Sue Zemka, “1822, 1845, 1869, 1893, and 1917: Artificial Hands”


The manufacture of artificial limbs was a Victorian growth industry, requiring an assortment of qualifications: mechanical skills, sympathy for the disabled, commercial ambition, a willingness to exaggerate in advertising, and faith in technological progress. This essay explores nineteenth-century designs for artificial hands, focusing on the stories they relay about the relationships between the people who needed artificial hands and the people who made them. These relationships concertize and personalize the complex factors at play in the history of Victorian hand prostheses: philosophies of embodiment, the hand’s role in these philosophies, the experiences of people without a hand or hands, and the impact of technology on all three.

[1]The environments of nineteenth-century Britain and America presented many threats to the human body, and a significant number of men and women lived part of their lives with disabilities acquired from injury. Among these were amputees, a demographic that grew over the course of the century as a result of several factors: unprecedented population growth, industrialization, improvements in anesthesia and antiseptics, and war. For much of the century, war was the leading cause of missing limbs. It brought together with lethal potency the other factors: more soldiers, better weapons, and better medical treatment. Heather Bigg, a British prosthesis designer, admitted with candid resignation that militarism guaranteed a market for his goods: “England is really pretty constantly involved in wars, and even if some of them are quite minor compared with the recent gigantic campaigns of continental countries, still after each a good number of men invalided home” (102). When Britain did eventually enter a gigantic campaign, the number of veterans “invalided home” increased beyond Bigg’s imagining; World War I created “a task of human restoration” of an unprecedented scale, with 752,000 permanently disabled veterans in Britain alone” (Gerber 18-19).[2] After war, railway and factory accidents posed the greatest hazards to legs and arms. Then there were infections—gangrene and bacterial tuberculosis, both of which could necessitate amputation.[3] As with battle injuries, lower mortality rates from infection meant more survivors—men, women, and children who then adjusted to the changes in their bodies. Thus, when we imagine nineteenth-century England, in addition to visualizing newly industrial cityscapes and landscapes—a world transformed by scientific progress—we might also visualize a certain number of the human population with missing or artificial limbs, many of which were consequences of that progress.

War and industrialization drove the numbers in the Victorian history of artificial limbs, and mechanical utopianism drove the discourse. Many of the artificial limbs of the period were designed and made by artisans, men who worked with tools and machines for a living and took a craftsman’s approach to the problem. Their solutions employed springs, levers, wheels, trusses, pulleys, pneumatic extensions, hydraulic force, leather, carved and polished wood (preferably willow), catgut, india rubber, all in combinations that ranged from simple to fantastic. The artisanal character of the artificial limb industry was reinforced by the indifference of doctors and surgeons to the cause. Medical professionals considered their patients cured once a surgical procedure was complete and the risk of infection had passed (Gray 11; McGavigan 29). From there, the amputee might seek an appliance from a government-sponsored artificial limb maker (if he had sustained the injury in military service), or from a private supplier, if it was a civilian injury. In either case, the professional cordon between doctors and artificial limb makers had this consequence: artificial limb designers were typically not trained in human physiology; what they had instead was a practical knowledge of tools and materials and how they might be used to meet the exigency of a missing leg, arm, or hand. Their status as artisans is reflected in one of their Victorian job titles, “surgical mechanist.” Undoubtedly many were motivated by compassion in addition to ambition. Their work and their advertising promulgated the belief that the replication of human appendages by mechanical design was constantly improving. The manufacture of artificial limbs was a Victorian growth industry, requiring an assortment of qualifications: mechanical skills, sympathy for the disabled, commercial ambition, a willingness to exaggerate in advertising, and faith in technological progress.

