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And Of Course – That Time Spider-Man Invented a Device That Could Cancel Out Magnetism

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In this feature I spotlight particularly outlandish explanations from comic books.

Today we look at the time that Peter Parker, in his spare time, cobbled together a device that could cancel out one of the elementary forces of nature.

In Amazing Spider-Man #2 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man runs afoul of the Vulture, who can fly (although no one can figure out just HOW he is able to do it)…

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After escaping a death trap, Spider-Man tries to figure out how to stop the Vulture…

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When he gets back home (I love that he is just chilling in his room in his costume), Spider-Man is busy doing other things when the idea sort of casually comes to him…

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So he works all night, but only using what is available in his room. So what did Spider-Man build?

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He waits until the Vulture strikes again, and then he makes his move…

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The Vulture crashes to the ground and is arrested. So what did Spider-Man’s device do?

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Yes, Spider-Man invented a device that could CANCEL OUT MAGNETISM. And I just love how nonchalant the whole thing is. “Oh yeah, this thing I have that cancels out magnetism, a force of nature.” NOTE: As commenter Cvarkodjordje pointed out, you obviously can make items magnetize and then demagnetize fairly easily, but that’s not what Spidey is doing here. He’s not demagnetizing the Vulture, he’s just eliminating magnetism entirely. Magnetism for Stan Lee was this sort of almost mystical force. Magnetism and transistors could do pretty much anything.

Of course, when the device doesn’t work against the Vulture the next time around (as Vulture developed a different way to fly), Spider-Man just junks the thing for the next four decades before Fred Van Lente used in a story a few years back.

34 Comments

Geeze. Spiderman could have helped the X-men out a few times by letting them borrow this.

spider man could have made a small fortune with that device for surely the x-men would have gladly bought it to use against magnetoe.

Cvarkodjordje

March 6, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Brain…. ever heard of demagnetizer?

Ha! True, but that’s a whole different thing that what Spidey’s device is. He is not magnetizing or demagnetizing, he’s just canceling the effect entirely. Vulture was flying the way that Magneto flies, through just harness “the power of magnetism.” Stan Lee basically treated magnetism like it was a magic catchall for stuff. And Spider-Man just canceled them out with a device he built over night in his bedroom.

Great stuff.

But why doesn’t the spidersense tingle before The Vulture attacks from behind? Does it switch of when Peter tries to make a small fortune?

I think that The Insane Clown Posse speaks for all of us here… on a more serious note, though, it almost certainly appears as though the Vulture’s wings are made of an exceptionally strong diamagnetic material (probably an extremely high-Tc superconductor) and it is possible that Parker created a device that was able to electronically lower the critical temperature of the Vulture’s wings and remove his ability to levitate at normal temperatures. Lee, of course, did not assume that his mostly-teenage (or younger) audience would fully grasp the physics involved, so he merely made an overly-reductive statement about Peter’s device to confer the basic idea described above without unnecessary confusion.

Do I get my no-prize?

Vulture ditched those feathers sticking out of his butt by his next appearance. Obviously those were the source of his magnetic flying power.

It’s funny how we get to laugh about a device like this now, when a year ago Tony Stark came up with a armor that could SPLIT A GOD in five.

Comics. They never change.

Wow. And Spider-Man not once decided to hand this over to the X-Men, who had their asses handed towards them by Magneto throughout the years? Talk about Spidey-dickery.

And Spider-Man doesn’t use this to make billions of dollars, give his sickly aunt around-the-clock medical care in a huge mansion out of the super crime infested city and tell JJJ to take his job and shove it?

Yeah, not really that sympathetic to Peter Parker’s problems now.

The scientific side of Peter is a tricky thing to write. You want him to have an intellect, but at the same time he can’t be on the level of Reed Richards or Tony Stark because the reader has to accept him as an everyman with everyday problems for the Spidey formula to work.

If the Vulture is flying the way Magneto does, then he is using Diamagnetic Levitation to achieve lift. Water, like gold and silver, is diamagnetic and develops a magnetic field opposing any externally applied field. If the external field is large enough, the repulsive force can be larger than the downward pull of gravity, and levitation results. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VlWonYfN3A

There does not seem to be any upper bound on the field that Magneto can generate. (The frog in the video is in a magnetic field 200,000 times larger than the Earth’s field). How the heck the Vulture is accomplishing this, I do not know. If he could create fields large enough to levitate himself, without an enormous power supply, then he should not have to rob banks for a living.

But – if that IS how he is doing it, then a demagnetizer would shut off the diamagnetism, and the Vulture’s flight would be ended. After all – they couldn’t put it in a comic book if it wasn’t true!

Your Friendly Neighborhood Physics Professor,

Jim Kakalios

“Magnetism for Stan Lee was this sort of almost mystical force.”

Miracles, man. How do they work? Like, fuckin’ magnets. How do they work?

But cancelling a force is entirely possible, by countering it with an equal and opposite force. It is called an inverter, after all. That suggests that it’s cancelling Vulchy’s magnetic field by generating an inverted one so that they combine subtractively, the same way noise-cancelling headphones work. That is, generating a peak for each trough and a trough for each peak, so that together the two fields add up to zero.

Was my comment lost, caught in moderation, or deleted because you want to use it for another feature? I just want to make sure before i assume it was lost and repost it.

