Professor Peter Kyberd introduces his new book ‘Making Hands: A History of Prosthetic Arms’ and provides a short extract.

Prosthetic arms go back centuries, from the fearsome hook of seafarers of old to the prosthetic supermen of modern fiction and the heroes of the Paralympics. But what is the truth of the average prosthesis user today? Twenty years ago it might have seemed that little had changed since Captain Hook, but the better battery technology combined with modern materials and advanced electronics, mean some prostheses do more resemble Iron Man. But not everyone wants something that advanced. The truth is the hand is a very personal part of the body. Hands are unique to each person, and every person’s response to the loss or absence of an hand is different. Some need a device to replace the hand’s appearance or its function, others are happy with nothing at all. It is the role of the prosthetist and engineer to find a solution that works for the individual. This is the challenge and the charm of the job.

Designing and building artificial hands is something that many people have tried, especially since 3D printing has created many more citizen engineers who have set out to solve the problem. I myself have worked on developing solutions for individuals for most of my career and a few years back it occurred to me that some of the most important contributors to the field were retiring. So I and David Foord began interviewing the players of the game. Since we started, several have died and two have had strokes. The book I wrote was a result of those interviews, and is a record of their roles. It puts their contributions into the context of the longer history of artificial arms and hands and tries to pass on some of the excitement and interest that this area holds for many people.

To watch Campbell Aird in front of the press was a privilege. He was relaxed and a willing talker. He was happy to show off the arm’s capabilities and thought of ways to use it to make good demonstrations. Originally the arm did not posses a passive swing for walking, so it moved rigidly when he walked. To make it move more fluidly Aird practiced driving it in synch with his stride to match his other side. When David Gow discovered this he altered the design to allow a little `free swing’ at the shoulder. I saw Aird at a large press gathering at the World Congress of the International Society of Prosthetics and Orthotics in Glasgow in 2001. Aird readily showed off the arm that the Princess Margaret Rose team had spent the preceding weeks making ready for the demonstration. The arm was all in black carbon fibre with silver aluminium fittings. Aird was dressed in a black tee-shirt and trousers with a shock of white, well-groomed, hair, matching the arm perfectly. Despite the team’s best efforts, the night before, the wrist and hand stubbornly refused to work. Aird knew this and worked around it. It is unlikely that at the time, any of the press even noticed. It even took me, an experienced observer, a few minutes to realise the fact. Sadly, in 2008 Aird’s cancer returned and he succumbed, leaving behind a legacy that continues to grow.

You can find more details about the book here.