University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > From craft to mass production? Design, manufacture and patents for artificial limbs, 1890–1925

From craft to mass production? Design, manufacture and patents for artificial limbs, 1890–1925

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Nineteenth-century artificial limb design and production was a craft based industry. A single prosthesis – a complex construction of wood, leather and fabric – often took longer than six weeks to produce, and each one was individually designed and made for the wearer. The medical profession distanced itself from this work; instead limb makers and fitters took out patents on components and developed new technology to improve the limb’s function. The First World War altered this process. As the need for limbs increased with the growing number of amputee soldiers, methods of mass production and standardisation were employed. Yet while the Ministry of Pensions sought standard limbs, the competition between the 22 manufacturers it contracted to provide them created distinct complications, as designs, methods of attachment, and intricate internal machinery were patented. Using a range of sources, including medical manufacturers’ catalogues and limb fitters’ promotional material, this paper will assess the changing environment of artificial limb production from the late 19th century to the period following the First World War, focusing on the impact of the Ministry of Pensions’ interventions on the design, production and patenting process.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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