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May the fourth be with you

On Star Wars Day, a history professor highlights the brains and brawn of the Star Wars franchise and how close we might be to droid and force technology.

Editor’s Note: The following is an expert opinion piece by technology historian and professor Jonathan Coopersmith. Today is May 4th, a day Star Wars fans ubiquitously say “May the Fourth Be With You,” as a play on the “force” that brings life and death in the movies.

Coopersmith comments on lightsabers and droids, and highlights how forward-thinking the film was for its era.

Star Wars is “space opera” of the highest caliber. It’s not science fiction, but it proved amazingly popular. It’s more imagined golden age nostalgia than forward-thinking speculation. George Lucas developed his films around archetypal concepts of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell — not images of the future.

Perhaps its major impact on the real world (apart from economic and inspirational [as many a parent can attest]) was the linkage between the movie series and the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

A history graduate student, Ian Boley, is writing his dissertation on All Things to All Men: The Reagan Administration, The Strategic Defense Initiative, and Sources of Technological Innovation. Boley writes:

Star Wars has always been controversial among its fans, but it has seen its share of political controversy as well. When President Ronald Reagan announced on March 23, 1983, that he wanted scientists and engineers to begin searching for an alternative to offense-based nuclear deterrence, it set off a political firestorm. Domestic opponents of the program began to call it the “Star Wars speech” within hours. This term stuck, as many of these terms do — think of things like “The Anaconda Plan” or “Obamacare.” While at the time the press probably paid more attention to the planned release of Return of the Jedi two months later, the White House response went into overdrive.

The administration detailed several staffers to go through their own extensive press tracking to find the source of the name (the New York Times later concluded that Senator Ted Kennedy had coined the term). Since the program was a major defense expenditure, they also ran specialized polls on it. These polls found serious differences in public perceptions of a program named “Star Wars” vs. more prosaic names. “Project A” was floated as an alternative, and one advisor even suggested that the President stop answering all questions about “the Star Wars project” from the press. The White House kept trying to make “The Strategic Defense Initiative,” or “SDI” replace what their political opponents had saddled them with. Eventually, though, as with all great names, even the administration could no longer resist, and began to lean into using “Star Wars.”

Also of historical interest:  When Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister on May 4, 1979, supporters placed an ad in the London Evening News proclaiming “May The Fourth Be With You.”  The reference was obvious.

Lightsabers are a ridiculous weapon, good for movies and play but not the real world. A pistol is much more effective as Harrison Ford demonstrated in the Indiana Jones movies. Equally ridiculous, but good for movies are the Stormtrooper ray guns — no obvious automatic aiming mechanisms.

What’s fascinating is the merging of commercial business and fan enthusiasm for Star Wars Day.  Disney, in particular, is very good at encouraging fans to go out all.  

And go out we do, for May the fourth…