Past, Present, and Future Prosthetics

By Kent Donnell, MOTAT Educator

The Paralympics are happening right now and there are so many awesome New Zealand athletes to root for! This is the second time that Tokyo has hosted the Paralympic games which run soon after the Olympic games. Athletes compete in a range of events including some that are unique to the Paralympics, like boccia and wheelchair rugby. The games continue until the 5th of September so make sure you check out Sophie Pascoe, Lisa Adams, and the rest of the 29 strong New Zealand Team. Visit the Paralympics NZ team site!

Wait, did someone say wheelchair rugby?


Firstly, Histoery?

First, let’s dip back 3000 years and visit ancient Egypt. The fashion of the time was to wear sandals but it was extremely difficult for someone without toes to wear them. Luckily, it seems that there was a solution. Archaeologists found this prosthetic toe made from leather and wood which was designed to perfectly fit the wearer’s foot. This fit is important because for the most part, prosthetics made before modern times were purely decorative. It’s hard to replicate the bend and the power of the human body! Scientists initially thought this was the case for this toe too but to their surprise, when they replicated it and gave it to volunteers, they found it comfortable AND it helped them walk!

Prosthetic toe from ancient Egypt, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Another approach to prosthetics in the ancient world was discovered in China. Though this hoofed leg does not look like a human limb, it is thought that it would have been incredibly useful for the 50 – 60-year-old man that it was attached to. What’s more, this prosthetic is thought to be about 2000 years old!

2,200-year-old hoofed artificial leg in Turpan, China

Finally, I wanted to share this clip below of an incredible performer called ‘Peg Leg Bates’. Now I must say that the term ‘Peg Leg’ itself is offensive when used to describe an artificial limb so we wouldn’t use this term today. But this type of prosthetic was very common, particularly for soldiers in the 1800’s that had lost a limb in war. It refers to a simple wooden peg or post that is attached to the thigh and was a practical way to get around. Bates didn’t see the loss of his limb as an impediment, rather as an opportunity for him to show off his impeccable sense of timing and his ability to dance.

Prosthetic legs have evolved tremendously since ancient Egypt Just look at the ones on display at the Paralympics! Since the first Paralympics in the 1960’s, the technology that athletes use to compete in their sports has changed dramatically. Today’s athletes use a range of different prosthetics that are specified to their bodies and designed to help them compete at a high level. The most famous innovation is probably the blade prosthetics that many of the runners and jumpers use. These were first created in Iceland and inspired by nature, specifically the C-shape of a cheetah’s back feet.

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Cheetah and English sprinter Richard Whitehead

Before these revolutionary prosthetics were invented, many of the athletes used wheelchairs to race.

New Zealanders Lending a Hand
Now it would not be a MOTAT.fun article if we did not take the opportunity to highlight some awesome New Zealand innovators. Check out Taska prosthetics, a world leader in practical (and waterproof!) prosthetics. Founder of Taska, Matt Jury, said that the inspiration came when he broke both of his arms in a mountain biking accident. The experience of not being able to use his hands led him to empathise with those that manage it every day. Now his prosthetic hands are being used the world over and he is recognised as a leader in the field.

Listen to a fascinating RNZ radio interview with Mat Jury himself:

Now it’s your turn – Students Corner

Take a page out of Matt Jury’s book and see what it’s like living without hands. Try the following simple tasks without hands and see how difficult they are to do!

  • Putting on clothes
  • Making a sandwich
  • Brushing your teeth
  • Making your bed
  • Watering your plants

Now, get your design hat on because I want you to create an innovation that would help someone do one of these simple tasks without hands.

You can draw your innovation or create a prototype out of things lying around the house. Once you complete it, you can send a picture or video of it through to us at education@motat.org.nz. We would love to see it!

Alternatively, think about your favourite animal and imagine it has lost a limb, fin, flipper, wing or something like that. Design a replacement limb for them that would help them thrive (hypothetically speaking of course). Consider how it might look, how it might be attached, how it might move around and bend, and what it might be made from.

Google Slides Link to this presentation.