June 2013 issue

Date:20 May 2013 Tags:, , ,

While researching this month’s cover story on designer prosthetics (“Out on a limb”, page 44), we stumbled upon a fascinating study by the University of Manchester’s Dr Jacky Finch into the efficacy of what may be the world’s oldest prosthetic body parts – artificial toes dating back at least 2 600 years. One is a three-part wood and leather toe made some time between 950 to 710 BC and found on a female mummy buried near Luxor in Egypt; the second is an artificial toe dating from before 600 BC and made of cartonnage, a sort of papier maché mixture made from linen, glue and plaster.

Because both prostheses displayed significant signs of wear, with design features suggesting they may have been more than cosmetic additions, Dr Finch wanted to know whether they could be used as practical tools to help their owners walk. To find out, she recruited two volunteers, both missing their right big toe.

Replicas of the ancient toes were made to fit each volunteer, along with copies of ancient Egyptian-style leather sandals. The tests were carried out in the Gait Laboratory at Salford University’s Centre for Rehabilitation and Human Performance Research. Each volunteer was asked to walk barefoot on a 10 m walkway, first wearing their own shoes and then the replicas, with and without the sandals. Their movement was tracked using 10 special cameras and the pressure of their footsteps was measured using a special mat.

It was surprising how well both volunteers were able to walk using these devices. According to Dr Finch, the camera footage revealed that when wearing the sandals with the cartonnage replica, one of the volunteers achieved 87 per cent of the flexion achieved by their normal left toe, against a figure of 78 per cent for the three-part wood and leather design. Pressure measurements showed no overly high pressure points, indicating that the false toes were not causing any undue discomfort or possible tissue damage.

Says Dr Finch: “The pressure data tells us that it would have been very difficult for an ancient Egyptian missing a big toe to walk normally wearing traditional sandals. They could, of course, have remained barefoot or perhaps have worn some sort of sock or boot over the false toe, but our research suggests that wearing these false toes made walking in a sandal more comfortable.”

Which brings us to a remarkable woman named Sophie de Oliveira Barata, director of The Alternative Limb Project, a specialist consultancy that works with amputees and their prosthetists to create bespoke artificial limbs. As she puts it, the idea is not only to delight the eye, but also to help to break down social barriers and encourage a positive dialogue about the human body, and difference. It’s a great concept, and as our story reveals, Sophie’s work has resulted in a stunning array of artificial limbs that combine art with cutting-edge design and functionality, helping and inspiring people from all walks of life.

So much for one of the more counter-intuitive articles to appear in Popular Mechanics (surely you weren’t expecting predictability?). Next up – a thoroughly researched perspective on America’s next stealth bomber, together with writer Joe Pappalardo’s account of his time aboard the legendary B-2 Spirit. (Okay, let’s admit it – we’re hugely jealous.)

We also dish up a feast of DIY projects, including a useful kitchen trolley that you can build in a weekend, play with all manner of desirable gadgets, and introduce you to the micromanufacturing revolution – in essence, an array of success stories that may prompt you to transform your little idea into the next Big Thing. If this article inspires you to go out there and become rich and famous, don’t forget where you read it…

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)