The words “appliance” and “device” in this description are accurate to the Victorian vocabulary of artificial limbs and they exemplify the mechanical orientation of the field. Other terms were “surgical instruments” and “orthopedic appliances.” The word “prosthetic” was rarely used to describe artificial limbs until late in the nineteenth century.[4] In the OED, the earliest citation for the adjectival form “prosthetic” as a reference to artificial limbs dates from 1872. “Prosthesis” and “prosthetic” appear throughout Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary of 1881 (144, 156, 166). Thus, for most of the century, rather than calling artificial limbs “prostheses,” with its latinate dignity, Victorians called them “devices,” “instruments,” and “appliances”—words that don’t distinguish between tools that are used as human appendages and those that are not. Lisa Herschbach astutely observes that nineteenth-century “limb makers set in motion a world in which the boundaries separating nature from artifice, organism from mechanism, could no longer be identified” (37). But Victorian perceptions of those blurred boundaries were unique to the period and distinct from ours. The shift in vocabulary shows this; “prosthesis” denotes a unique class of equipment that fills a lack in the human body, whereas an “appliance” or an “instrument” conveys no such anthro-specific use. The modern prosthetic blurs the boundary between human organicism and a mechanism with a sophistication that sets it off from other tools; Victorian artificial limbs carried the signs of their provenance in machinery and craft.

Apart from these shared attributes, there were many differences among nineteenth-century artificial limbs. Chief among these is a corporeal difference; it was easier to make a satisfactory artificial leg than an artificial hand. In the 1830s, Sir Charles Bell declared that the human hand was “the most complex animal mechanism,” irreproducible in its intricate design (169). Almost a century later, during the First World War, the French surgeon Auguste Broca was still inclined to agree; “accurate imitation of the external form of the natural [hand],” he wrote, “is incompatible with good functional use” (xiii). Of course, this did not stop Victorian manufacturers from making extravagant claims for the utility, beauty, and improvements of their artificial hands, but, given the unregulated nature of nineteenth-century capitalism, there was little to prevent them from doing so. In reality, the state of technology for artificial hands languished on an impasse between functionality and a natural appearance. Heather Bigg, writing in 1885, lamented his industry’s shortcomings in both: things are so much easier with the leg—“its formation is walking alone”—whereas the hand communicates with the subtlety of its touch and pressure, and performs a multitude of everyday actions, none of which can be reproduced artificially. On top of this, even if the surgical mechanician can approximate these subtleties, he must then acquire the skill of a sculptor in order to make a replacement hand look natural (72-3).

Realistically, then, the Victorian amputee had three choices for supplying a missing hand: he or she could tuck a coat sleeve into a pocket (a universally recognized sartorial euphemism), or wear a prosthesis that looked like a tool and not a hand, or wear one that looked like a hand but did almost nothing. This impasse magnified the sociological differences among users of artificial hands. As Vanessa Warne shows, the British artificial limb industry of the nineteenth century created sharp social demarcations between those who could afford the best and most sophisticated models and those who could not (83-7).

Hand amputees among British veterans, often pensioners at map iconChelsea or Greenwich, wore one of the patented devices that had been approved for government subsidies. To win the Queen’s command to provide “surgical appliances” to wounded soldiers, as Henry Heather Bigg did after the map iconCrimea War, was a guarantee of success; the Bigg family of artificial limb makers, father and son (who did have medical training) were important figures in the industry for the rest of the century. In the United States, financial inequities created stark gaps among the large number of veteran amputees after the Civil War. Confederate veterans had worse options than their Union brethren, as pensions for the former armies of the South lagged behind those of the federal government (Rosenburg 219-20). There was a world of unspoken meaning in the empty sleeves of the former officers of the nineteenth century’s many wars, American and British; the Confederate officer with an empty sleeve tucked in his pocket was a way of wearing with dignity a wound that was unhealed, unforgiven, and unforgotten.

To lose a hand in the nineteenth century thus began a process of choices, all of which reinforced the already ironclad identity markers of Victorian society: class, gender, wealth, and occupation. But even more was at stake in this loss. Sensory nerves are abundant in the hand, making it crucial to haptic perception. Hands are necessary for independence in daily tasks and self-care. Gestural language employs the hand, consciously and unconsciously; hands situate us in space and in relation to each other—caressing is an activity of the hands. In addition to its practical functions, and in part because of them, human cultures invest human hands with a vast array of symbolic functions. Acknowledging this interlocked chain of physiological and cultural factors, Rosemary Garland-Thomson states, “hands make us human, or so we are told.” She then considers the ramifications of this deeply engrained assumption for the singlehanded, ramifications that begin with the visual exchanges that place subjects in a web of social relations: “seeing a vanished hand violates the visual expectation of visual symmetry . . . an assumption of matching sidedness, which occurs in many other living natural forms, shapes our visual sense of proper handedness” (123). We might expect, then, that the sight of a missing hand in the nineteenth century forced everyone involved, amputees and non-amputees alike, to negotiate between the influence of inherited assumptions about the symmetrical, double-handed human body and the needs, personalities, and humanness of those with a vanished hand or hands.

