Arriving at the Wolfsonian a few hours before he was scheduled to deliver a public talk in the museum’s auditorium entitled: MERGING MAN AND MACHINE, Hugh Herr, the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT, had the chance to pop upstairs and take a peek at a few items culled from the library collection. Mr. Herr, a climbing enthusiast who lost both legs below the knee, works with a group of MIT’s best and brightest on cutting-edge research blurring the lines between science and design aimed at morphing the human body and the machine to produce “smart prostheses.” The research team is exploring the science by which “disabled” persons might not merely be outfitted with prosthetic limbs, but provided with robotic appendages and sophisticated electronic devices that might actually permit them to far exceed the capabilities of their own biological limbs. Sound farfetched?! Not for you Six Million Dollar Man fans. Oops! Now I’m really showing my age.
Following a general tour and walk through the back stacks of the rare books library, Mr. Herr had the opportunity to view some of materials created in the wake of the First World War with the aim of rehabilitating severely wounded war veterans. Not surprisingly, Hugh noted that during and immediately after nearly every war and military conflict (with the exception of the Vietnam War), increases in U. S. government funding served to spur on research breakthroughs and design developments in the technology of prosthetic devices. Our own holdings of rare books and ephemera confirms Mr. Herr’s assertion, with a spate of titles on the subject appearing in countries participating in the Great War, such as An Imperial Obligation: Industrial Villages for Partially Disabled Soldiers & Sailors (London: Grant Richards Limited, 1917), The Disabled Soldier (New York: Macmillan Company, 1919), and the German leaflet: Ludendorff-Spende für Kriegbeschädigte! Sammel-liste. [Ludendorff contributions for disabled war veterans! Collection list.]
Of course, the rudimentary prostheses from this period can hardly be compared to the sophisticated devices being designed today, and in the wake of the ghastly mutilations suffered during the First World War, it is hardly surprising that many artists (such as Georg Grosz, 1893-1959) focused instead on the dehumanizing and dystopian aspects of an increasingly mechanized world. The library, for example, holds a powerful German Expressionist piece illustrative of the disillusionment of many post-WWI artists with technologies’ potential to better the human condition. This portfolio of prints, Der Künstliche Mensch [The Artificial Man] by Willi Geisler (1848-1928), contains ten plates providing a scathing indictment against dehumanizing mechanization and transformation of human beings into robotic automatons.
In the late interwar period, as the horrors of the First World War slowly began to fade from public memory, other intellectuals began to consider the benefits of mechanization and robotics in human affairs. Some even contemplated a future in which technological development bettered the lives of ordinary human beings. Mexican author German List Arzubide, for example, wrote a series of stories for children to be broadcast on the radio in the 1930s. In Troka El Podoroso [Troka the Powerful], the robot protagonist champions the labor-saving industrial technologies (washing machines, sewing machines, adding machines, bulldozers, etc.) and transformations (pen and ink to typewriter, stairs to elevator, moonlight to electric bulb, etc.) combining elements of Mexican folklore and mythology with the new mythic hero.
In a similar vein, our public speaker Hugh Herr also focused his attention on the optimistic, life-affirming, and potentially-utopian aspects of the merger of man and machine. It is his hope that the transformative technologies and designs that he and his group are working to develop will indeed help to usher in a world in which handicaps will disappear in the seamless blending of man and machine. In the world that he envisions in the not so very distant future, advances in science and design in the “smart prostheses” technologies will permit human beings to attain newer and ever higher levels of physical (and cognitive) potentiality. Go Cyborgs!