For people of a certain age, the words “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” conjures memories of Saturday evenings in front of the television watching The Six Million Dollar Man (although in my case, it also brings up memories of my parents having to switch off every other Saturday night because while my brother loved Steve Austin, I was a die-hard fan of Emergency!). For those too young to know, the premise was that Austin was an astronaut who suffered severe injuries in an experimental plane crash. The government spent six million dollars to outfit him with bionic legs as well as an eye and an arm in a project headed by Dr. Rudy Wells.
Many people were subject to horrific injuries during the nineteenth century that caused them to lose limbs or subjected them to disfiguring scarring or worse. The vast majority of these injuries occurred during wars. Unfortunately, too little was known about medicine at the time. Most who suffered catastrophic injuries died of infections and gangrene. But with the advent of the twentieth century, medical treatment was vastly improved.
World War I saw millions of casualties. Tens of thousands of these were injured so badly that limbs needed to be amputated. With medical advances, many people who previously would have died now survived. This prompted incredible advances in prosthetics in both Germany and America. Enter William T. Carnes.
Carnes was a 26-year-old working as a machinist in Pittsburgh in 1902 when his right arm was caught in a milling machine. He was injured so badly that his arm needed to be amputated. He searched everywhere for an artificial limb, but found none that met his needs for form and function.
Thus a man with minimal education started down a path that would eventually help thousands. He became an engineer par excellence, examining even the tiniest movements of human hands and arms to develop mechanisms that would respond to the part of the living arm that remained. He eventually started creating new limbs not only for himself, but for others.
In 1908, Kansas City businessman J.P. Prescott met with an accident at his warehouse that resulted in the amputation of both legs and his left arm. Hearing about Carnes’ success, he ordered a limb from him. He was so impressed that he offered to back Carnes in starting a manufacturing business. He moved to Kansas City and thus was born the Carnes Artificial Limb Company.
Carnes became the leading manufacturer of artificial limbs in the country. His designs were so effective that even today people use limbs based on his patents. He died in Vernon County, Missouri, in 1958, leaving his wife and son. His work changed not only his own life, but the lives of countless others. You can read more about him in The Mother of Invention’s Long Arm. You can read more about those injured in World War I in The ‘Bionic Men’ of World War I.