In fact, we might expect that the sight of vanished hands was uniquely overdetermined in the nineteenth century because of the period’s already powerful preoccupation with manual activity. Victorians were especially attuned to their hands as an area on the normative body that performs a cultural species identity. In their chirographically sophisticated culture, the hand was the writing appendage; it was also the appendage synecdochically identified with labor, craft, and warfare. Peter J. Capuano argues that there was a “radical disruption” in nineteenth-century understandings of the relationship between hands and humanity that stemmed from the historical forces of industrial mechanization and evolutionary theory. The Victorian hand, Capuano argues, is “the scene of a crucial moment in the history of embodiment that has remained largely unrecognized to us” (2-3). This essay explores the largely unrecognized history of Victorian manual embodiment as it unfolds in representations of vanished hands and their artificial replacements. It does so by considering five books on artificial limbs published between 1822 and 1917. In 1822, George Webb Derenzy, an officer in the British army and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, published Enchiridion: or A Hand for the One-Handed. In 1845, Sir George Cayley, a pioneering aeronautical engineer, published Description of an Artificial Hand, a design manual. In 1866, James Gillingham, who ran a thriving, family-run factory for artificial limbs in map iconChard, published a pamphlet titled The Seat of the Soul, and Its Immortality: The Cases of Persons who have suffered amputation of their limbs. In 1893, a London-based German designer named Gustav F. Ernst published a book titled On the Application of a Suitable Mechanism in a Case of Amputation of Both Hands. Finally, in 1917, Macklehose, a Glasgow publisher, issued in 1917 a collection of photographs commemorating the vast production of artificial limbs for World War I veterans under the title The Manufacture of Artificial Limbs at the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers.

As an exercise in chronological history, the topic of artificial hands faces an interesting challenge. The idea of progress, of steady improvement, is an assumption shared by both Victorian makers of artificial hands and by the formal conventions of chronological history. But in this case, it is mostly an incorrect assumption, so care must be taken to sift out the appearance of technological positivism from the reality of technological repetition. Artificial hands at the start of the twentieth century were not fantastic improvements on artificial hands at the start of the nineteenth century.

However, beneath the obfuscations of false promises and exaggerated hopes, other stories are visible—stories about the relationships between the people who needed artificial hands and the people who made them. These relationships concertize and personalize the complex factors at play: philosophies of embodiment, the hand’s role in these philosophies, the experiences of people without a hand or hands, and the impact of technology on all three.

In 1822, Captain George Webb Derenzy published Enchiridion: or A Hand for the One-Handed. Derenzy states, in no detail, that he lost his right arm in the Battle of map iconVitoria. Afterwards, discovering life with one hand to be fraught with challenges, he created a “one-handed apparatus” to assist himself and others in his predicament. There is nothing original about Derenzy’s approach to a functional hand; it is basically the same as that of professional artificial limb designers before and after him: make tools and attach them to the stump. However, the particular tools that Derenzy chose to make vividly evoke his life as an amputee and his delight in the simple tasks he could once again perform: he has an ivory vice and separate attachments for holding a knife, or a quill holder, or pen-nibber—also a tool that enables him to eat at an egg, and one for brushing his hat, and another for playing cards (18). The decision to make a specific attachment for playing cards has an air of bravado, befitting of an officer. The overall tone is one of satisfaction with the can-do ingenuity of the device. But Derenzy’s explanation of why he undertook the making of a “one-handed apparatus” adds a somber contrast: the double-handed might smile, he muses, at the amount of effort he has taken in making these quaint devices for mundane use, but those who share in his situation will immediately understand their importance. Hence his efforts will be repaid, Derenzy says, if his apparatus enables another one-handed man “to pass his solitary hours with somewhat more pleasure to himself, or join the social circle, unchecked by the fear of being obliged to tax the kind feelings of some benevolent person in the party, for those attentions which his own helplessness compels him to owe in general to the politeness of others” (12-3).

