The United States Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has been responsible for some amazing technological innovations since it opened its doors in 1958: the internet, stealth technology, and virtual personal assistants, to name only a few.
There’s been a lot of what-ifs and also-rans, as well. The agency’s scientists are capable of some pretty far out ideas. Here are five of them that didn’t make the cut, as mentioned in Sharon Weinberger’s DARPA history, The Imagineers of War.
The Mechanical Elephant
The Vietnam War was well underway in 1966, and DARPA scientists were interested in developing a better means of transporting supplies and soldiers across the nation’s muddy, tangled jungles. Their solution was an elephant. A Mechanical elephant. DARPA designs called for a quadrupedal metal beast piloted from within by an unlucky, soon to be roasted alive soldier. Although the Mechanical Elephant never got off the drawing board, the agency is experimenting today with cargo-carrying quadruped robots.
Psychic Super Spies
During the sixties and seventies Russian and American Cold Warriors were willing to consider any idea — no matter how weird — that might give them an advantage over their enemies. One of the odder concepts that both nations looked into was the possibility of weaponizing psychic powers for use in espionage activities. DARPA scientist George Lawrence was tapped to lead an investigation into the phenomenon. Lawrence was extremely skeptical, but research he did, hobnobbing with self-proclaimed witches and counter-culture occultist types until the agency was satisfied that it was all hokum. Oh, and here’s a postscript: Some people think the Soviets were doing this stuff just to screw with their American counterparts.
DARPA was always on the lookout for better weapons. Among those they considered were “gyrojet” pistols and rifles. Gyrojet weapons fire tiny rockets instead of bullets. While gyrojet weapons have an awful lot of sci-fi appeal, they weren’t especially practical. The ammunition, while powerful, was very expensive, and the guns themselves were not very accurate. A handful of gyrojet guns still exist today in the hands of collectors, and occasionally, you’ll see them pop up in movies. Otherwise, they’re no substitute for a standard firearm.
I’m not a physics guy, so I’m going to explain this one the best that I can. In theory, the element hafnium can form isomers under certain circumstances — variants of the original element with more energy contained in their nuclei — that when released explode, releasing massive amounts of radiation. DARPA scientist wanted to create a handheld hafnium bomb, and here’s the thing: Since the science behind the detonation is different from what is used to trigger a nuclear bomb, DARPA thought it wouldn’t fall under current international weapons bans. So, yeah: secret suitcase nukes. There were enough scientists who doubted the science behind the hafnium bomb that plans for it were shelved. That we know of.
After the Soviets developed a reliable intercontinental missile, the United States became extremely interested in developing some kind of shield. In the late fifties, DARPA scientists theorized that if they exploded nuclear missiles in the Earth’s magnetosphere the resulting mass of electrons would create a force field capable of neutralizing incoming Soviet missiles. A plan was put into place to test the theory: Operation Argus. Three missiles were launched in secret in 1958, but the results weren’t promising enough to continue.