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Timeline: Engineering the real cyborgs

Updated Monday, 19th February 2018

Do you know engineers have been improving lives of people who have disabilities since Ancient Egyptian times? See how prosthesis and aids for the heart, eyes and ears have developed over the years. 

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Engineering: a history of helping people

From devices that function to allow the body to continue to survive, to those that improve a person’s quality of life, Engineers have been helping people live better lives for years. Check out this timeline to discover more about the groundbreaking technologies behind some of medicines most significant advances.

A wooden toe

Wooden toe


The first prosthetic so far discovered is thought to be a wooden and leather big toe discovered in a tomb near the ancient city of Thebes; near Luxor, Egypt. Researchers investigated whether it was a ‘functional’ replacement by testing replicas on volunteers who had lost their big toe, discovering that the toe made walking in sandals easier.

Polished quartz

Optical lenses


The earliest known optical lenses were made in Assyria (today part or Iran, Syria and Turkey). They were made from polished quartz.

Roman artificial leg of bronze plates fastened to a wooden core, excavated from a tomb near Capua.

Capua leg


A Roman period prosthetic leg was found in a Grave in Capua, Italy in 1858. Dating from around 300 BCE it was made of bronze and wood.

Long John Silver's peg leg

Peg legs


Peg legs and crutches for lower limb amputations were used.

Seated apostle holding lenses in position for reading. Detail from Death of the Virgin, by the Master of Heiligenkreuz, ca. 1400–30

First eyeglasses


The first known eyeglasses were made in northern Italy. The inventor was reportedly unwilling to share their invention so in 1313 a Dominican friar, Alessandro della Spina of Pisa, made his own version and shared them widely.

The Iron Hand (Eiserne Hand) of Götz von Berlichingen

Hinged prosthetic


The German knight, Gotz von Berlichingen, received an iron prosthetic hand using hinged to allow the fingers to be moved allowing him to hold his shield or his horse’s reins.

Ambroise Paré; Posthumous (fantasy) portrait by William Holl

First movable knee joint


French surgeon Ambroise Paré was one of the first to introduce amputation as a medical procedure to save lives. Soon after he developed prosthetic limbs to replace the amputated parts and, in 1529, the first with a movable knee joint.

An 18th-century drawing of ear trumpets

Ear trumpet


The earliest known description of the ear trumpet, large funnel-shaped devices to collect more sound for the hard of hearing.

Verduyn’s below-knee prosthetic

Non-locking knee


Pieter Verduyn, a Dutch surgeon, created a non-locking below-knee prosthesis.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

First bifocals


Benjamin Franklin is widely regarded as having invented the bifocal eye glasses. The exact date of this invention is unknown, though they are mentioned in a letter Franklin wrote a colleague in 1784 saying that he was “happy in the invention of double spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones”.

The “Anglesey Leg”

Full articulation leg


Londoner, James Potts, developed a leg prosthesis which was fully articulated at the knee and foot.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Commercial ear trumpets


During the early 1800s ear trumpets of various designs were being produced commercially. The first commercial producer was Frederick C. Rein in London but perhaps most notable was Johann Nepomuk Mälzel of Vienna who produced ear trumpets for Ludwig van Beethoven when he became deaf.

William Selpho patent

Artificial hand


American William Selpho designed an artificial hand of which the fingers were actuated by movement of the opposite shoulder by a securing loop. 

Prosthetic attachment


Dubois L Parmelee improved how prosthetics were attached using a suction cup socket.

Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick

First contact lens


Although the idea for contact lenses for various uses went back as far as Leonardo da Vinci, the first successful contact lens was made by Adolf Gaston Eugen ---- in Zurich. Made from glass they sat on the rim around the cornea but could only be worn for a couple of hours at a time.

Miller Reese Hutchison

First electric hearing aid


American electrical engineer, Miller Reese Hutchison, designed the first electronic hearing aid, known as the Akouphone. It used electricity to amplify the sound.