Derenzy’s slim volume tells us several things: one, early nineteenth-century amputees, their friends and family, were largely on their own in improving the range of available devices and in giving each other support, since the medical and social milieus of the period offered little of either. (Thus we find that innovators in artificial limbs had often been personally touched by need; the American designer B. Frank Palmer, for instance, was himself a leg amputee.) A second benefit of the document is Derenzy’s rare, albeit brief, first-hand statement about his personal experience of living in the nineteenth century as a hand amputee. What is most salient is the sense of mortification that attends the sight of Derenzy’s missing hand in the polite society of post-Napoleonic England. Garland-Thomson’s analysis of how the operations of staring impact the lives of the differently abled helps us recognize the subtle complexity in this scene: Derenzy wishes he could allay others’ unease and pity at the sight of his missing hand; he is frustrated by his dependence on their help; he senses all the swirling and unspoken feelings of fear, obligation, and helplessness in the room.[4] And yet there is also (as Garland-Thomson would underscore) a testimony to his adaptation; his confession of helplessness prefaces a manual replete with cheerful description of Derenzy’s ivory vice, his prosthetic hat brush, and his attachment for playing cards. On the whole, the manual exemplifies nineteenth-century mechanical optimism, where tools mutely convey an amputee’s feelings of freedom in the machine. Optimism, however, comes with an acknowledgement of social discomfort—and this social discomfort, it is important to understand, is a legacy of the Napoleonic Wars. Everyone in the social gatherings that Derenzy describes would know how he, an officer, lost his hand.

George Webb de Renzy

Figure 1: “George Webb de Renzy” by Charles Turner, 1821 (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Appropriately, then, the frontispiece to Enchiridion: or A Hand for the One-Handed (Fig. 1) is a copy of Charles Turner’s portrait of the military hero, handsomely posed in his uniform, his empty right sleeve pinned to his brass buttons, with a landscape behind him which—can we help but wonder?—might be the empty battlefield of Vitoria. In Derenzy’s case, both the sleeve and the device remind a civilian population of the tragic sacrifices to which they believe the security and comfort of their lives are due. For the veteran, the artificial hand fills functional or cosmetic needs; for viewers it affirms a semblance of “normalcy.” But it did not fulfill any of these tasks in an easy or unambiguous way. The historical, the social, and the personal intersect at the sight of Derenzy’s empty sleeve.

However, artificial hands did not always point to war as a cause, or even to train or factory accidents. Farm work claimed limbs as well. In 1845, George Douseland lost his right hand, his dominant hand, in an agricultural accident. His father was a farmer and a tenant of Sir George Cayley; Cayley, an engineer and inventor, decided to make a replacement for the hand Douseland had lost. Cayley was an exception to the majority of early Victorian artificial limb designers; he was independently wealthy, thus not motivated by profit, and he was a highly trained scientist—in fact, an important figure in the history of aeronautics. In spite of his notoriety, there is no evidence of how well Cayley’s artificial hand worked, or whether anyone other than Douseland ever wore one. (Like Derenzy, Cayley published the design for his artificial hand in The Mechanic’s Magazine so as to obviate patent law and make it available at no cost—an act of generosity, which means that there are no records of it being manufactured and sold.) Nevertheless, Cayley’s 1845 Description of an Artificial Hand is worthy of consideration because it shows an exceptional Victorian scientist thinking about how to solve the problem of a missing hand.

description of an articifial hand by Cayley

Figure 2: Sir George Cayley, _Description of an Artificial Hand_ (London: Tyler and Reed, 1845: 17; courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.)

The end result, beautifully rendered in a series of drawings, is the dream of a perfect artificial hand, circa 1845 (Fig. 2). Elegant, efficient, and uncomplicated in appearance, Cayley’s hand hides equipment in imagined flesh. Technology has been internalized. Levers substitute for nerves, muscles, and bones; these mechanisms are suspended inside a leather casing—the verisimilar flesh—and the whole, the illustration assures us, takes the form of an elegant, perfectly shaped hand. This would appear to be the wished-for alternative to the Victorian amputee’s real-world bad bargain, the need to choose between appearance and functionality.

