Growing up, I was determined to become the world’s first superhero. How hard could it be?
I spent my days transforming my basement into a real-life Batcave, to the exasperation of my parents, and exploring the mechanics of automatic grappling hooks.
One particularly disappointing Christmas, I was informed in a letter from Santa I would not be receiving grappling hooks or weaponized batarangs. Adding insult to injury, I didn’t even get the live kangaroo I had asked for because according to St. Nick, “it would be cruel to tear it away from its family in Australia.”
This was my first brush with the harsh reality that becoming the real-life Batman would not be as straightforward as I had anticipated.
Twenty years later, I still have not fulfilled my dream of becoming the world’s first superhero, but there is one man who is getting pretty close.
James Hobson, better known as “The Hacksmith,” is an engineer and content creator based in Ontario, Canada, who brings movie, video game and comic book concepts to life. Referred to as “the real-life Tony Stark” by many, Hobson is the closest thing to Iron Man in the world today. Since his first major build, an exoskeleton from the 2013 sci-fi movie Elysium, Hobson has created some of the most well-known gadgets and weapons in comic book lore, including Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s magnetic shield and even the world’s first working retractable lightsaber.
Hobson has collaborated with some of the top content creators in the world. He recently provided a working lightsaber to Jimmy Donaldson, the man at the helm of YouTube’s highest-earning channel, Mr. Beast. His social media presence has skyrocketed since his early videos, amassing over 12.4 million subscribers on his YouTube channel.
Although I fell short of becoming the world’s first caped crusader, I did recently get the chance to speak with The Hacksmith himself about some of his heroic achievements featured on his Make it Real series on YouTube.
Innovation &Tech Today: You give back to the community by showing kids what they can do in STEM by bringing comic book concepts to life. Is that something that you thought about when you were getting into it or was it an organic thing that, you show this content and kids pick up on it and maybe they get into STEM because of that?
James Hobson: Yeah, it was pretty organic. It definitely wasn’t something I even thought about when I first started making YouTube videos, but then we started getting comments from kids being like, “Whoa, I didn’t know this was engineering, this is cool.”
And then the crazy thing is since we’ve been doing it for so long, the amount of comments we’ve gotten is like, “I went to engineering school because of you.” And now it’s been four or five years, we get comments being like, “I just graduated engineering school because I was inspired by your videos.” And it’s just like, whoa, that’s really cool. And we say we inspire lots of people and I’m sure we do, but it’s almost like we don’t even realize the impact that we have. Like you said, all it takes is one person that we inspire who goes into engineering and then maybe solves some world problem because they figured out this thing or the first Iron Man comes out because I inspired some kid by showing what I can do on YouTube. And it’s pretty cool.
The neat thing is you’ll really have no idea down the road short of that person being like, you inspired me. And that’s okay, it’s cool having that kind of impact. And even though I want to do so much more and have a big impact on this world, I probably already have had a bigger impact than I even realized, which is a pretty neat thing to think about.
I&T Today: I know it’s a balance between the social media content and time at the warehouse coming up with these things. So how do you balance that time? And what are you doing more of these days? Are you more focused on content creation or being in the shop?
JH: It’s constantly changing. As the business has grown, it’s constantly changed and I’ve realized I’ve stopped doing things that I like doing and got caught up in the boring part of the business. I’m trying to work my way back to doing more of the creative. I do really enjoy problem-solving. I’ve actually been working on a few projects off-camera just because, the other thing is, depending on how you film the video, it can take the fun out of making something. And that’s something that I’ve been burnt out with for a while now. So I’m actually working on a collapsible Hawkeye bow that has a full draw weight string that will auto-deploy. Lots of people have made a collapsible bow before, but it uses an elastic string. I’m trying to make one that you can actually whip out the auto string and shoot an arrow in a matter of seconds.
I’m fairly confident that I’ve figured it out 99% of the way. And I’m really excited to actually finish that. And then maybe once I finish it, I’ll be like, okay, I’ll figure out how to make a video about this because it’s actually pretty cool.
We’re actually working on a flying Dr. Strange cloak right now.
I&T Today: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
JH: So over a year ago now, I came up with the idea of doing a digital stunt wire system. Five years ago when I got my garage, we made basically, we called it the adult jolly jumper and we just put some pulleys in the ceiling. We had some sandbags attached to ropes and attached it to harness and basically, it made you weigh half as much so you could jump and do backflips and things. It was pretty fun. It was just something we wanted to do at the time. And that sparked the idea last year where I’m like, “What if we had really powerful winches and you had those ropes on winches and you could precisely control those winches and move you around.”
So then the concept became, “Oh, so we could make a digital stunt wire system where you could have on an iPad, basically the 3D space you’re in, and you could literally click and drag and be like, I want this person to go from here to here. I want them to jump up onto this box and then jump off and land over here.”
So the first project we’re going to do with that is we’ve modified a Doctor Strange cloak to have support in the shoulder. We’ve attached this fishing line to it, and now this cloak can fly around the shop anywhere. And it looks amazing.