Specialist use limbs


Around 1900, limbs started to be designed to meet specific needs of the user.


Artificial limb


J.E.Hanger, a Confederate soldier who lost his leg above the knee after being shot by a cannonball, designed an artificial foot. It was designed to work quietly using pneumatics.

A split hook hand

Split hook hand


A major advance in usability came with the design of the split hook prosthetic hand. Designed by D.W Dorrance in California, they were popular due to their ability to grip and manipulate objects.

Siemens electronically amplified hearing aid

First electronically amplified hearing aid


The German company Siemens produced the first commercially available electronically amplified hearing aids. They were quite bulky however and not practical to carry around.

Vactuphone Vacuum Tube Hearing Aid

First vacuum-tube hearing aid


The Vactuphone converted sound to electrical signals whereon it was electrically amplified. It was designed by a naval engineer called Earl Hanson and was sold in the UK by Marconi from 1923.

Dr Mark C Lidwill

Early pacemaker


Dr Mark C Lidwill and physicist Edgar H. Booth from Sydney, Australia, devised a portable electrical resuscitator. While one connection was a salt solution soaked skin pad, the other required a needle, insulated except at its point, to be plunged into the heart. In 1928 it was successfully used to revive a stillborn baby whose heart started to beat of its own accord after 10 minutes of assistance.

Glass/plastic lens


Optometrist William Feinbloom made the first use of plastic in contact lenses. Using a combination of glass and Perspex, these were lighter than glass lenses.

Andrew Gasson
Heinrich Wöhlk

Plastic lens


The German optometrist Heinrich Wöhlk produced the first fully plastic lenses.

Johns Hopkins University HUB
James Jude, William Kouwenhoven, and Guy Knickerbocker

Open-chest defibrillator


Doctors use a defibrillator, an electrical device to shock the heart to start it beating again, with electrodes placed directly on the heart for the first time during surgery. The device was developed by the American electrical engineer, William B. Kouwenhoven.

(British Pathé)

First corneal lens


American, Kevin M Tuohy invented the first corneal contact lens. These sat only on the cornea and could be worn for much longer periods.

John Hopps is seen testing the world's first pacemaker.

First external pacemaker


Canadian electrical engineer, John Hopps, developed the first external pacemaker; it did, however, rely on internal electrodes with wires that passed through the skin. It was painful for the patient to use and relying on power from an AC wall socket risked electrocution.

William Kouwenhoven

Closed-chest defibrillator


American electrical engineer, William B. Kouwenhoven devised the first ever closed-chest defibrillator. It used electrodes placed on the skin rather than directly on the heart. The prototype weighed about 90kg. In 1961 they created a portable version, weighing around 20 kg, that could fit in a small suitcase.

Dr. Alberto Vejarano

Portable external pacemaker


Dr Alberto Vejarano Laverde and electrical engineer Jorge Reynolds Pombo, both from Columbia, constructed an external pacemaker that used a 12-volt car lead–acid battery rather than mains power. Though weighing about 45 kg and needing recharged every 72 hours, it sustained the 70-year-old priest, Gerardo Florez who pulled it around on a cart, for another 18 years.

Child being paced with Bakken's Pacemaker

Wearable pacemaker


The engineer Earl Bakken of Minneapolis developed the first wearable external pacemaker. Using transistors, it was small enough to fit in a small plastic box and carried around with the patient. 

Scan showing implantable pacemaker

Implantable pacemaker


Developed by Rune Elmqvist, a doctor and engineer, and surgeon Åke Senning, the first operation to implant a pacemaker into the body was conducted in Sweden. The patient, Arne Larsson, died in 2001, at the age of 86, having received 26 different pacemakers during this time. 

Otto Wichterle

Soft contact lenses


Czech chemists, Otto Wichterle and Drahoslav Lím, developed hydrogel material for use as a soft contact lens. These soft lenses were significantly more comfortable than rigid lenses.

