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Pair of artificial arms for a child, Roehampton, England, 1964

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Can one technology rectify the harm done by another? In the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of children across the world were born with malformed limbs because their mothers had taken a new drug known as thalidomide to counteract morning sickness and aid sleep. In Britain, one of the government’s responses was to fund the design of special prosthetic limbs for the many young children affected. Here is a pair of gas-powered arms made for a small child by the Steeper company. As children grow so quickly, this may have been the second or even third set they had worn. Their first pair were likely to have been much simpler, with doll-like plastic hands and very basic arm movements. This set is much more sophisticated, with arms that have pincer-like hook endings which could swivel and grip. Movements controlled by the child’s own short limbs or shoulders touching against sensitive valves on the inner surface of the ‘jacket’. However, there was a limit to what you could really do with them. Although these experimental limbs allowed children to do certain things for themselves, it’s debatable whether they gained any more independence than they would otherwise have done. Wearing them could be hot and very uncomfortable and regular re-fittings and adjustments were needed as the child grew. In the end, they were virtually all discarded by the time the children reached their teens.

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Glossary: artificial arm

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