Mann Humanizing Machine


In 1960s America, television programs like The Six Million Dollar Man showed a world where biotechnology could make us nearly immortal. Kids were enamored by the premise of bionic limbs, thinking they were better than their own arms and legs. One child’s desire to amputate his legs and replace them with bionic ones drove his mother to write to Senator Edward Kennedy for advice.

It was World War II that had heightened the public’s attention on prosthetic devices. Many soldiers had come back from the battlefront without limbs. Losing an arm was thought to be worse than losing a leg when returning to the workplace. At this time, cable-powered limbs were common for above-elbow amputees. But few of the veterans wore them. The devices were counterintuitive and awkward to use; amputees had to shrug their shoulders or forcefully flex their muscles to bend their arms.

That changed in the 1960s when, in a small laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a fifty-five year-old man was fitted with an experimental robotic arm.

The man had already been using an above-elbow prosthesis, but only as an assistive device. It was about as useful as an arm rigidly set in a cast. Before this, his stump muscles had lain unused for twenty-six years. But fifteen minutes into the experiment, he regained control over these muscles as he learned to move the mechanical elbow.

Two hours into the session, he “could flex or extend the forearm to any position in its range and move the arm smoothly at various velocities,” according to a report.

Unlike cable-assisted devices, this experimental elbow used electricity to allow the amputee a natural range of motion. A sensor in the artificial arm gauged the electricity a flexing muscle gives off, which allowed the patient to use his arm as naturally as before the amputation. The elbow could also adjust the force necessary to pick up things, like a telephone receiver.

In September 1968, the completion of this project was announced to the public. At Massachusetts General Hospital, the press met with three men, who demonstrated their findings. Among them was Robert Mann, a MIT rocket-scientist-turned-engineer, whom MGH had recruited to head research on a prosthetic limb.

According to the press officer, the conference was “eminently successful.” Afterward people from all over the world wrote to Mann, asking about his research with the “Boston Arm,” as his above-elbow limb came to be named. A MIT alumnus, who earned his physics Ph.D. in 1965, wanted to meet with Mann, astonished that he was unaware of Mann’s work “until now.”

But more letters arrived from amputees, pleading for his help. One wanted to be freed from a heavy and uncomfortable prosthesis; another hoped to recover from losing all but six inches of both arms in an electrocution accident.

Others desired intervention immediately. Fidel Miguel, a World War II veteran from the Philippines, was discharged from service on account of an amputated right forearm. On the back of his letter, he traced the actual size of his arm in pencil and labeled their front and side views. “Pls let me be inform how could I get the [arm],” he implored.

Mann continued to capture people’s interest and fascination into the late 1970s, when he presented further developments in prosthetics on the “Good Morning America” show. “Your developments in the area of artificial limbs have filled me with a new hope and enthusiasm that I may live a more normal life,” an amputee wrote in response to Mann’s television appearance.

Concerned mothers sought Mann’s help and advice for their children, who had lost limbs from traumatic incidents. Mary Boese wrote about her son Ronald, who was mauled and dragged by a night train before lying in a pool of his own blood. Miraculously, he survived, but not without amputations of both of his arms and his right leg.

“Ronald has been through a shattering experience,” Mann replied. “I hope and pray for his continued recovery.” He included information on the Boston Arm and other research in prosthetics, and where she could get help.

Mann was an empathetic yet scrupulous engineer, prioritizing certainty over false hope. He acknowledged that advances in prosthetics were slow, but steady. When asked if there was any way to regularly keep up with the latest developments in prostheses, Mann apologized for not being able to help.

But a few winters later, something arrived in his mailbox that helped bring about better communication to the public: the first edition of Superkids, “a newsletter for families and friends of children who wear prostheses.” Its title came from the newsletter editors’ four year-old son, Luke, who had been fitted for a prosthetic leg at seven months old. He grew up calling it a “superleg.”

Mann commended the family on their publication, which “can become a vital linkage among the consumers of prostheses and their families exchanging information, building community and hopefully improving the utility of substitute limbs.”

Mann continued his advocacy and disability research, from developing sensory aids for the blind to pushing for more accessible campus bathrooms, before his death in 2006. His work with the Boston Arm set the precedent for combining biology with technology and engineering. It continues to power—and empower—amputees today.