Rod Saunders was Professor Clark's first Cochlear implant recipient

First Cochlear implant


The first cochlear implant was invented by Dr. William House, in 1961. 

First corrective eye surgery


The first corrective eyes surgery was performed by Jose Barraquer of Columbia. It required the remove and freezing of the cornea, before machining by a precise lathe, then returning it to the eye.

Modern pacemaker


Manuel A. Villafaña and Anthony Adducci of Minnesota develop the first lithium-ion battery powered pacemaker.

Professor Graeme Clark and Cochlear: An incredible journey

Multichannel Cochlear implant


The modern multichannel cochlear implant was designed by Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair and Erwin Hochmair.

Gas permeable lenses


Early lenses prevented oxygen getting to the eye, which could have serious side effects. Over the 1980s and 90s, a range of oxygen-permeable materials were developed to overcome this problem.

Dodrill GMR Heart

First mechanical heart


The first mechanical heart was successfully used to replace the function of the heart during open heart surgery. Developed by Dr. Forest Dewey Dodrill and volunteer engineers from General Motors Research, it was entirely external to the body and only used during operations.

Digital hearing aid

First digital hearing aid


First developed by the City University of New York, the first digital hearing aid used an FM radio to transmit between the device and a minicomputer which processed the signals.

Laser eye surgery

Laser eye surgery


Stephen Trokel and Rangaswamy Srinivasan perform the first laser eye surgery using an excimer laser. This type of surgery would later become known as LASIK surgery and is still widely used today.

Silicone hydrogel lens

Silicone hydrogel lens


Ciba Vision of Mexico release the first silicone hydrogel lens. These were a benefit over their predecessors as the silicone bases material offered very high oxygen permeability in addition to the comfort of a soft lens.

Victorian Collection
Bosch digital hearing aid

Behind the ear hearing aid


The reduction in size of microprocessors allowed the development of the first behind the ear digital hearing aid to be launched by the Nicolet Corporation.

Oticon hearing aid

First 'all-digital' hearing aid


The Oticon Company developed the first ‘all-digital’ hearing aid. This development led the way to the more advanced hearing aids we have today, including automatic sound level regulation and connection with smartphones.


Flex-Foot Cheetah


Biomedical engineer Van Phillips develops the Flex-Foot Cheetah after loosing his lower leg at the age of 21. The carbon fibre “blade” design stores the kinetic energy of each step as sprung potential energy allowing the wearer to run and jump. The design is made famous by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

Prosthetic hand improvements


UK company Touch Bionics produce the i-limb ultra, a prosthetic hand designed to move like a natural hand. Each digit is motorized allowing a better grip of objects to be obtained. They also develop their ‘livingskin’ cover for the prosthetic that gives a realistic hand appearance to the prosthetics.

3D printed reconstruction


Stephen Power, from Cardiff, becomes the first patient to receive facial reconstruction surgery using 3D printed titanium plates created from CT scans of the patients own damaged skull then corrected to improve symmetry.

ReWalk Exoskeleton


ReWalk Robotics release their first powered exoskeleton to the market. The ReWalk allows people with spinal chord injuries to stand and walk.

3D printed prosthetics


Albert Manero starts Limbitless Solutions, a non-profit organization aiming to provide 3D printed prosthetics to children for free. The video shows actor Robert Downey Jr. in character as Tony Stark, presenting a child with his own “Iron Man” arm. The arm costs just £235 in materials

How do I use this timeline?

The easiest way to journey through the history of how engineering has helped certain disabilities is to click the arrow on the right hand side (or swipe right on a tablet), which will take you through all the entries.

You can also investigate various thems such as: 'Heart' or 'Eyes' by selecting the 'Open filters' button on the top right hand side. This will allow you to filter content and only see one theme.

You can also drag and explore via the grey timeline section at the bottom, although this is in beta at the moment and may have a few hiccups!





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