Scottish scientists and engineers have played key roles in discovering and inventing things that have benefited humans across the world. The predecessors to modern generation aircraft and trains were invented by people of Scottish origin. Today, Scotland leads the race for scientific innovations with the first-ever bionic limbs.
The Edinburgh Modular Arm System, abbreviated as EMAS, was a scientific innovation marvel. Showcased at the majestic National Museum of Scotland, the bionic arm draws a huge number of visitors. This bionic limb may make you recall the 1970 television series The Six Million Dollar Man, but the reality is quite different from this fictional appendage.
Subscribe to our Newsletter!
Receive selected content straight into your inbox.
A brief history of bionic limbs
Several centuries ago, medieval knights and warriors fought in epic battles and it was not uncommon for them to get seriously wounded. Sometimes, such injuries could lead to the loss of a leg or arm. Those who could afford them used iron arms and legs.
A German mercenary, Götz von Berlichingen, made one functional replacement arm made of iron. The metal arm was laden with a spring setup and he could use the hand for doing mundane chores. It was possibly the best-documented evidence of the precursor to open bionics-based arms. It is now showcased at the Jagsthausen Castle. However, it took a few more centuries before advanced prosthetic items could be made available for mainstream usage.
The first true bionic limb
The flourishing of modern prosthetics took place in Scotland and the first bionic prosthesis was developed in Edinburgh in the 1980s. Edinburgh-based Princess Margaret Rose Hospital was well-known for making pneumatic-powered prosthetics for children. It had been making such products since 1963. However, things changed for the better when David Gow took control of the hospital in 1986. Gow was of the view the pneumatic design was far from user-friendly, more so for children. He along with his team set out to invent a system that was both lighter and more convenient. He achieved his objective within a couple of years.
In August 1998, Campbell Aird became the first person to sport a true bionic arm. The venue was Princess Margaret Rose Hospital and the arm had a segment-first powered shoulder, fingers, elbow, and wrist. It was driven by advanced electronic micro-sensors. Aird lost his arm in 1982 to muscular cancer at age 31. That made him a prime candidate for the EMAS project. He had a few minor glitches initially but those were resolved. The arm, made of both metal and plastic, weighed less than 2 kg. It proved to be easier to use than pneumatic arms. Aird wore the EMAS for around 1.5 years.
Later, documentaries were made on the bionic arm, and Gow and his team received praise from all quarters. Aird admitted that the bionic arm gave him a new lease on life. He said: “For the first time in 16 years I recently reached above my head to pick a book off a shelf. It was a great moment for me.” He also learned to fly aircraft and windsurfed across the English Channel once.
The ‘Michelangelo’ bionic hand
In 2020, Marguerite Henderson received a “Michelangelo” hand. She lost both legs and her left arm to sepsis in 2017, and her right hand was partially saved. The prosthetic was fitted by prosthetic staff at the WestMARC center of the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow and has already given her vastly more independence. Her new high-tech hand works by moving different muscles in her forearm to trigger the hand to do different movements.
Senior prosthetist Vincent MacEachen explained: “The Michelangelo hand is quite intuitive. There are two sensors in the socket on Marguerite’s arm – basically, one to open and one to close. How strongly Marguerite flexes her muscles determines the speed and the movement the hand makes.”
Henderson said: “I’ve only had it a few weeks, but already it’s helping me to be more independent. It will mean very simple things like cutting my own food, eating different things, feeling comfortable about eating out – I can’t wait to eat a burger, which of course you need two hands for.”