MacGyver, armed only with his trusty Swiss Army knife and a roll of tape there was no limit to what that fictional man could achieve.
Angus MacGyver was brought to life by Richard Dean Anderson and brought a Blue Peter like ingenuity to taking on the Evil Doers of the world. Fans of the A Team will remember similar feats from Mr T and friends, who could turn a lawnmower and a box of matches into a flame-throwing megatank faster than you could compose a montage of explosion shots.
MacGyver went around the world and was a great success for ABC, its makers. Outlandish though some of our hero’s exploits may seem, there have been plenty of real-life MacGyvers, some of whose attempts to bend ordinary materials to extraordinary uses could easily have been dismissed by Hollywood’s script writers as too damn silly to be believed.
Although MacGyver tried to avoid violence and didn’t like carrying a gun, sadly it’s war that tends to put humans in the position of trying to fashion something from what lies around them.
1 – The opium cigarettes of World War One
World War One is a by-word for ‘mechanised slaughter’, the martial expression of the industrial age, but as the war became a global conflict, the fighting got more traditional – lots of the sort of standing in a straight line stuff that the British Army in particular has always excelled at.
In the Middle East – whose oil was vital then as it is now – the Brits were taking on the Ottoman Empire, and by 1917 were on their way to Jerusalem hoping, as ever, to be there by Christmas.
Part of their operations were propaganda drops of minor goodies to their opponents in a ‘we’re really nice, why not surrender?’ campaign that sent thousands of ciggies raining down from the skies along with the leaflets.
The Turks enjoyed the cigarettes, but carried on fighting.
That is, until, one British office has a brain wave. He flew over the front line, unscathed as usual by anti-aircraft fire, dropping his addictive bounty to much joy beneath.
However, he’d laced his cigs with opium this time and when an attack soon followed, the Ottoman defenders were in no fit state to do much defending and Jerusalem was on step closer.
2 – Hannibal and the snake catapults
Hannibal’s all about elephants, right? Elephants were his thing. Well, yes and no. This master of the animal kingdom also threw snakes into the ancient war mixer with gay (or not gay) abandon.
After the Roman Empire finally saw him off, Hannibal was in trouble and on the run. He essentially wandered around looking for people to protect him and eventually wound up in Bithynia (now Turkey) with his new best mate King Prusias I.
This wasn’t all a one way thing though. Prusias protected Hannibal, but also needed the world’s current reigning military genius to help out with the neighbours, the Pergamenes.
Hannibal sent his men out on a bit of a nature expedition and when the vastly superior navy of the Pergamenes hove into view, he ordered them into battle.
When this mini fleet started bombing them with clay pots, the Pergamenes thought they were onto a winner. Until the pots smashed and the thousands of snakes – some poisonous, some just unpleasant – that Hannibal had had his troops collect started slithering around their ships, the battle was lost.
If Hannibal had been able to perfect an elephant catapult he probably would have.
3 – The Wee of World War One
When we talk about Weapons of Mass Destruction these days, we think of the roots of these chemical and biological killers reaching back to World War One, when gas became a by-word for a new type of trench terror.
It was first used in the Battle of Ypres, as both sides settled into a bloody stalemate with entrenched lines reaching halfway across Europe and showing little sign of caving in.
The Germans poured chlorine gas into a French sector of the line, killing 6,000 men in 10 minutes and incapacitating many more.
Then, they had to wait for the gas to disperse before they could safely take up their new positions.
The Allies – in a move that is rather typical of the military thinking of the time – didn’t mind sending a load of Canadian troops forward to fill the gap.
Fortunately for these brave troops, their medical officer remembered his chemistry lessons. On seeing a cloud of green gas rolling around, he quickly thought of chlorine and immediately ordered the troops to start peeing into cloths and holding them over their mouths.
It’s a measure of the craziness of the Great War that the order was quickly obeyed. Our hero’s chemical knowledge was good, and the urea in the urine neutralized the chlorine and the Canadians were able to hold the line until reinforcements arrived.
4 – The Song Remains Extremely Frightening
China, the 3rd century BC, and guess what… Yes warlords are battling for control of the country. This time our contestants are the Chu and the Han, led by Xiang Yu and Han Xin.
The Han had the upper hand from the start and finally managed to kidnap Xiang’s wife. Xiang continued his retreat, but must have been pretty fond of Mrs Yu as he sent 100,000 troops to get her home.
It was of course a trap. And despite a no-doubt tearful family reunion, Xiang and his forces were now trapped and surrounded and at the mercy of the Hans vicious musical skills.
Ordering his men to start the ancient military tactic of the “Chu Song from Four Sides”, Han bombarded his opponents with their own (their own, the swine!) traditional songs.
So moved were the Chu they started to desert in massive numbers, leaving their commander to take his own life in despair at his plight and the Han to start a dynasty. Anyone who’s seen Zulu will have seen the terrifying power of Welsh male voice choirs in seemingly impossible situations too.
