. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is the first canonical appearance of Boba Fett. The infamous bounty hunter wore a custom set of Mandalorian Armor, featuring the Z-6 jetpack. Fett’s jetpack gave his character a uniquely compelling edge over our heroes. Even though his jetpack was to blame for his fall into the Sarlacc pit, Boba Fett and his jetpack remain eternally captivating.
In many ways, Boba Fett brought the jetpack’s legacy into the world of video games. Some of the children who pretended to be Boba Fett on the playground grew up to be game developers, capable of sharing their fantasy with the world. Pilotwings, released on the Super Nintendo in 1991, might be the first game to feature a usable jetpack. However, the game acts more as a flight simulator than a bounty hunter simulator.
It was Starsiege: Tribes and its subsequent sequel Tribes 2 that really elevated the jetpack in gaming. Released in 1998 and 2001 respectively, the games made the jetpack a core mechanic in the fast-paced world of competitive shooters. The jetpack in games allows players to zoom around the map vertically, opening up all new opportunities to rain hellfire down from above. While games like Halo, Star Wars: Battlefront, and Fallout 4 include jetpacks in today’s modern gaming landscape, Tribes remains one of the best uses of the technology.
The Future of Jetpacks
While the birth of the jetpack is rooted firmly in science fiction and is recognized most prominently across pop culture, you can actually buy a real working jetpack today. Bell Aerosystems is not the only company to have invested in the capabilities.
For those hesitant to use traditional jetpack propulsion, Jetpack America sells a functional albeit awkward-looking water jetpack. You’ll be attached to a boat, but the dream of the jetpack remains very real. For those who dream big, and have an extra $100,000 to spare, the Martin Jetpack will allow you to soar through the skies at a whopping 45 mph. This might be the must-own piece of technology for the true Skylark of Space.
Alright, we may be a few years off from flying around our cloud cities like The Jetsons, but the jetpack dream lives on. From space operas to superhero teams, the jetpack remains an iconic tool in our pop culture world. We are, and always will be, fans of the jetpack.
So what does the future hold for jetpacks, real and imagined? The sky’s the limit.
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