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DAWID RYSKI

Building a Bear-Proof Suit

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DAWID RYSKI

On August 4, 1984, Troy Hurtubise was hiking in central British Columbia when he came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. The grizzly knocked the 20-year-old sportsman down, his .22 rifle careening out of reach. Struggling to his feet, he drew his knife.

The bear, Hurtubise claims, seemed to contemplate its chances before disappearing into the woods. A conservationist later told him that if any cubs had been present, he would’ve been mauled.

To the grizzly, it was a forgettable encounter with a bothersome human. To Hurtubise, it was a revelation. The Ontario native became obsessed with designing armor that could withstand a full-blown attack. Inspired by the chain mail worn by shark researchers, he began consulting with experts on how to test his ideas. The suit’s seven-year development was chronicled in the 1996 documentary Project Grizzly, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s.

But not all has gone well for Hurtubise. Now 50, the self-proclaimed eccentric doesn’t use schematics and often can’t explain why his inventions—fireproof paste, a bulletproof shield, a light he claims shrinks tumors—work. Over the years, he’s been forced to declare bankruptcy, sell his prototypes on eBay, and even pawn his wedding ring to make up for the debts run up by his obsessive ambitions.

Since Hurtubise lacks financial or university backing, most dismiss his notions as fanciful or downright senseless; others believe his ideas could save lives. “My wife has said, ‘If you’d just invent some simple refrigerator magnet and do an infomercial, we’d be rich,’ ” Hurtubise says. “But I don’t know how to do that. I just build what I see in my head and know it’s going to work.”

Armor Up

Years after his encounter with the bear, Hurtubise was watching RoboCop when he was struck by the idea of body armor. He thought there should be a protective suit that would allow researchers to test so-called bear-proof sprays and safely observe grizzly behavior. He spent the next seven years (and $150,000) constructing a series of suits he dubbed Ursus Mark. The 7'2" Mark VI—a blend of air cushioning, titanium, and duct tape—successfully endured makeshift trials in which it was hit by a pickup truck and beaten by bikers armed with baseball bats, as depicted in Project Grizzly. But the armor weighed as much as Hurtubise himself: 150 pounds.

“My only complaint was that the filmmakers didn’t show five minutes of science behind it all,” he says. “Being able to get hit by the truck took years of development.”

Ultimately, Hurtubise’s rematch with a grizzly never came to be. During filming, he was forced to abandon his efforts because the suit was too heavy and he was unable to remain upright on uneven ground. In 2002, a trainer allowed him inside a cage with a Kodiak, which was too confused by Hurtubise’s appearance to approach him.

“She was so terrified, she urinated,” Hurtubise recalls. “I didn’t look human enough.” Limited mobility and questionable usefulness combined to doom the Mark series. “We would never use a suit like that,” says Lana Ciarniello, PhD, a bear behavioral expert. “A solid knowledge of bear behavior is the best thing one can use to avoid being attacked, [which is] rare.”

Nonetheless, the armor brought Hurtubise fame. In addition to the documentary, he was recruited for Japanese game shows, and he inspired a 2003 episode of The Simpsons where Homer constructs a bear-proof suit. He even filmed an Audi commercial. Of course, Hurtubise quickly reinvested the proceeds in his pursuits.

After Hurtubise hung up his bear ambitions, he turned his attention toward other inventions. He had a brother in the military, which piqued his interested in flexible armor, and he believed a suit styled after the one in the videogame Halo would keep soldiers and law enforcement better protected. So Hurtubise invented a suit dubbed the Trojan and performed his trademark experiments, enlisting retired military marksman Keith Cunningham—who had “covered” Hurtubise during his bear expeditions with nonlethal rounds—to help with field tests.

Once, Cunningham recalls, Hurtubise wanted to be shot point-blank, believing his armor-plated chest could take the bullet. “But it’s illegal in our province to point a loaded weapon at someone,” Cunningham says. “So we took the plate out. I shot at it, and the bullet went right through. He turned ashen gray.”

Hurtubise tweaked the Trojan, which he debuted in 2007, to little notice. Eventually, he offered his design to the Canadian military for free, but it can take years for armed forces to evaluate new technology. And existing contracts with equipment vendors render it near impossible for independent inventors without backing or references to succeed. “With industrial military, contracts are sewn up, and they don’t want anyone stepping on toes,” he says. “Engineers pick my brain, but I can’t be affiliated with them. I’m a loose cannon, and my methodology is backward.” Even so, many of Hurtubise’s inventions have grabbed headlines. His fire paste, a gooey substance that hardens to resist flame, was documented by Canada’s Discovery Channel as standing up to temperatures in excess of 3,600° F. Hurtubise held a blowtorch to his helmeted head for 10 minutes to prove it. NASA, he says, was interested but never followed up.

During a demonstration for his blast blanket, a plate meant to absorb heavy firepower, a crowd watched as Cunningham shot round after round of 12-gauge shotgun shells into it. When it finally budged, it only fell over; the glass behind it was unharmed. “I told cops about it every chance I got,” Cunningham says. “Imagine having that on the doors of patrol vehicles for protection or under military transports. I told them, ‘Try to look past Troy’."

There was a reason for Cunningham’s caution: Hurtubise looks more like a mountain man than an esteemed inventor. Worse, his claims sometimes stretch the boundaries of reason. Hurtubise garnered skeptical looks when he announced that his God Light device had shrunk his sister-in-law’s cysts as well as tumors in mice. He even believes it can cure Parkinson’s. “Light is extremely effective against certain cancers,” he says. “All I did was take all spectrums of light, electromagnetic radiation, and put them together. And it works. I don’t know why, but it does.”

