Archive Gallery: PopSci Lends a Hand to the Disabled

Swinging crutches, shovel-shaped prostheses, the echo flashlight, and other vintage inventions to help people with disabilities

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn more ›

Remember that video we posted on Monday about the paraplegic college graduate who used an exoskeleton to walk across the stage? In addition to making us shed grateful tears for the advancement of technology (whew, robotic tech isn’t evil after all), it prompted momentary visions of a future where disabled people have ready access to bionic limbs, super-strong exoskeletons, electric eyes and stair-climbing wheelchairs. Just take a look at the technology in our archives to see what the disabled had to choose from during the greater part of the 20th century.

Click to launch the photo gallery.

Thanks to World War I and the polio epidemic, the 1920s saw an influx in technology designed for the limbless and the paralyzed. Millions of soldiers returned home unable to walk or to use their hands, thus dooming themselves to lives on the street or under state care. Sensing a need for more dignifying career options, inventors produced a slew of special crutches and prostheses to help wounded veterans get on with their lives. Crutches equipped with swing seats (to relieve arm strain), prosthetic arms that could attach to shovels, and typewriters that could be operated with a steel arm all served to ensure that the disabled lived to their fullest potential.

Wheelchairs underwent vast improvements during this era (and in the following three decades) as manufacturers worked to make them motorized, easier to operate, and more adept at navigating bumpy terrain. Although the motorized wheelchair wasn’t officially invented until after World War II, we found a prototype in 1920 that looks as fancy as a Ford Model T.

Technology for the blind and the deaf also feature heavily in our archives, where we cover several decades’ worth of valiant efforts to invent artificial eyes and vibrating sensors. To help the blind navigate safely, one group of students invented an “echo flashlight” that emitted sound waves near obstacles. Meanwhile, a psychologist from Northwestern University developed a pocket watch-shaped device that turned speech patterns into patterns of vibration. Presumably, a (dedicated) deaf person could learn to interpret these vibrations as full sentences.

Impressed yet? Click through our gallery to see the wheelchairs, steel arms, and portable sensors developed to make live easier for people with disabilities.