LEADER DESSLOK

March 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm

I’m just a dumb cluck who’s not a physics major but as a layman I assumed that a Physics hot-dogger like Peter Parker probably shopped regularly at his Friendly Neighborhood RADIO SHACK, which is why he had so many “goodies” and doo-dads in his room! Could he make an anti-magnetic inverter? According to PHYSICS: AMERICAN COMIC BOOK STYLE as written by Professors REED RICHARDS and JOHN ROBINSON, an “inverter” is supposed to transform direct current to alternate current. But an “Anti-Magnetic Inverter” could probably do something similar based on somehow changing “unlike” magnetic poles to like “poles” which would simply cause them to repel each other and thereby “cancel” out whatever magnetic device The Vulture was using! In the re-match months later, The Vulture fixed his flying device so that he could change the magnetic poles at his leisure thereby making Parker’s inverter useless. And if Robinson and Richards says its possible–then it works for me!

I think Desslok’s explanation makes sense, but I’m a biologist, not a physicist.

This story reminds me of how Stan would use things he’d heard about but didn’t entirely understand to explain things in his stories – like how Iron Man’s armor was “transistor-powered”, when transistors don’t “power” anything – that’s not how they work!

Jeff Nettleton

March 6, 2014 at 10:24 pm

One of the reasons I was never a big Spidey fan was that he seemed to cobble together stuff like this at will, yet couldn’t seem to figure out a way to make money with that skill. It just didn’t make sense. Well, that, and the constant whining. Maybe it was just the writers of the 70s but Spidey always seemed to be in a tizzy about something. I preferred him in Marvel team-Up, where the soap opera was kept at a minimum.

These days, I get why Peter was always worrying about something; it was a gimmick to make him accessible. Thankfully, they toned that down a bit, as the years wore on.

I suspect it’s something like Christopher Bennett mentioned above, producing peaks and troughs inverse to the Vulture’s own magnetic device. But it doesn’t have to cancell out the Vulture’s field entirely– it may’ve simply weakened the Vulture’s magnetic field enough that it could no longer support flight. And that’s why Spidey’s device never got used for much else. It just wasn’t all that powerfull. Peter was simply smart enough to realize that magnetic generator small enough to fit on someone’s back probably couldn’t produce much more force than what was necessary to keep him aloft, and that it would only have to be weakened a small amount to ground him.

The physics of this make my head hurt.

“Magnetism for Stan Lee was this sort of almost mystical force. Magnetism and transistors could do pretty much anything.”

And radiation. Let us not forget the magical, life-giving, power-granting force that is radiation in the hands of Stan Lee.

Was Pete’s Spider-sense on the fritz or something? It seems like there’s at least two times in those panels that it should have gone off…

]The fact Brian refers to it as an “anti magnetic inverter” doesn’t imply he cancels out magnetism itself, only that he’s figured a way to deactivate the Vulture’s magnetic power source. I doubt it would work against Magneto or that he’s figured out how to cancel magnetism in a more general said.
That said, yeah, brilliantly deducing the Vulture flies by magnetism and figuring out how to short out the engine is kind of an amazing leap.
And yeah again about the transistors. I never could figure out how transistorizing guns and cannons as Tony does in the original is supposed to make them more destructive.

Was Pete’s Spider-sense on the fritz or something? It seems like there’s at least two times in those panels that it should have gone off…

It was just the fourth Spider-Man story ever, so it is likely that they weren’t even quite sure how his Spider-Sense worked yet at this point.

Meanwhile, the Vulture passes Stupid Villain 101 – “let’s see, unconscious superhero that I want to dispose of. I’ll just fly him over here and drop him in some water that’s not very deep.” instead of “gee, I’m pretty high up – i wonder what happens to a spider that falls 1500 feet to concrete below – let’s test that out, shall we?”
End story. End series.

Ethan Shuster

March 7, 2014 at 6:33 am

Radiation and “atomic” stuff was big with Lee, too, but that was really all over pop culture and comic books in the 50s and 60s. Godzilla was the product of radiation.

Fred Van Lente reused this idea? In what story?

His Extremist storyline in Web of Spider-Man.

I’m going to have to go back and reread those because I remember reading that storyline but not the anti-magnetic device.

The very early Spider-Man stories really emphasise Peter’s inventive abilities. After that, there’s a move over to the everyman aspects.

One of the reasons I was never a big Spidey fan was that he seemed to cobble together stuff like this at will, yet couldn’t seem to figure out a way to make money with that skill. It just didn’t make sense.

It’s been a while since I’ve read the Lee/Ditko era stories, but IIRC this is addressed somewhere in those stories. Peter Parker knows he can make a boatload of money by selling his inventions (particularly his web fluid) to the highest bidder, but in doing so he would reveal himself to be Spider-Man. Also, the notion that he can do more good by using them to fight baddies as Spider-Man, rather than selling them for personal gain. The whole “great power, great responsibility” angle.

I wonder how pissed off Ditko was at Lee for constantly giving Spidey that level of altruism.

As I understand it, the webbing would dissolve after prolonged exposure to the air. So Peter probably didn’t think the web fluid would be a big seller wirh that big “industry flaw”…

(Remember this was during a time when people didn’t know they wanted Post-It Notes TM…)

Even a web that lasts an hour could be useful though, for cops or for, say, mountain climbers in a tight spot.

In the Lee/Ditko stories, Peter actually DID try to sell his webbing formula for money, but was rejected because the formula only lasted an hour.

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