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"I'm a fairly visual thinker. In doing science, I think in terms of pictures of things happening, and then do the mathematics."
- Gregory Benford

Steel Tentacle  
  Flexible robotic steel limbs that can both support a vehicle and grasp objects.  

In the novel, the great Tripods, or war machines, of the Martians were supported by great steel tentacles, or "articulated ropes of steel."

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand...

Seen nearer, the Thing was incredibly strange, for it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about. Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman's basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.

From The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells.
Published by Unknown in 1898
Additional resources -

The machinery of the late nineteenth century was quite obviously artificial, in its appearance and in its movement. Wells uses the idea of steel tentacles to both differentiate the Martian engineering accomplishments from human accomplishments (making them look more alien) and to take advantage of the slightly queasy feeling the people have when they look at octopi and squids.

Here's another quote to give some sense of its flexibility:

As it dawned upon me first, it presented a sort of metallic spider with five jointed, agile legs, and with an extraordinary number of jointed levers, bars, and reaching and clutching tentacles about its body. Most of its arms were retracted, but with three long tentacles it was fishing out a number of rods, plates, and bars which lined the covering and apparently strengthened the walls of the cylinder. These, as it extracted them, were lifted out and deposited upon a level surface of earth behind it.

Its motion was so swift, complex, and perfect that at first I did not see it as a machine, in spite of its metallic glitter. The fighting-machines were coordinated and animated to an extraordinary pitch, but nothing to compare with this. People who have never seen these structures, and have only the ill-imagined efforts of artists or the imperfect descriptions of such eye-witnesses as myself to go upon, scarcely realise that living quality.

Here's a more detailed description of how the flexible steel tentacles actually work:

Almost all the joints of the machinery present a complicated system of sliding parts moving over small but beautifully curved friction bearings. And while upon this matter of detail, it is remarkable that the long leverages of their machines are in most cases actuated by a sort of sham musculature of the disks in an elastic sheath; these disks become polarised and drawn closely and powerfully together when traversed by a current of electricity. In this way the curious parallelism to animal motions, which was so striking and disturbing to the human beholder, was attained. Such quasi-muscles abounded in the crablike handling-machine...

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The War of the Worlds
  More Ideas and Technology by H.G. Wells
  Tech news articles related to The War of the Worlds
  Tech news articles related to works by H.G. Wells

Steel Tentacle-related news articles:
  - Octarms - Robotic Tentacle Bot From Mars!
  - Snake-Arm Robots From OCRobotics Reach Out
  - Snake-Arm Robot In A Plane
  - DIY Snake Arm Robot Prototype
  - Still Dreaming Of Tentacle Arms
  - Festo Biomimetic Bionic Handling Systems
  - Robotic Tentacle Manipulator
  - Festo Bionic Handling Assistant Video
  - Marvin Minsky's Tentacle Arm Video
  - Pneumatic Micro-Tentacles Kidnapping Ants

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