Image of Boston Arm Boston Arm
Boston Elbow (“Arm”) Prototypes, Robert Mann, 1966–1973

MIT Professor Norbert Wiener broke his hip in 1961. During his recovery, he shared his speculations that servomechanisms could be used to link the brain to an artificial limb. Wiener’s orthopedist Dr. Melvin Glimcher at Massachusetts General Hospital was intrigued. Glimcher also headed the amputee clinic at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company and had been struggling with designs that would help above-elbow amputees. Shortly thereafter, Weiner connected Glimcher with two MIT faculty: Electrical Engineering Professor Amar Bose and Mechanical Engineering Professor Robert Mann. Mann was recruited to provide advice on the design of a small, lightweight power system similar to the ones he had developed for the Sparrow missile. Soon, Mann and his graduate students became the principal investigators on this project along with Glimcher and Liberty Mutual. In 1968, they demonstrated the “Boston Elbow – Version I,” the first artificial limb that used electrical signals from the brain to control its movement. It took engineers at Liberty Mutual Insurance Company many more years of development to create a viable prosthesis. The museum display included one of the earliest experiments and two working prototypes, including one developed by EG&G for Liberty Mutual. The research on the control systems for artificial arms by Stephen Jacobsen, Robert Mann’s doctoral student, would become the basis for the development of an equally famous prosthesis, the Utah Arm. Today, above- elbow amputees, whether they use an LTI Boston Digital Arm System or a Motion Control, Inc. Utah Arm 3+, still benefit from the pioneering research at MIT.

Exhibited:
Boston Elbow (“Arm”) Prototypes
Robert Mann
1966–1973

photo: Michael Cardinali for MIT Museum

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