Throughout most of history, the standard implements for arm and leg prostheses have been hooks and pegs. Thanks to Hollywood, hand hooks and peg legs automatically trigger “pirates” in our mind – Captain Hook, Long John Silver – but these devices are hardly just part of a costume.
While our natural arms and legs are fearfully and wonderfully made, the technology used in modern prosthetics is no less remarkable. Thanks to science and innovation, amputees of today are endowed with much greater capacity than their predecessors. As we will see, they were not so well equipped.
Prosthetics, whether functional or cosmetic, can be traced back to about 1500 BC. There are several accounts by Greco-Roman historians of individuals equipped with prostheses, as well as archeological evidence that Egyptians were equally innovative.
Not surprisingly, little advance was made in prosthetic design or operation. Prostheses were only semi-functional; a knight might be fitted with an iron hand with which he could still hold his shield, but generally a prosthesis was used to cover the wearer’s “deformity”. Such devices were usually made by tradesmen, such as one’s armorer.
Western civilization was reborn; advances were made in science and technology, and naturally, prosthetics. No longer viewed as “band-aids”, innovative operating mechanisms (springs, locks, cords, levers) increased functionality, as did a wider array of materials (steel, copper, wood). Notably, in the mid-late 1500s, French locksmith Lorrain broke from the standard use of heavy metals and created a prosthesis out of leather, paper, and glue.
The famous arm prosthesis worn by German knight Götz von Berlichingen (aka “Götz of the Iron Hand”). With so intricate a design he was able to hold objects from reins to a quill pen.
Prosthetics progressed as designs were modified and mechanisms tweaked. Up until this time, the US had yet to enter the field of prosthetics. After the Civil War, given the high amputee rate, actual manufacturing of artificial limbs began. James Edward Hanger, himself an amputee, is considered the founder of the industry in America.
Though there was not much advance technologically, the aftermath of WWI and WWII called national attention to the need for continued discussion and development in prosthetic technology. As a result, organizations such as the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA) were founded, as well as government and private sector programs to aid veterans and promote research.
The prosthetics industry continues to advance as design now includes microprocessors, robotics, and space-age materials. One such robotic leg, currently in testing, translates the body’s own nerve impulses into movement. Studies show that prosthetic limbs actually use 25% less energy than natural limbs, and in some cases have greater overall capacity. What was once only seen in science fiction is now a present reality.
Various models of a microprocessor controlled “C-leg”
Though loss of limb is as traumatic now as it was two thousand years ago, amputees have a far greater advantage over their ancestors, thanks to modern technology. Such individuals are being brought ever closer to life as they knew it before.
Copyright © 2014 Sarah E. Dautel