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The Incredible Evolution Of Artificial Limbs Started With This Wooden Toe

Artificial limbs have come a long way.

Long before the bionic man, prosthetics designed to replace lost body parts offered limited movement and might be crafted out of materials found at hand, like wood and other fibers.

“In the past, prosthetics looked very much like what they were replacing,” said Jacky Finch, a researcher in the KNH Center for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester. Finch was the lead author of a 2012 study published in the Journal of Prosthetics & Orthotics that describes two different artificial toes from ancient Egypt, believed to be the earliest known artificial body parts. “Nowadays, implants are placed in the sensory system to control nerve action, rather than devices attached to the body by straps or artificially powered,” she said.

Prosthetics have been around since ancient times, but the technology did not really take off until the two World Wars. A large number of amputees from war injuries tested the ingenuity of engineers and spurred the growth of artificial limb manufacturers.

The London Science Museum’s “Brought to Life” exhibit chronicles this period of technological advancement, providing a general overview of the major milestones in artificial body parts. We have republished a selection of these images along with more recent innovations.