Mechanical Limbs Before the Machine Age

A few days ago, I post up here a review of a collection of texts on Cyber culture and information technology published by Phaidon almost a decade ago. I’ve also got an interest in cybernetics, which was originally the attempt to reproduce in machines the functions of human organs, such as arms and legs. Since Norbert Wiener in the 1940s and ’50s much of the research into such devices has been based around electronic ‘command and control’ systems. The attempts to replace missing limbs with artificial devices long predates the terrible carnage and injuries inflicted during the Second World War. The classic example of the artificial limb in history, is Long John Silver’s wooden leg and Captain Hook’s eponymous replacement for his hand from Treasure Island and Peter Pan, respectively. In fact, such replacement limbs were made long before this, back into ancient Persia.

According to the Greek historian and anthropologist, Herodotus, the first artificial limb was a foot made by Hegistratus of Elis in the middle of the sixth century BC. Hegistratus was a Persian soldier and seer, who had been captured by the Spartans. Sentenced to death, he escaped from the stocks by cutting off part of his own foot. He then made a part to replace the section of foot he had cut off to help him walk 30 miles to Tregea. He was unsuccessful in this, and was captured by Zaccynthius and beheaded.

The ancient Egyptians were also replacing lost parts of their feet. One of the mummies from ancient Egypt possessed an artificial big toe, presumably to help the wearer to walk after he lost the real digit. The Roman naturalist and historian, Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century BC, also records how the Roman general Marcus Sergius had his hand replaced with an artificial one during the Second Punic War against Carthage, from 218 to 210 BC. During the battle, Sergius received 23 different wounds and his right arm had to be amputated. This was replaced with an iron hand so that he could his shield. He returned to the battle, and fought a further four more against the Carthaginians, during which he had two horses killed from under him.

The oldest known artificial limb was found in a Capuan tomb In 1858, and dated to about 300 BC. This was the period of the Samnite Wars, and the leg was presumably made for a Roman soldier, who had lost his own in battle. It was made from a mixture of copper and wood. It ended up in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, where it was unfortunately destroyed in an air raid in 1941. It has since, however, been replaced by a copy.

Roman Leg

Copy of Roman Leg dating to 300 BC

During the Sixteenth century physicians and engineers across Europe attempted to construct artificial limbs to replace those of the soldiers, who had lost theirs in the numerous wars of the time. An iron hand was made in 1509 for the German knight, Goetz von Berlichingen, who was the later the hero of a play of the same name by the great German dramatist, Goethe. It was not entirely successful. Goetz remarked of it that ‘My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet – You see, it is iron. Later in the sixteenth century the great French military surgeon, Ambroise Pare, also designed and built a number of artificial limbs, including a leg, hand and arm. Some of the artificial hands were operated by an ingenious system of ratchets and levers so that they could extend and flex their fingers. These artificial limbs promoted the development of springs, ratchets and gear. In the opinion of Geoff Simons, a contemporary writer on robots and cybernetics, they also contain important clues for designing modern, robotic artificial hands. This is particularly impressive as it has proved very difficult to design artificial hands with the range of movement and dexterity of the original. R. Pawson in his 1985 book on robots even suggested it would be easier to build an artificial brain than a robotic hand.

Pare Hand Leg

An artificial hand and leg built by Ambroise Pare (1510-90)

Pare Arm

Another of Pare’s creations: an artificial arm

The design of artificial limbs has made truly incredible advances over the past few decades. Scientists and doctors have produced a number of artificial limbs that respond to impulses from the wearers nerves, and can even feel certain types of sensation. These awesome developments in medical engineering are built on the solid foundations of the ancients and their search for artificial replacement limbs.

The Australian performance artist has also explored the new dimensions and possibilities for augmenting and even redesigning the human body offered by modern cybernetics. AS I mentioned in previous posts, he has given himself an artificial third hand, and connected himself to the internet, so that his body could be operated remotely and automatically by a cybernet search engine through galvanic stimulators. I found this sequence of videos in which he talks about his work and disability in a conversation with the stand up comedian and disabled rights activist, Liz Carr, at a disabled arts conference at Warwick University. I object to Stelarc’s statement that the human body is now somehow obsolete, but his work is a fascinating exploration of the transhuman condition. In the interview with Carr he talks movingly of the hope some of the technology used in his performances have given the disabled. The wife of one of the scientists, with whom he has worked, tragically suffers from ‘locked-in syndrom’, and can only communicate with her right eye. Stelarc recalled how delighted she was when they fixed galvanic stimulators to her arm, and for a moment she briefly had the power to move her arm slightly again. Here’s the interview below.

Stelarc on Experimenting on His own Body

Stelarc: Would having a Prosthetic Arm be enough for You?

Stelarc: Is the Human Body Obsolete

Stelarc on How Do We Cope with Change to the Body We Can’t Control?

Liz Carr’s Conclusion and Surprise for Stelarc

For all that his work is frequently disturbing in its implications for the future of humanity, Stelarc himself comes across as surprisingly normal, with an engaging attitude and ready laugh. It’s fascinating seeing him and Carr find that they have a common ground in their exploration of what philosophers call ‘the human condition’.


Jack Challoner, (ed.), 1001 Inventions that Changed the World (London: Cassell 2009)

Michael Pollard, Felicity Trotman, Merilyn Holme, The Illustrated Dictionary of Inventors and Inventions (London: Claremont Books 1995)

Geoff Simons, Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992).


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: