11 of the Most impressive Prosthetics in History

Prosthetics, at is it turns out, is a very old technology.
Christopher McFadden

Prosthetic limbs have come a long way over the centuries, and are, in some cases, incredibly complex pieces of engineering. But, this wasn't always the case, even a few decades ago. 

Here we explore some of the most interesting prosthetics in history and, in part, explore the history of these incredible devices. 


What are some of the most impressive prosthetic limbs in history?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the most impressive prosthetic limbs in history. This list is far from exhaustive, but is in chronological order. 

For this reason, this list, in part, is also a brief exploration of the history of prosthetics too. You can also see the gradual improvement in technology, and techniques, over time. 


1. The "Cairo Toe" might be the first prosthetic in history

prosthetic in history egypt
Source: The University of Manchester

This might just be the first-ever prosthetic ever developed. While we may never know for sure, it certainly is an interesting device. 

One of a pair, it was discovered in Ancient Egypt, and this pair of prosthetics made of wood and leather really are impressive artifacts.

The most amazing thing about them is the fact that they are actually functional. Most early prosthetics were primarily decorative, but these early examples actually worked. 

At least, according to Dr. Jacky Finch (Formerly of the University of Manchester) who was involved in studying the devices experimentally. “The big toe is thought to carry some 40% of the body weight and is responsible for forward propulsion", she explained.

By selecting two volunteers to test replicas of the toes, her team discovered that they were very comfortable. 

“My findings strongly suggest that both of these designs were capable of functioning as replacements for the lost toe and so could indeed be classed as prosthetic devices. If that is the case then it would appear that the first glimmers of this branch of medicine should be firmly laid at the feet of the ancient Egyptians.” 

2. The Roman "Capua Leg" is another early prosthetic

oldest prosthetic limbs capulla leg
Surviving replica of the "Capua Leg". Source: London Science Museum

The so-called "Capua Leg" is yet another impressive prosthetic limb from history. Dating to around 300 BC, the leg was excavated from a grave in Capua, Italy in the 1910s.

The original find was kept at the Royal College of Surgeons in London but was sadly destroyed during an air raid during the Second World War. A copy of the limb still survives though, it is held at the Science Museum in London

The original was made of bronze and, until it was destroyed, was the oldest artificial limb ever discovered. 

3. Prosthetic limbs were also made in ancient China

prosthetics in history china
Source: Chinese Archaeology/Live Science

Around the same time as the "Capua Leg" in Italy, a man in China was also given a specially-crafted prosthetic leg. Made from poplar wood, it also had an actual horse's hoof as a foot, and is around 2,200 years old

It was discovered in a tomb in Turpan, China, and was found along with the remains of its wearer, who had a deformed knee. Studies of the early prosthetic appear to indicate that it was attached to the wearer's lame leg with leather straps to enable them to walk and even ride a horse. 

4. The pegleg was a common prosthetic during the middle ages

historical prosthetics peglegs
Two examples of more modern peg legs. Left: A peg leg owned by a roof-thatcher who wore, and self-repaired, it for 40 years. Right: A peg leg built by a father for his 3-year-old son in 1903. Source: Collectors Weekly/Science Museum/SSPL

During the Middle Ages, only the wealthy could afford most of the more sophisticated prosthetics that were available. Otherwise, they needed to be crafted out of whatever materials one could find. 

After battles, lost or amputated limbs were often replaced by simple peg legs made from wood. Wood is relatively easy to work and was often crafted into an artificial leg by a skilled carpenter of an armorer, then attached with leather straps. 

5. The " Gotz von Berlichingen arm" is another interesting piece from history

prosthetic limbs in history germany
Source: u/innuendoP/Reddit

For most of the early history of prosthetics, the crafted limbs offered little to no articulation. That changed during the Middle Ages when more sophisticated prosthetic limbs began to appear.

One prime example was this iron prosthetic built to order by Gotz von Berlichingen (1480-1562). He was a German knight who once served under Emperor Charles V.  

Berlichingen lost his right hand during the siege of the city of Landshut in 1504. He replaced it at first with a simpler prosthetic, before having this more advanced limb constructed. According to reports, the spring-operated fingers could be flexed and thus, enabled him to grip a sword or a lance, allowing him to continue his role on the battlefield until the age of 64.

