Modern prosthetic limbs are impressive — but still very much a work in process. So just how well-developed could the hands from about five hundred years ago be? Thanks to Ambroise Paré, very. He made a hand that worked so well, a soldier used it in battle.
Ask anyone in the 1500s, and they'd tell you that Ambroise Paré was a hell of a guy. He was the official royal surgeon to four successive kings, and earned his position by practicing medicine on the battlefield, attempting to save, or at least treat, wounded soldiers. Although not all of his ideas were good ones — he proposed lancing children's gums to let teeth come through — he did come up with some winners. For example, he got the idea that, when amputating a limb, there might be better ways of stopping blood flow than pressing a searing hot iron or boiling oil into the wound. Instead he stopped the bleeding by tying off the blood vessel — a practice that saved both lives and agony.
As a doctor, he was most disturbed by the reaction of some of the people who he had saved. He found that some soldiers took their own lives rather than live without limbs, or with terrible wounds. To try to combat this problem, Paré began crafting artificial limbs. This wasn't new. People had worn prosthetics in ancient Egypt, but Paré's limbs were something different. He wanted them to be functional, not just stop-gap solutions. He was an accomplished anatomist, and so when he designed limbs, he attempted to make them work the way biological limbs worked. When he designed legs, he gave them a mechanical knee that could be locked when standing and bent at will. He drew up preliminary sketches of an arm that could be bent with a pulley that mimicked arm muscles. But his stand-out design was a mechanical hand.
It was a hand that was operated by multiple catches and springs, which simulated the joints of a biological hand. When he showed his design to colleagues it was such a sensation that they worked up a prototype, and in 1551, a movable prosthesis was worn into battle by a French army captain. The Captain claimed it worked so well that he was able to grip and release the reigns of his horse.
Unfortunately, this did not begin an age of increased technology in prosthetic limbs. Most countries were either unable or unwilling to commit the resources — though Paré himself continued to craft legs, hands, and eyes. Today we're looking into metamaterials and technology that allow signals from the brain to command prosthetic limbs to move. If only we'd kept working on the problem back then.