The really neat thing is in the movie, it was just full CGI. We’ve made this cloak, this practical effect that actually is real. And just hearing the cloak fly, it’s just like this, actually, it won’t look great, but I’ll show you the video on my phone, through the webcam and-
*Hobson showed me a clip of the cloak flying around his warehouse that suggested sentience in the inanimate piece of fabric.
JH: Does that not look like the movie?
I&T Today: Yeah. That looks exactly like the movie. It literally looks like it is flying around by itself. That is awesome. So let’s talk a little bit about what inspired you to start Hacksmith and the Make it Real series.
JH: Basically, throughout school, my first job, me and my now business partner would work on cool projects just because we wanted to. In the beginning, I used to document them on my blog and sometimes I’d take videos because it turned out I like making videos too. And it was just a good way to document and share a project, because unless I can let you see physically or hold a project that I made, it is hard to show you what it is. So I found that by making a video, I could share exactly what it is and how it works. And I kept doing that and then YouTube opened up the partner program when I was graduating back in 2012 and I was like, oh, it’d be really awesome to make money off the internet, doing what I already want to do.
That’s when I started making YouTube videos and came up with Make it Real and the Hacksmith. I did that for a few years, but didn’t have any traction. Finally, I do the exoskeletons project and that one really took off. It was my first viral project and it gave me the courage that, “Oh, people are interested in this kind of thing, this might be a possibility.”
Fast forward a year and I bought a house with a really big garage because I saw having a big workshop as the ability to make bigger and cooler projects. And I quit my job at the end of the year and put everything into the channel. I had maybe six months of savings to make it happen. And luckily that summer is when I did the Captain America electromagnet shield. And that video really popped off and the channel grew from a hundred thousand subscribers to half a million in a month.
I&T Today: So how far away would you say you are from a full Iron Man suit with some sort of flight capability? I know you have the pulsars, I know that you have the helmet and you may have some sort of AI Jarvis system within that helmet.
JH: I’d say we’re still pretty far away. I do actually want to do a Mark 1 suit at some point because that’s actually the most realistic and practical. Maybe not the flying part so much, that’s one of the biggest challenges is the movies keep getting more and more ridiculous.
I&T Today: It’s a high bar.
JH: The physics just is, so it’s always a challenge managing expectations too. Even like building a standard Iron Man suit, let’s say Mark 2, it’s such a small suit, the G-forces if you accelerate the way he accelerated you would become pudding on wayside. Him smashing into a wall it’s game over, in the movie it’s no problem. There’s a lot of real life limitations that unfortunately make a lot of parts of the suit just not possible.
Is it possible to have an armored suit with an exoskeleton? Totally. Is it going to be able to do the stuff that it does in the movie? Not quite.
I&T Today: What is your biggest achievement from your Make it Real series and what was the hardest thing to bring to life?
JH: Definitely the power loader. We’re still revising it, we’ve actually got some exciting upgrades since the big test video. We’ve got a full control panel built in, we added a 360 camera system to it so you can actually see where you are at all times.
It is definitely the most complicated piece of engineering we’ve done, most expensive project, most time-consuming project. And it’s definitely our biggest and best project so far.
I&T Today: What did it feel like when you got the Guinness World Record for the first working retractable lightsaber?
It was definitely our last biggest project that really grew the channel a lot, like a couple million subscribers, which is awesome. We want to chase that next project that outdoes that. It’s kind of hard though. A lightsaber is kind of one of those, it’s up there, was probably one of the most sought-after sci-fi items out there.
I&T Today: I noticed that in your store most of the stuff that is for sale is Hacksmith Merch. Have you considered starting to crank out either the magnetic shields or maybe some of your other smaller projects to be available to the public?
JH: It’s definitely something we’re working towards. The big issue is, for any of our big projects like that, they’re attached to an IP, which means we can’t just go selling Captain America electromatic shields without Disney suing us. So there’s a few ways around that, either if we get the shields from an official reseller of Disney products, we could potentially do it the proper way, where the shield is licensed and our kit is not, because our kit is unique. Right now we haven’t had time to pursue that.
I&T Today: So you’ve made the Captain America shield, you’ve made the Iron Man helmet and the gloves. Who is your favorite comic book character of all time? I’m guessing it’s either Iron Man or Captain America, but I could be way off.
JH: Wolverine. Fellow Canadian. He’s the one who, if I could choose any powers, it would be his super strength and regenerative healing. I figure I’ve already got the brain. Iron Man’s possible. If I had Wolverine’s powers and Tony Stark’s intellect, I’d be unstoppable.
I&T Today: Finally, where do you see Hacksmith Industries in five years?
JH: About a year ago, we actually bought 18 acres of land, and it’s the future home of HERC, Hacksmith Engineering Research Campus. The hope is to turn that basically into a real-life Avengers campus kind of thing. Be able to build absolutely anything in-house, and hopefully at some point be able to run some kind of summer camps or bring other people there. It’s hopefully going to be a bit of a maker’s Mecca. Basically, we got the shop, we got the tools, we got the toys. You got a cool idea, come on over. Let’s make it together kind of thing.
My ambition is endless, which is a blessing and a curse. I might never be happy with how much success Hacksmith Industry sees, but it also keeps me hungry to continue growing the company and making it as big as possible and hopefully have the biggest impact it can on the world.