Archive for January 30th, 2012


I almost called today’s piece Deus Ex Machina because I’m writing about a machine in my novel.  Okay, it’s a bad play on words.  But this last weekend an engineer friend asked about a machine Layla has.  In The Compass Master I call it simply the ascender, and it plays a pivotal role near the climax by getting her up fast to a high place.  She just slides her rope through the do-hicky, gets into the harness, and WEEEE!  Up she goes.

How realistic is this, you ask?  I mean, just because we’ve seen such technology in the movies doesn’t mean it’s real (hello, Mythbusters).  And the way action film thieves or ninjas or soldiers simply zip up ropes and get out of trouble fast strains credulity, doesn’t it?  Like, why aren’t they using a climber’s REAL ascender — those little metal handles that have to be laboriously moved one hand grip at a time as you work your way up a mountain or wall?

Well, I’m happy to report that Layla’s ascender is based on a prototype I read about in a little blurb in an obscure magazine (Innovation, which by the way has some real cutting-edge tech info) that happened to be lying around the office at work.  Being a pack rat for articles with info I figure I might use in a story, I cut it out and kept it handy.  Sure enough, I soon applied that one-paragraph piece to Layla’s arsenal of tools.  I kept a few of the basic facts by writing that Layla bought a prototype of the machine from an MIT student who invented it.  On the fictional side, I make his Atlas Powered Rope Ascender, as it’s called, smaller and easier to cart around in a duffel bag along with her other burglary/scholar  tools.

Turns out I was really on target about a smaller version.  That article appeared in 2007, and since then the student has come a long way – he seems to have established his own company.  The Atlas PRA is now being tested by the Marines, and some of the company’s “products are available to U.S. Government personnel only.”  Wow – Layla really got in on the ground floor, didn’t she?  One of those Atlas devices is the APA-5, the “Lightweight Power Ascender” currently under development by the Office of Naval Research.  It can go from 0 to 5 feet a second and weighs about 15 pounds.  How cool is that?  Layla’s version is even lighter, I’ve decided, because she doesn’t need its lifting capacity of 500 pounds   Here’s the link to that Atlas page:  http://www.atlasdevices.com/dev/lpa

So there you have it.  A little blurb about an obscure researcher’s prototype contributed to a key scene in my novel.

How about you?  Have you ever stumbled across information or an article or TV show or something that solves a problem in your plotting?