World War I to the age of the cyborg: the surprising history of prosthetic limbs

People have long dreamed of being smarter, stronger, faster. But now it seems that cutting edge technologies are out there, or in development, that might enable us truly to enhance our cognitive and physical capabilities. At the Paralympics, sprinters will be bounding down the tracks on running blades. Students are taking “smart drugs” and using cognitive enhancement devices in order to achieve better academic performance. By Marcelo de Araujo

These recent advances in science and technology have led to much discussion on the ethics of human enhancement, giving the impression that this is an era-defining moment, one in which the very definition of what it is to be “human” is being challenged. But such concerns over human enhancement are not new. Consider, for instance, the design and mass production of prosthetic limbs 100 years ago.

As thousands of soldiers returned from World War I with severe physical disabilities, engineers, physicians and politicians had to figure out how to enable the ex-combatants to return to the workforce. Germany and France did so via the mass production and large-scale distribution of prosthetic limbs. The public discussion on the benefits of mass production of prosthetic limbs was so intense in Europe, and the sight of men with prosthetic limbs so ubiquitous, that some historians speak of the emergence of a symbolic figure during the interwar years: “homo prostheticus”. Many people were confident that a new generation of prosthetic limbs would enable amputees to resume their working lives, and perhaps even make them more productive than before.

‘Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier’ McMurtrie, 1918.

A booklet published by the Red Cross in 1918, aptly entitled Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier, shows several pictures of amputees sporting their tool-like prosthetic limbs. Its author is optimistic, declaring: “There are no more cripples!” Another article on the new approach to prostheses, published in a Brazilian newspaper in 1918, went as far as to suggest that thanks to the scientific achievements of the modern age a healthy man could be turned into a “super-homem” – superman.

Supermen?

The prosthetic limbs developed and mass produced during the interwar period did not purport to imitate the anatomy of the human body, but were conceived to function as tools. The French engineer Jules Amar was one of the leading figures behind this new approach. In 1917, he argued that the purpose of a prosthetic limb was not to “substitute” an amputated leg or arm, but to perform a specific function. The prosthesis might indeed “copy” the natural anatomy of the human body, but it should not be a “slave to nature”.

But Amar also recognised that aesthetics were sometimes important. A salesman, for instance, was expected to have a good appearance. He should have both hands, even if he could not grab anything with them. For this reason, the “scientific prosthesis” Amar developed came with different attachments, depending on the task to be completed. It was, however, supplied with a wooden hand that could be attached to the socket depending on the social setting: the wooden hand was unnecessary in the factories, where the aesthetic function of the human body was irrelevant and other tools were more practical.

Amar’s functional approach was later adopted in Germany, where the engineer Georg Schlesinger was responsible for supervising the mass production and distribution of prosthetic limbs to a huge contingent of disabled men. Schlesinger argued that as long as the prosthetic limb was able to function as a human arm, it didn’t matter whether it looked like one. The Red Cross booklet also made this point very clearly. The caption for one of the pictures says: “The working arm is designed for practical ends – not for appearance.”

Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier, McMurtrie, 1918.

Schlesinger was so enthusiastic about the prosthetic limbs of the interwar years that he tried to convince prospective employers that the “homo prostheticus” was actually better than the unenhanced man.

… or automatons?

But not everyone was so optimistic about this new approach to prosthetic limbs. The Austrian artist Raoul Hausmann, for instance, expressed concerns over the plight of the amputees. He argued that the supposedly enhanced workers would not benefit from their new condition, but would be exploited.

In a short article entitled “The Prosthetic Economy”, published in 1920, Hausmann sarcastically predicted that because the “prosthetic limb never gets tired”, the “25-hour workday” would become the norm. “The prosthetic man is therefore a better man, raised to a superior class thanks to the world war,” he went on. Similar concerns are still being raised today in debates on the ethics of human enhancement.

Other German speaking artists also reacted against the rise of “homo prostheticus”. They saw the new prosthetic limbs not as symbols of scientific progress, but as a clear sign of the dehumanisation of human beings. For painters such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Heinrich Hoerle, and Rudolf Schlichter, the functional approach to prosthetic limbs was turning ex-combatants into machines rather than fully human beings.

Heinrich Hoerle, ‘Monument of the Unknown Prostheses’ (Denkmal der unbekannten Prothesen), 1930.

Several paintings from the 1920s and 1930s depict grotesque men trying to get to grips with their artificial body parts. The idea was to critique the prospect of “rebuilding” war veterans, and to call into doubt the assumption that science and technology had all the answers for amputees.

21st century enhancement

Back to the current debate. Some philosophers consider human enhancement morally objectionable because they, too, believe that the attempt to extend our physical and cognitive capacities beyond “normal” limits is unnatural. For philosophers such as Michael Sandel, Francis Fukuyama, and Jürgen Habermas, human enhancement is a threat to our shared human nature. But do we really dehumanise ourselves when we give our bodies new, unnatural functions?

After all, the functional approach of a century ago, which was criticised by artists and intellectuals of the time, is on the rise again. Many of the latest, state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs do not purport to emulate the anatomy of the human body. They look quite unnatural. But today, unlike a century ago, the reception seems to be more positive.

Prosthetic arm with LEGO developed by Colombian designer Carlos Torres.
© Carlos Torres, Author provided

Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic legs, or “blades” developed by Van Phillips, don’t look like human limbs – and make amputees run even faster than many non-enhanced athletes – but no one would say that they dehumanise the paralympic athletes who use them. The prosthetic arms designed by Carlos Torres have been designed to function as a LEGO toy, but no one would suggest that they dehumanise children. And next October, Switzerland is going to host the Cybathlon – the first cyborg Olympics. The participants will have to steer their machine-like bodies through a series of challenging tasks. They call themselves pilots rather than athletes – but they do not seem less human for that.

It is very unlikely that contemporary artists will feel tempted to portray “pilots”, or paralympic athletes, or children with a LEGO prosthetic arm in a grotesque fashion. Quite the opposite. Some have already raised prosthetic limbs to the status of works of art.

Consider, for instance, the prostheses developed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata for her company, Altlimbpro. They deliberately depart from the natural anatomy of the human body. Amar may have recognised in the past that our limbs also have an aesthetic function. But Altlimbpro goes far beyond. Why should we remain content with a good-looking artificial hand, if we can have a work of art instead? Why not have a floral porcelain leg, or a leg with functioning stereo speakers encrusted with diamonds? What about a snake arm? These prostheses are unique.

Kiera Roche wearing the Floral Porcelain Leg.
© Altlimbpro. Photography by Rosemary Williams and Nadav Kander

Indeed, one of the greatest advantages of the functional approach is the fact that such prosthetic limbs do not look like fake body parts. When people look at conventional prosthetic limbs they may feel pity for the amputee. But with alternative prostheses today, people are likely to think twice before calling users “disabled”. It may not be long before people start to feel a bit of envy, too. As technology has advanced, our perception of the human body has changed. Artificial body parts are not seen as such a threat to our common humanity.

Future developments will likely further change the way we perceive and assess how technological innovations can modify and improve human capacities. The emergence of the “homo prostheticus” in the 1920s sparked the first wave of discussion on the ethics of human enhancement, a debate in which the idea of the “natural” eventually won. But now the functional approach is back, enabling us to realise in a new light that something being “unnatural” is not a reason to reject the prospect of using new technologies to augment human capacities.

The Conversation

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