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Back in the 1970s and 1980s I remember watching The Six Million Dollar Man. The problem is the show hasn't been in reruns that I've seen recently. I remember he had two bionic legs, one bionic arm, and a bionic eye. But I don't remember him having anything else that was enhanced.

But even as a kid, there was one thing that bothered me. There were times he'd lift or turn over cars, and I remember one time he used his bionic arm to block a very large stage light that fell from high up on the set. I can understand his arm being able to handle the weight or the shock, but what has always bothered me was his back.

If he were lifting something off the ground, his back would have to support the weight as well as his arm and bionic legs. In the case of blocking the falling light, the shock would pass from his arm to his back.

Can the human back (and other bones and muscles and the supporting structure) support the heavy weights his arm could lift and absorb the shock from blocking an extremely heavy falling object? Or, in reality, for this to work, would he need some kind of re-enforcing structure to support the weight he could lift with his arm?

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up vote 18 down vote accepted

The Answer: He couldn't. Without a reinforced skeletal structure, his body should crumple or his limbs should be torn from their far less durable organic host. The televised series, The Six Million Dollar Man does not address this egregious error in both physical capabilities of a human body, nor in the capabilities of physical science considered possible in that era.

The television series The Six Million Dollar Man was based on a book called Cyborg back in 1972. The novel does not talk in great detail about the surgery and the television show also does a significant amount of hand-waving regarding the cybernetic enhancements to Steve Austin and the amount of physical trauma such a series of modifications would require.

Let's assume that it was physically possible (baring the issues of nerve replacement, nerve connectivity, organic to inorganic interface, inorganic rejection and other like medical issues).

They replaced:

  • His left and right legs (which probably meant his hip bones as well)
  • One of his arms (in the book, his left, the TV series, his right)
  • His eye (book, camera prosthetic, still blind, TV series, vision enhanced)
  • At least some parts of his nervous system had to be augmented to allow the integration of all of his limbs to his mental control.

Cyborg version of Steve Austin - In the book, Steve Austin's bionic limbs were more powerful than his original limbs but did not have the range of capabilities the television series offered. His legs gave him greater running speed and even greater running endurance. The book made his arm an armored battering ram used to knock down doors, deflect bullets and crush human skulls with ease. He did not use it to lift extraordinary weights with any regularity. Cyborg, offered a superspy with superhuman strength with limited applications, tireless fighting machine who was ruthlessly efficient and capable of doing things normal spies would be challenged to do.

Television Series: The Six Million Dollar Man - The TV version of Steve Austin was physically superior to even the book version of the character. It showed Austin regularly (with requisite sound effect) super-leaping twelve foot fences and (in slow motion) running speeds upwards of forty-five to fifty miles per hour. The TV series was far more generous and allowed him numerous feats of lifting that would seem incongruous with having ONLY a bionic arm. The TV series also did not have Steve use his bionic limb to damage people if he didn't have to. He would hit them but rarely kill them. In the TV series, we have the same spy, much less ruthless, with an emphasis on the science fiction aspects whose bionics were made more powerful without explaining how Steve Austin could perform those feats as easily as he did.

Media Creep: This is a sign of how books are translated into other media without having a corresponding analysis to be sure of internal continuity. His powers were increased without understanding of the potential physical implications. (Science fiction in the 1970's required a strong suspension of belief, likely because science literacy was less common then.)

Possible Explanation: If I were to hazard a reasonable means of explaining, the television version of the Bionic Man would have had to had additional reinforcement, both to deal with the shock of running at 40-50 miles per hour and as a back support whenever he used his arm to lift weights that should tear the arm from his body.

The simplest option would be to augment his skeletal structure, particularly his spinal column, and rib cage with both synthetic muscle tissues designed particularly to reduce stress, wear on his body, support for his organs and to reinforce his bones with carbon reinforced polymers. Both of these technologies would be reasonable, considering the strength of his limbs, their incredibly tiny power supplies and their overall durability.

The nanotube treatment could require reapplication, which might explain why he would need to stay under government care for as long as he wanted to maintain his bionic limbs. Rejection must have already been handled because his limbs were seamlessly integrated into his nervous system and in the case of the TV series, into his brain stem's visual cortex. While nanotechnology was not part of the story origin, it would make sense since any other technology would require the removal or replacement of his spinal column, leaving very little of the main other than his internal organs, his brain and his left organic arm.

