What are Prosthetics?

TECHNOLOGY — Inventions

Have You Ever Wondered…

  • What are prosthetics?
  • How old are prosthetics?
  • Can athletes perform with prosthetics?

Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Bell. Bell Wonders, “How do prosthetic arms affect children?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Bell!


Those of us lucky enough to have good health and all of our fingers, toes, arms, and legs often take these things for granted. The many parts of our bodies work well together, and we usually don’t give them a second thought.

Have you ever WONDERed what life would be like without one of the important parts of your body, though? How would your life change if you had only one arm? What would your daily routine be like if you had only one foot?

Many people live their daily lives without the benefit of one or more parts of their bodies. There are many reasons for this.

Some people are born without certain parts of their bodies. Others might have accidents or suffer from diseases that result in the loss of a limb.

When these things happen, these people lose more than just a part of themselves. They also lose the functionality that was associated with that part of their bodies.

Certain tasks may now be impossible. Many other tasks may be much more difficult.

Thanks to artificial body parts — called “prosthetics” (plural) — people can now regain many of the functions of missing limbs. A prosthesis (singular) rarely provides the same level of functionality of a biological limb. However, the capabilities it can provide can significantly improve the life of the user.

Although Benjamin Franklin Palmer received a patent for the artificial leg in 1846, prosthetics have been around for much longer than that. Ancient stories and poems contain references to prosthetic limbs.

Ancient Greek and Roman texts also offer evidence that artificial limbs were used thousands of years ago. For example, historians have found ancient Roman texts that describe Roman General Marcus Sergius.

He lost his right hand in battle. He had a replacement hand made out of iron, so he could hold his shield. He then returned to battle to continue fighting.

In 2000, researchers in Egypt found what they believe is the oldest artificial body part ever found. It was a prosthetic toe made out of wood and leather.

They found it attached to the mummified remains of an Egyptian noblewoman — who died almost 3,000 years ago!

Perhaps the most famous prosthetic devices from history come from pirate lore. Peg legs and metal “hands” shaped like hooks were actually early prosthetic devices that were quite popular for many years.

Today, modern prosthetics continue to evolve and develop. New materials, like advanced plastics and carbon-fiber composite materials, have allowed prosthetics to become lighter, stronger, and more realistic.

Advanced electronics have also made today’s prosthetics more functional. Some artificial limbs can be controlled electronically to allow users to function as if the artificial limb were real.

Prosthetics have advanced to the point where some athletes can compete at a professional level with artificial limbs. Benjamin Franklin Palmer probably never imagined that one day there would be Olympic runners using artificial limbs to compete on a level equal to athletes with biological limbs.

Wonder What’s Next?

If you’re not careful, tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day might wash you away!

Try It Out

Are you ready to learn more about prosthetics? Be sure to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Clear your mind and fire up your imagination. Think about what your life would be like if you only had one leg. Take a mental stroll through your typical day. How would life be different with only one leg? What tasks would be more difficult? What activities might you no longer be able to participate in? How might you choose to spend your free time differently? What types of activities might you focus on instead?
  • What types of modern prosthetics are available these days? Jump online to browse through the Prosthetics Photo Gallery. What types of materials do you think would make the best prosthetics? Which advanced technologies do you believe might have the greatest future impact on the design of prosthetics? Why?
  • If you look around the world you live in, there are all sorts of people with different abilities and strengths. Some people choose to look for disabilities and weaknesses. However, a closer look will reveal that those with so-called “disabilities” just have different abilities than others. Rather than focus on the negative aspects of obstacles, many people choose instead to embrace their strengths and focus on their unique abilities. What abilities do you have? What are your strengths? Ask a friend or family member for help. Sometimes it can be hard to take a step back and realistically evaluate one’s own strengths. Ask others what they think are your special talents and abilities. You might be surprised by what you learn!