5 – The fighting dead men
After kicking German and Italian butt in North Africa, the Allies set their sights on rolling the baddies out of southern Europe in 1942. The Germans were ready however, and had decided that Sicily was the likely landing point of their opponents’ first attack.
So, it’s time for some trickery, and what better than a dead man – there were plenty lying around – to carry the news that, really, they weren’t that bothered about Sicily, Sicily’s rubbish.
The unknowing hero of the operation was a Welsh soldier with the suitably patriotic – or anti-English – name of Glyndwr Michael. They stuffed Glyndwr’s pockets with a back-story’s-worth of love letters and personal stuff as well as briefcase filled with fake documents pointing to Greece as the major point of attack for the invasion of Europe.
It worked fantastically well. The Germans sent the kitchen sink to Greece and when the allies did arrive in Sicily it was nicely lightly defended. Well done Glyndwr!
6 – The Jelly Map
Locked in Colditz, our would-be escapee prisoners have access to some top-secret maps but no way of either copying them (no, we don’t know why they didn’t use a pencil either) or nicking them without tipping off the Germans that their troop movement secrets have been blown.
Our intrepid British heroes have a plan though. What about jelly? Well, what about jelly? It turns out that jelly is a damn fine copying medium. Something they probably discovered in public school in circumstances we don’t want to consider in too much detail.
So, armed with gelatine, they get their hands on the maps and make up the – lemon apparently – jelly on top of them and then press the jelly onto greaseproof paper transferring the maps 30 times.
Sadly, the ‘ice cream key’ escape was not so successful.
7 – The great prison floss
Have you ever injured yourself with dental floss? Come on, be honest. It’s pretty tough stuff if it starts cutting in the wrong place, but even with your bleeding gums you probably didn’t imagine it could slice through prison bars.
At least two on-the-run felons would beg to differ.
Italian mobster, Vincenzo Curcio, went on the lam from seven murder charges by cutting his bars with dental floss in 2000. This was Turin, maybe they make steel floss there.
A Texas man also made it out of his cell with the help of this dental necessity. Not as a rope, he would have cut his hands, but by cutting through his bars. In a brilliant teeth hygiene one-two, he lubricated his flexible saw with toothpaste.
It’s amazing that floss is still allowed in prison. Its durability is quite well known and it’s a recommended replacement for most threads and strings in a tight spot.
This is frightening. But think of this. That little metal snaggy thing on the floss dispenser that cuts it off – what the hell is that made of?
8 – The raincoat escapes
Alcatraz is a pretty grim place to find yourself if you’re a wrong-side-of-the-law kind of fella. Not only do you have to do the bar-breaking, guard-avoiding escape stuff, you then have to match open water swimming champs to make it safely to shore.
Three men made the supposedly escape proof prison look like a nursery with the help of a raft of homemade tools, and a raft of coats.
They used a vacuum cleaner motor to make a drill to get through the walls and built heads to fool the guards out of soap and toilet paper.
Perhaps the best part of the escape is that – in a top security prison – they managed to get their hands on 50 raincoats. And there’s your raft.
Frank Morris, a serial escaper, and his mates the Anglin brothers made it the mainland and were never heard of again.
9 – Shrinky Dinks and the scientific breakthrough
If you’re not an American kid, your familiarity with Shrinky Dinks may be limited. Here in the poor, backward UK I remember being taught to heat and shrink crisp packets into, well, tiny crisp packets. In the Land of the Free, they had a special kit, made from a plastic that could be modelled before sticking it in the oven to render your creations, well, tiny.
Great fun! But one scientist saw beyond the tiny fun things to tiny important things. Professor Michelle Khine from the University of California was looking into microfluids, which you’ll find in all sorts of, well, tiny things.
Short of cash for materials, she turned to Shrinky Dinks, and started designing microfluid systems with the shrinking plastic and stuck them in the oven.
They worked, because the fluid-carrying tubes enlarged as the plastic around them grew smaller. And so she stuck a finger up to the R and D departments of the computer giants who were trying to solve microfluid problems but didn’t have Shrinky Dinks.
10 – Astronaut McGyvers!
What better place to pull a ‘Gyver than in space. It’s all part of the training. In space, no-one can hear you scream out for your spare set of Phillips screwdrivers.
When three Nasa space guys, Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise found themselves in trouble in the bit beyond the sky, they had to go the McGyver roots. They were forced into a tiny section of their craft by computer problems they found there’d been a miscalculation on the crucial people to oxygen ration sums. Basically, there was only enough for two.
So, they had to act. They had some lithium hydroxide, which can ‘scrub’ carbon dioxide out of air, but it was the wrong shape for the attachments they had. So they made the ‘Houston we have a problem’ call and were advised to do it themselves.
This they did, with a plastic flight cover, a suit hose, a fan, a sock and plenty of duct tape.
They survived. But you know that don’t you. That’s right, it’s the Apollo 13 space guys. OK, astronauts, we were just trying to be different.