The television cyborg was far more sophisticated than the original story's version and the technology required was certainly more advanced as well.

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This answer is rather frustrating. It fits in the pattern of providing a lot of facts, but only a speculative answer - as if all the facts that don't answer the question will somehow obfuscate the fact that the answer is missing. If you provided just your thoughts on the actual answer, with any supporting details you have, that would come much closer to a viable answer. (And were there nanites in the original series? I don't think the concept was in a form that would have worked in the series in the 1970s.) – Tango Feb 13 '12 at 23:53
Using the technology they promoted in the era the series was created would not have only been impossible, it was akin to magic. No technologies made then would have even been possible. Both the books and the series skip over any medical aspects of the technology with frequency as if even they knew it was impossible and they wanted to explore the potential ideas of a super spy, not the medicine or the technical aspects of creating a cyborg. – Thaddeus Howze Feb 14 '12 at 0:27
That's an excellent answer -- why not just use that? It's succinct and answers the question perfectly. I didn't specify "in universe," and was asking if it were possible -- you do a good job of summarizing why it isn't in that comment. – Tango Feb 14 '12 at 2:23
Thank you for putting that info in the front -- it's good and pretty much cuts through any objections that might come up. – Tango Feb 14 '12 at 18:54
I remember a scene in which he is in a sabotaged elevator which goes into free fall. He tears through a wall, grabs a cable (lots of friction smoke), and brings the plummeting car to a gentle stop. His feet don't leave the floor. No possible bionic augmentation can account for that. The only possible explanation is "comic book physics" and the scientific illiteracy of the writers (or of their intended audience). – Beta Feb 14 '12 at 20:52

To the gentleman who made comments about Austin's construction, he erred in his legs. This is where I have a large(er) beef with the bionic calamity on the whole. It clearly depicts in the introduction in a computer graft of his legs they are only bionic from his feet up to just above mid-thigh, which presents huge obstacles.

All the great feats (leaping, squatting, running, etc) would greatly involve his entire leg (hips and all) and glutes, not to mention the run-down back ordeal. He could probably get away with extending his legs and lifting a huge amount of weight that way, but w/o the rest of his upper thighs & glutes he's really limited.

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It is quite possible that he had this extra structure as well. The 2 legs, one arm and eye are just the purely "bionic" pieces, whereas is is made clear that they could rebuild him, implying that they could repair all of his injuries, and blend the bionic parts into the rest of his body structure.

So I reckon you are right, but the rest of the infrastructure - probably conecting into his legs - was just that, support for his arm. So it got no other mention.

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Rudy Wells mentions in the pilot episode concern about Steve's spine, and whether or not Steve would be able to use his remaining arm. This small comment might be interpreted that further enhancements were made.

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Of course another error with his running at great speed that I haven't seen addressed: how does he pump his nonbionic arm fast enough to keep up with his legs and bionic arm? In essence his human arm would flail around goofily while he ran at superspeed. – Maskatron Aug 31 '14 at 0:05

Due to limited budget and special effects and imagination etc :-) when the six million dollar man was made, a lot of facts were excluded about Steve Austin's Bionics. To answer some of the previous questions, the fact is that much more of Steve's body was augmented in order to give him the abilities that he possesses. With regards to his legs, the whole of both legs were replaced up to the gluteus maximus which were replaced with synthetic equivalents, as well as his right arm being replaced along with several of his ribs on his right side were replaced with titanium substitute bone replacements, his spinal column wasn't replaced but was reinforced so that it could bare significant load/shock etc, also to enhance Steve's reactions times to compensate for his increased speed, synthetic fibres connected to a computer in his brain which also controls amongst other functions his bionic eye and also enhances his cognitive processing speeds which basically increases his reaction times significantly and has the side effect of allowing Steve to learn quicker and speed read etc.

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Actually there were enhancements to Austin's ribcage and spine. He cracked several vertebrae in the crash which were replaced with alloy replicas along with polymer discs. At least for his lower spine.

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