Undoubtedly, the drawings in Cayley’s manual are idealized renderings of the actual prototype. One might never guess from the drawings that the prosthesis was only roughly verisimilar. But, as Cayley admits, while the drawings suggest fingers capable of independent motion, the fingers on the actual device were cork cylinders attached to a steel plate, and the leather shell was seamed along the fingers and palm (10). The hand would have worn out easily and be difficult to keep clean. The ruse of the drawings is probably not a result of dishonesty so much as the limitations of book illustrations in a rather humble publication of this period. Nevertheless, the illustrations reflect the influence of artistic renderings of a human hand on the Victorian ability to imagine an artificial one. The external outline is an iconic hand—well-proportioned, unmarred by labor, and poised in an elegant gesture. Is this the way Cayley conceived it, the way it looked, or a default image used to communicate it? Whatever the answer, the iconic hand is in a feedback loop with the actual artificial hand, supplying its imaginary double.

description of an artificial hand by Cayley

Figure 3: Sir George Cayley _Description of an Artificial Hand_ (London: Tyler and Reed, 1845: 18; courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)

Another illustration shows Douseland’s device in a position capable of holding a pen (Fig. 3). This holds an alluring promise for a Victorian audience; Cayley’s design enables the amputee to write again.[5] No mention is made of how the device serves Douseland in his work, although for the son of an agricultural tenant, the capacity for physical labor would be critical. Whether Douseland himself spent much time writing is beside the point; the writing prosthesis carries an assurance for society in general that the ideologically weighted powers of literacy need not be destroyed by the loss of one’s dominant hand. The ability to write again is a leitmotif in nineteenth-century stories of overcoming all types of debilitating hand injuries. It recurs throughout manuals and catalogues advertising artificial hands. However, writing did not necessarily depend on a prosthesis since a non-dominant hand could be taught to manipulate a pen. Below Derenzy’s portrait, for example, there is an example of his signature in a left-leaning script, unusual for men in the period, which could mean either that he had learned to write with his left hand or that he wrote it with his pen-nib device. In either case, the inclusion of the signature is calculated to announce that Derenzy, a dominant hand amputee, can sign his own name. In the late nineteenth century, the map iconBoston Public Library held charity exhibitions of left-handed writing by veterans who had lost their dominant hand; tickets were 25 cents, prizes totaled $1000 (Devine and Brandt 48-9). As in Douseland’s and Derenzy’s cases, the importance of restoring chirographic ability did not end with the amputee but had a larger social function. To write again is a practical and a symbolic victory over the vulnerability of the body to mutilation.

There is another detail in Cayley’s second drawing that bears mentioning. It does not actually depict the device holding a pen, as do most illustrations of artificial hands that claim this capability. Instead, the drawing isolates the hand in negative space. No external tools complicate the visualization of this pseudo-organic appendage or impinge upon the boundary of its verisimilar human flesh. The drawings express an investment in the human body as a fleshly form—supreme, discrete and independent of equipment. Even the act of writing is depicted in its gestural purity, without a pen. Chirography, the drawing suggests, is an organic humanist act, and the importance of this humanistic organicism is such that the hand holding empty space does not record an awkward absence but rather testifies to the hand’s ascendancy over tools.

What I am calling organic autonomy is a manner of representing the body in noble independence and solitude, for example in negative space, as in the drawings of Douseland’s hand. As a representational style, it is appropriate to philosophical concepts of subjecthood as similarly autonomous, singular and self-determining, instead of fundamentally dependent upon natural, social, and technological environments. It thus carries certain assumptions about social subjectivity that are as utopian as the design itself. By professing to bridge the gulf between functionality and appearance, it also bridges the gap between social classes (but not gender). Douseland, an agricultural laborer, gets a hand that in appearance befits a gentleman, and moreover supports his membership in a classless world of letters by allowing him to write. We can see why Cayley is dedicated to a norm of organic embodiment; it is invested with feelings about the ideal form of embodiment for the male subjects of a liberal society. The person who wears the hand in these drawings has generic masculine dignity and participates in a literate public sphere that transcends class and material contingencies.

