A history of gripping invention

March 19, 1999

TV's Bionic Man inspired Peter Kyberd to invent a microprocessor-controlled artificial hand. Alison Goddard reports on the young scientist giving one of the Royal Institution's 200th anniversary lectures

The hand is the exension of the will," says Peter Kyberd, a 37-year-old researcher who is developing an artificial hand at Oxford's Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre. "A guy called Graham Westling said that 'You just have to think about the number of metaphors that involve using hands and you can see how useful a part of the body they are'."

Next week, Kyberd will give the third of ten lectures by young scientists at the Royal Institution in London. Called "From Captain Hook to Robocop", his lecture will trace the history of prosthetics from ancient times to his own computer-controlled device.

"Pliny records a man who had a hand made of iron strapped to his arm," he says. "Nothing much happened in prosthetics until surgeons' skills improved in the 17th and 18th century. But the technology is limited by weight and space, so you need modern materials to really make a difference."

Kyberd's artificial hand uses modern, lightweight materials and includes a microprocessor that allows the fingertips to sense how best to grasp an object and adjust the grip appropriately.

The thinking behind Kyberd's artificial hand is that it should be simple to operate. As adults we use our hands without thinking, yet it takes years for a child to learn how.

"The great thing is to watch a baby," Kyberd says. "I was watching my three-and-a-half-month-old niece trying to get hold of a toy on a frame. She was concentrating like crazy on one hand, getting it in the right place; the other one was waving about wildly and she was obviously not concentrating on it. Then she repeatedit with the other arm. She was learning."

Any person using Kyberd's hand operates it using electrical sensors similar to those used to measure heartbeats. The sensors feed information to a computer that continuously adjusts the position of the hand. The sensors also pick up signals from the muscles at the surface of the skin in the remaining arm - Kyberd thinks that the loss of a hand is not serious enough to warrant tapping into the nervous system. "People would want to have more to gain," he says. "For example, if they were paralysed then to get function back to their limbs, they might be able to tolerate that level of intervention. But people are not that inconvenienced by an artificial arm."

He became interested in developing artificial hands after watching the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. "So when there happened to be a PhD project on artificial hands, it was an obvious choice."

* "Scientists for the new century" at the Royal Institution, March 31. Tickets: 0171 670 2985.

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