Articulation Breakdown Week: Introduction

This week, RAC's taking a look at the many facets and applications of toy articulation. What is it used for? How does it work? What can go wrong? But first, a little bit of action figure history as an introduction. The jointing in action figures goes back hundreds of years but has always had the same goal: to simulate figures in motion. Keep reading for more!
In 1964, Samuel F. Speers filed for a patent on the body for GI Joe, then known as "America's Movable Fighting Man". The body was based on a centuries-old device employed by artists when live models were not available: the articulated artist's mannequin. Created to be the boys' toy answer to the Barbie doll with its countless accessory packs, GI Joe's popularity inspired countless other products, from simple knockoffs to other articulated dolls, and ultimately spawned a new category of toy: the action figure.



From the very beginning the goal of the articulated action figure, as inherited from the mannequin, has been to enable the imagination by replicating the human range of motion. But doing this with fidelity is difficult - especially when holding to a retail product's budget. Human motion is internal, created by a release of calcium ions that causes muscles to contract, which pull on tendons which then pull on bones. With time and skill and cubic money it may be possible to create a small-scale replica of human musculature that functions the way we do, but for what's out there on store shelves the reality is that we are trying to replicate soft, flexible, mutable shapes using rigid materials formed into a static shape. It's never going to work 100%, and the quest to work around that has taken toy design to some interesting places over the years.

We got to Transformers by a chain of spinoffs and coincidences that, surprisingly, does not include Kevin Bacon. Takara licensed the GI Joe body for use in Japan under the name Combat Joe, but in the late `60s and early `70s Japanese popular culture was all about science fiction. Taking the superhero-disguise gimmick of Ideal's GI Joe rival Captain Action and mixing it with homegrown characters and the GI Joe body molds, Takara created Henshin Cyborg. With the help of his accessory packs, each sold separately, Cyborg could henshin(transform) into a variety of popular sci-fi characters of the time such as giant robots Mazinger Z and Red Baron, the original Kamen Rider, and more.

By 1974 Takara was looking to switch things up and introduced a new line of smaller, more economical figures based on Cyborg's basic look: Microman, one of the first 3-3/4" figure lines. Nearly a decade later Microman begat the Microchange line of transforming robots which doubled as everyday items. At the same time, the even smaller-scale Diaclone line was branching off into robots that looked like ordinary cars. Which got Hasbro's attention, and thus got us Transformers.



Luckily, in our vanity and vulnerability, we tend to make robots that look like ourselves because we find them easier to identify with. This has the added benefit of making external joints not look so out of place. Though our ability to imagine the movement of gigantic machines far outstrips our ability to simulate that movement, bringing us full circle in a way. But through all of that, whether we're making robots or people or monsters or anything else, the basic types of joints that toys use, be they human, robot, or something else entirely, have remained the same since the days of the mannequin.

Tuesday through Friday, we're going to take a look at the core mechanisms of toy articulation, and consider their uses, limitations, and points of failure. Tomorrow, the journey begins just around the bend.
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