Life Wellbeing World-first 3D-printed hand prosthesis inspired by 1845 design

World-first 3D-printed hand prosthesis inspired by 1845 design

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The rediscovery of a prosthetic hand design developed in 1845 has inspired the production of the world’s first 3D-printed body-powered partial hand prosthesis.

Staff at the National Library of Australia are celebrating in Canberra after learning that US mechanical designer Ivan Owen came across the 19th-century design using the library’s online archive, Trove.

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Mr Owen uncovered records of a prosthetic hand developed by Adelaide-based dental surgeon Dr Robert Norman.

Dr Norman’s design provided Mr Owen with the crucial details he needed to develop a pulley mechanism for a prosthetic hand.

National Library of Australia
Plastic parts used to build a replica of the prosthetic hand for the National Library of Australia. Photo: National Library of Australia

Assistant director general at the National Library Dr Marie-Louise Ayres said the prosthetic hand made in 1845 was built using whalebone and metal pulleys.

“It was made for Corporal John Coles in Adelaide who lost most of his hand to an accident with gun powder,” she said.

“Corporal Coles used this hand for 30 years until his death.

“It gave him back mobility that he didn’t have before, he could even pick up a sixpence with it.”

National Library of Australia
The 3D-printed prosthetic was developed using plastic, unlike the 1845 version that used whalebone. Photo: National Library of Australia

Following Corporal Coles’s death in 1886, the prosthetic hand was donated to the Health Museum of South Australia.

“That museum started digitising their collection and they contributed their collections to Trove,” Dr Ayres said.

Since producing a modern, 3D-printed hand prosthesis, Mr Owen has made his designs freely available so they can be used and adapted internationally.

Mr Owen is now working with a team of students at the University of Washington to further develop 3D-printed prosthetics.

“As a result of international collaboration, more than 1600 people have received a 3D-printed hand at low cost,” Dr Ayres said.

“Ideas cross over centuries and an item that people might not have thought to be significant was digitised and the right person found it at the right time.”

The National Library of Australia and the National Science Centre in Canberra have also collaborated to develop a replica of Mr Owens’ 3D-printed prosthetic hand.

National Library of Australia
Technicians at Questacon produced the necessary parts for a child’s prosthetic hand and worked with a team at the National Library of Australia to make a working prosthetic. Photo: National Library of Australia


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