Similar artificial arms could be used to hold a shield, grip a sword, hold a horse's reins, or even grip a quill. Artificial limbs such as these were expensive items made by armorers.

Berlichingen became known as 'Götz of the Iron Hand' and his prostheses are now on display at the Jagsthausen Castle near Heilbronn where Berlichingen was raised.

6. Ambroise Pare's "Le Petit Lorrain" is another interesting piece

early prosthetics le petit lorrain
Source: Anders Lyngvi Fougner/Research Gate

Ambroise Paré might not be a household name, but his work on prosthetics was a fundamental leap forward in prosthetic technology. A French barber-surgeon, he served under several French monarchs including Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. 

He became very skilled at amputation, and would later go on to develop limb prostheses, too. Pare is also credited with inventing some early ocular prostheses that were made from enameled gold, silver, porcelain, and glass.

One of is most notable examples is "Le Petit Lorrain", which was a mechanical hand operated by catches and springs. It was worn by a French army captain in battle. Apparently, the captain claimed it worked so well that he was able to grip and release the reins of his horse with ease.

7. James Potts' "Angelsey Leg" became the standard in the United States

amazing prosthetics in history potts
A Potts' "Angelsey Leg" once worn by one Lord Uxbridge who fought and lost his leg at the Battle of Waterloo. Source: Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons

London-based James Potts developed an amazing above-knee prosthetic in the early-1800s. His device had a half calf and thigh socket made of wood, with a flexible foot attached with catgut tendons to a steel knee joint.

Known as the "Angelsey Leg" his prosthetic far more functional than its ancestors, but also more aesthetically pleasing. His design made it across the Atlantic where it became the standard for prostheses prior to the U.S. Civil War. 

8. This chap made his own pair of prosthetic arms

prosthetics in history decker
Source: u/kirbyfood/Reddit

A veteran of the American Civil War, Samuel Decker developed his own working mechanical arms after being seriously wounded in combat. While he was unable to build them himself, he developed the designs himself and instructed others on how to build them. 

He would later become an official Doorkeeper the U.S. House of Representatives. 

9. This example is both creepy and impressive

prosthetic limbs creepy
Source: u/LuiguSefirosu/Reddit

Dating to between 1840 and 1940, this prosthetic arm is very impressive indeed. It is made from steel and brass with a leather attachment point and could probably be considered a work of art.

The artificial limb is fully articulated and the elbow can be moved by releasing a spring. The top joint of the wrist allows a degree of movement and an up-and-down motion. 

Amazingly, the fingers can also be curled up and straightened out. While it is pretty creepy looking, it is thought that the original owner probably disguised it with a glove and long sleeves. 

The original owner is unknown, but common reasons for amputation during this period were injuries sustained in battle. Given the intricacy of its design, they must have been a high-ranking officer of some kind. 

10. This chap built his own prosthetic after losing his arm to a train

prosthetics in history wilkinson
Source: Western Development Museum

Made from metal, and hand-crafted by its wearer, Robert Wilkinson, this prosthetic is truly amazing. It was made in 1943 by Wilkinson of Tisdale after he lost his arm from injuries sustained after being hit by a train. 

After trying several other commercially available prosthetics, he found that none met his needs. Wilkinson, a blacksmith by trade, needed something with more dexterity to enable him to continue his trade.

While convalescing in the hospital, he planned out the needs for a replacement arm and then proceeded to make his own. By cobbling together pieces of scrap metal, the final design was strapped to his chest with a harness. 

It was used for 26 years until he retired at the age of 70. 

11. This prosthetic might as well be the inspiration behind "Steampunk"

prosthetics in history miners leg
A hand-made miner's prosthetic leg. Source: National Museum of American History

This amazing prosthetic was hand-crafted by a coal miner and it's an amazing piece of engineering. Built some time before 1977, when the museum it currently resides in acquired it. It was built from the materials he had available at the moment.

Some of the recognizable materials include a metal bucket for a socket, nails, a chain, and chicken wire to secure the parts together. It also has a foot made of leather. 

And that's a wrap.

As we have seen, prosthetics limbs have been part and parcel of life for some for millennia. While modern ones are far more complex and utilitarian, these older pieces have a certain je ne sais quoi that contemporary examples cannot hope to replicate. 

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