In fact, the promise of restoration is so complete, the viewer might not think of its vanished original. The prototype in the drawings evades its own grisly literalism—the fact that this ‘hand’ is indeed detached from the organic body that it so eloquently evokes. Its perfection hides its painful cause, the accident that took Douseland’s natural hand.

These are the abstract beliefs at work, but they unfold in a specific relationship. A baronet and a landowner, Cayley dreams a hand for Douseland that would erase the enormous differences of wealth and attainment between them. It also hides, repairs, and denies the tragic farming accident that was, in part, a consequence of these differences. The artificial hand promotes a story of physical and social healing; if it lives up to its promise, then the hands of the two men will appear identical. It will place Cayley and Douseland in a virtual world of organic and subjective equality among men.

James Gillingham, with his working-class background, saw different priorities in the case of William Singleton’s missing arm. A boot-maker in Chard, England, Gillingham was approached in 1866 by Singleton, who had lost his arm when the cannon he was operating in a royal wedding ceremony misfired. Gillingham complied with Singleton’s request to make him an artificial arm, although at the time his primary experience was in making boots (Warren 8-9). Singleton had been amputated at the shoulder joint, leaving no musculoskeletal support for a prosthetic; the experts considered him untreatable. Not only did Gillingham succeed, he was also credited with inventing the first artificial arm (“the scapular arm”) that could be used without a stump. (Afterwards, he devoted himself fulltime to “surgical mechanics,” transforming his boot-making shop into a thriving, family-run artificial limb factory that continued to operate through World War I.) As for the manual device on Singleton’s arm, that was quite simple—a circular clamp at the end of a jointed leather arm. The important thing was to get Singleton working again, and to this end the illusion of naturalism was secondary. This is not to say that Gillingham cared less than Cayley about the ramifications of an artificial hand for society and personhood, but he cared differently. Instead of trying to bridge the gap between functionality and appearance, he endeavored to devise the best appliances possible within these limits, depending on the needs of his patients. As with Singleton, his hand devices often reflect class identity; in fact, they were practically synecdoches for a patient’s classed identity. A unique attachment for Letitia Warren, a seamstress, allowed her to sew again; her hand became the visual and functional manifestation of her job. The genteel Jane French, in contrast, desired a cosmetic hand that would enable her to sit in church without covering her arms; Gillingham carved a willow hand with articulated fingers, “a work of exquisite craftsmanship” (Warren 35-6). For a practical designer like Gillingham, who served a large and varied clientele, hands and bodies were ineluctably associated with class and gender. Appropriately, then, his philosophical meditations on his work with amputees did not lead to an idealization of either the body or the hand, but rather of the soul.

In 1869, Gillingham published The Seat of the Soul, and Its Immortality: The Cases of Persons who have Suffered Amputation of their Limbs. The plot of the book, as such, is simple: there is the story of Gillingham’s first success and the birth of his firm; a statement of the importance he gives to personalized care and fitting; and his religious interpretation of phantom pain, supported with case studies. Singleton’s case was Gillingham’s first and also the one that most succinctly captures the essential structure of his cases: there is a mutilation to the physical body; there is pain that attests to the stubborn wholeness of the spiritual body; and then there is Gillingham’s stopgap, the successful construction of an artificial replacement that approximates corporeal wholeness, for a damaged but hopeful life, anticipating resurrection.

At the time, the reigning physiological theory of phantom limb centered on inflamed nerve endings in amputated stumps and their neurological miscommunications (Mitchell 197-201). Gillingham, in contrast, appeals to a spiritual double of the normative corporeal body in order to explain his patients’ phantom pain; “the material man and the spiritual man have the same shape,” he writes, and “the spiritual man remains perfect when a part of the material man has been removed by amputation.” After death, the amputee’s consciousness “takes flight to [a] spiritual scene of action,” where his or her original unity is restored (Seat of the Soul 5). The soul is the body’s immutable double, and spiritual appendages can never be severed; “when we cut off a limb we do not cut off a piece of the soul” (Artificial Limbs v).