Hurtubise’s claims have never been validated by an outside auditor, in large part because subjecting a group of sick people to a makeshift electromagnetic beam stretches ethical considerations. When Hurtubise turned the light on himself, he experienced what he calls the Hyde effect. His hair began falling out, and he lost 20 pounds. Then the God Light stopped working. Hurtubise has yet to find the money to resurrect it.

Invent and Invent Again

Today, Hurtubise operates a scrapyard in Ontario and dismisses notions of patents (“the stuff is too easy to duplicate, and it costs $80,000 to file an application”). He rejects offers to outright sell his creations—like fire paste—because he frequently sells off shares to fund their development. “By the time I got fire paste to the point of testing, 70 percent of it was owned by investors,” he says. “So when a university wants it, I have only 30 percent left. They’re not interested in that.” And yet, Hurtubise can’t stop inventing. He still feels compelled to put in 21-hour days refining his projects. His current plan is to find funding for the Apache, the latest version of his Trojan suit, which he says protects 93 percent of a user’s body and offers 96 percent flexibility. A prototype will cost $70,000. “It’ll take six to eight months to build by hand. I’ll try to market it to law enforcement like SWAT.” He needs another $100,000 to rebuild the God Light, renamed the EMR-5, which he now claims will only cure breast cancer. He wants to take it to Johns Hopkins for testing.

As for Hurtubise’s legacy, it’s hard to predict. There’s a chance he’ll join the long list of inventors who were once disparaged until time proved them correct. Even the airborne Wright brothers were thought to have faked their maiden flights. If that’s Hurtubise’s fate, he seems comfortable with it. “I’ve been called a maverick, a nutcase, everything,” he says. “It never bothered me. Without imagination, science is nothing.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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Trying to Save Money? Avoid Shopping on a Smartphone
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Today, Americans do most of their shopping online—but as anyone who’s indulged in late-night retail therapy likely knows, this convenience often can come with an added cost. Trying to curb expenses, but don't want to swear off the convenience of ordering groceries in your PJs? New research shows that shopping on a desktop computer instead of a mobile phone may help you avoid making foolish purchases, according to Co. Design.

Ying Zhu, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, recently led a study to measure how touchscreen technology affects consumer behavior. Published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, her research found that people are more likely to make more frivolous, impulsive purchases if they’re shopping on their phones than if they’re facing a computer monitor.

Zhu, along with study co-author Jeffrey Meyer of Bowling Green State University, ran a series of lab experiments on student participants to observe how different electronic devices affected shoppers’ thinking styles and intentions. Their aim was to see if subjects' purchasing goals changed when it came to buying frivolous things, like chocolate or massages, or more practical things, like food or office supplies.

In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to use a desktop or a touchscreen. Then, they were presented with an offer to purchase either a frivolous item (a $50 restaurant certificate for $30) or a useful one (a $50 grocery certificate for $30). These subjects used a three-point scale to gauge how likely they were to purchase the offer, and they also evaluated how practical or frivolous each item was. (Participants rated the restaurant certificate to be more indulgent than the grocery certificate.)

Sure enough, the researchers found that participants had "significantly higher" purchase intentions for hedonic (i.e. pleasurable) products when buying on touchscreens than on desktops, according to the study. On the flip side, participants had significantly higher purchase intentions for utilitarian (i.e. practical) products while using desktops instead of touchscreens.

"The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers' favor of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers' preference for utilitarian products," Zhu explains in a press release.

The study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on "experiential thinking" than subjects using desktop computers, whereas those with desktop computers demonstrated higher scores for rational thinking.

“When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” Zhu explained to Co. Design. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.”

Zhu’s advice for consumers looking to conserve cash? Stow away the smartphone when you’re itching to splurge on a guilty pleasure.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Animals
Elusive Butterfly Sighted in Scotland for the First Time in 133 Years

Conditions weren’t looking too promising for the white-letter hairstreak, an elusive butterfly that’s native to the UK. Threatened by habitat loss, the butterfly's numbers have dwindled by 96 percent since the 1970s, and the insect hasn’t even been spotted in Scotland since 1884. So you can imagine the surprise lepidopterists felt when a white-letter hairstreak was seen feeding in a field in Berwickshire, Scotland earlier in August, according to The Guardian.

A man named Iain Cowe noticed the butterfly and managed to capture it on camera. “It is not every day that something as special as this is found when out and about on a regular butterfly foray,” Cowe said in a statement provided by the UK's Butterfly Conservation. “It was a very ragged and worn individual found feeding on ragwort in the grassy edge of an arable field.”

The white-letter hairstreak is a small brown butterfly with a white “W”-shaped streak on the underside of its wings and a small orange spot on its hindwings. It’s not easily sighted, as it tends to spend most of its life feeding and breeding in treetops.

The butterfly’s preferred habitat is the elm tree, but an outbreak of Dutch elm disease—first noted the 1970s—forced the white-letter hairstreak to find new homes and food sources as millions of Britain's elm trees died. The threatened species has slowly spread north, and experts are now hopeful that Scotland could be a good home for the insect. (Dutch elm disease does exist in Scotland, but the nation also has a good amount of disease-resistant Wych elms.)

If a breeding colony is confirmed, the white-letter hairstreak will bump Scotland’s number of butterfly species that live and breed in the country up to 34. “We don’t have many butterfly species in Scotland so one more is very nice to have,” Paul Kirkland, director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, said in a statement.

Prior to 1884, the only confirmed sighting of a white-letter hairstreak in Scotland was in 1859. However, the insect’s newfound presence in Scotland comes at a cost: The UK’s butterflies are moving north due to climate change, and the white-letter hairstreak’s arrival is “almost certainly due to the warming climate,” Kirkland said.

[h/t The Guardian]

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