In contemporary parlance, Gillingham was observing symptoms of trauma as well as phantom pain syndrome, but his frame of reference is religious, not psychological. Thus the symptoms that present as phantom limb are the soul’s melancholic expression of a whole that exists regardless of the amputated body’s mutilated state. It is melancholic in a specific sense because the amputee’s phantom pains attest to a condition from which they are barred even though they continue to depend on it psychologically; the spiritualized whole has a higher purchase on the amputated person’s self-image than her prosthetically restored form. As Gillingham interprets his case histories, a missing limb is a loss to which an amputee cannot, will not, be reconciled; to do so would be (as in melancholia) the betrayal of a source of identity. Phantom pain is the lingering proof of a self that is impervious to division and transcends injury. A religious mandate underwrites it; the pain is proof of eternity, a repudiation of loss.

In this schema, hands are theoretically of the same value as any other appendage. Phantom leg pain is no more or less an eloquent witness of the soul-form than phantom arm or hand. Missing arms, hands, and legs all tell this story, one and the same, as befits a syndrome that points to one meaning, the indivisible, otherworldly whole. Nevertheless, the traumatic pasts of Gillingham’s phantom limb patients are powerfully conveyed by the behavior of their hands. A man who had both his hands blown off while also ramming home a charge at the mouth of a cannon discovered his injury only upon arriving home. Walking upstairs, he went to grasp the balustrade and exclaimed, “’Oh God! I have lost my hands!’” (qtd. in Gillingham, Seat of the Soul 4). The shocking realization that he had lost his hands comes after his first phantom sensation. Again, Gillingham’s response is to cultivate a wondrous understanding of the spiritual implications in this story rather than attending to evidence of a traumatic block. Wondrousness is even more apparent in another case, also involving the hand. A pregnant woman was traveling with her young son in a train; the door of their carriage closed on his hand, and the woman screamed, thinking it had cut his hand off. It hadn’t, but a few months later the baby in her womb was born without hands. With its echoes of dead hand stories, the woman’s reported experience expresses a vestigially folkloric reaction to the well-known dangers of train travel. Predictably, Gillingham finds in it a reason for spiritual consolation: “Though the hand has been arrested in development and not awakened into consciousness it is there” (Artificial Limbs vii). Theoretically, all missing limbs bespeak Gillingham’s idea of the spiritual whole; representationally, the missing hand expresses an especially intense threat to the union of psychic and corporal integrity. An especially intense threat, and thus a buried one: in both stories, Gillingham deflects attention away from the visceral shock of a vanished hand to the idea of a celestial body that has no removable parts.

1822: Derenzy designs a functional manual device for his “handless” compatriots, and prefaces it with a portrait and an anecdote that encode the memory of war, a man-made epidemic of lost lives and limbs. 1845: Cayley’s image of an artificial hand yearned for an unmarred organic perfection and did so with the utopian suggestions that such a hand would erase the signs of physical maiming and class distinctions at the same time. His artificial hand seems to have no memory. 1869: Gillingham’s ideas about organic holism are predicated on the persistence of memory, even to the point of melancholia. With Gillingham, it is as if the image of the whole human body becomes explicit and peremptory in the very years that historical circumstances placed it in greater jeopardy. In the real conditions of England and America’s newly industrialized, aggressively militarized societies, people with missing limbs were an increasingly common sight. That Gillingham discovered his new profession in the 1860s may have been coincidental as far as Britain is concerned; certainly in the United States that decade marked a drastic elevation in the number of American male amputees. Two years into the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. wrote an essay on artificial legs for The Atlantic, commending the American designer B. Frank Palmer for his ingenious innovations that allowed leg amputees to skate, swim, and walk without a limp. (Palmer’s design was an adaptation of the British Anglesey wooden leg; it won him an Honorable Mention at the map iconGreat Exhibition of 1851 [Phillips 30].) The change in society had been swift; Holmes writes, “it is not two years since the sight of a person who had lost one of his lower limbs was an infrequent occurrence. Now, alas!, there are few of us who have not a cripple among our friends, if not in our own families” (574). Holmes begins the essay with this sidelong glance at war, then forgets it for most of the essay, turning his attention instead to the remarkable American inventor whose work will ease the transition to a society populated with a significant number of amputees. Holmes’s amnesia about the occasion for the essay may be rhetorically calculated so as to end on a positive note; calculated or not, it exemplifies a tendency in the emerging discourse of prosthetics to celebrate the reparatory gifts of technology in a way that winds up repressing the traumatic losses that made prostheses a necessity in the first place. Gillingham’s practice participates in this optimism but refuses the amnesiac tendencies of its optimism. Like Derenzy’s Enchiridion, Gillingham’s The Seat of the Soul suggests a society with a preponderance of amputees, but with a more plangent note of troubling, widespread suffering. The personal melancholia for unmaimed wholes that Gillingham diagnoses in his patients is arguably part of an historical melancholia, evidence of the ways in which the bloody middle decades of the nineteenth century placed pressure on the cultural imagining of human embodiment.

The topos of the hand in Gillingham’s phantom limb cases concentrates their traumatic undercurrent, but it also encodes Gillingham’s persona as a compassionate craftsman. A photograph from 1883 encapsulates this persona. In that year Gillingham and Singleton, his first patient, participated in a festivity for the Duke of York’s wedding—an uncanny reminder of the event that cost Singleton his arm. Singleton rolled Gillingham around in a wheelbarrow, pushing it with the artificial arm and hand that the limb maker had built for him two decades earlier (Warren, 10). He then posed for a photograph with Gillingham’s son sitting in the wheelbarrow and Gillingham standing behind them (Fig. 4).

photo of Singleton and the Gillinghams

Figure 4: Photograph of William Singleton, James Gillingham, and Sidney Gillingham, 1883 (courtesy of the Chard Museum and Heritage Centre)

One narrative subtext in the photograph concerns a gift of handwork from an artisan to a laborer. The artificial limb designer holds an ambiguous wood implement, suggestive of labor, his hand creating a double to Singleton’s own, also depicted holding an implement of labor. Another subtext is Victorian provincial life, its web of craft, labor, and commerce, weaving together generations and class stratifications. Gillingham is pushed into the background of the photograph but happenstance situates his hand as one focal point amid others—his son’s face, his son’s hands, or possibly Singleton’s steel hand, which catches the eye later, its inconspicuousness demonstrating just what a successful artificial hand it is. The figures draw a sphere of dignified provincial relationships that absorb, naturalize, and respect Singleton’s artificial arm and hand.

A final subtext is tools; the year is 1883, but the photographic narrative of artificial limbs is situated amid rustic tools—a wheelbarrow, a handle, a leather arm, a spherical steel clamp. In general, Gillingham made his leather arms using a special procedure that maximized suppleness, fit, strength, and minimal weight. Here, in the context of this photograph, the arm seems to lodge a preemptive challenge to a forthcoming style in artificial limbs that would revel in technological gadgetry. Tamara Ketabgian argues that because Victorians lived in daily intimacy with mechanical labor, they thought of the body as always already prosthetic, “a human machine complex” (quoting Foucault); thus “the body [often] operate[s] as a diffuse metaphor for both bodies and machines” (18). The thesis is aptly illustrated by the sight of Singleton’s purportedly twenty-year old artificial arm, which appears so lived in, so natural, without being verisimilar; it can readily be described as both body and machine. Victorians had different styles and identifications for their human-machine complexes: Cayley’s, as we saw, strove for full organic illusion; Gillingham’s does not, but softens the mechanical appearance by being distinctly artisanal. The Gillingham style in artificial limb design emphasized craftmanship, mechanical ingenuity, and caring relationships—the look of tools, as distinct from the look of technology. It is proleptically nostalgic for this style.

Seen in the context of his lifelong interest in religion and spiritualism, there are cultural stakes in the Gillingham style; it wants to protect an incalculable human quotient from instrumental rationality. In 1892, he developed an interest in automatic writing. This is how he described the sensation of writing “automatically”: “My hand was directed by the intelligence of one deceased, by a living person, or by my ‘subjective self.’” His hand and pen become the tools of another’s words and will; “all communications were written by my pen, held in the ordinary way in my left hand, without any knowledge on my part of the nature of the message that was written down . . . I did not control it – I rested the point of my pen on the paper and the mysterious forces did the rest” (qtd. in Warren 91). During his phantom limb period, what mattered to Gillingham was the stability of human personhood, encased by the boundaries of its bipartite fleshly and spiritual form. Now what matters are these paranormal instances where personhood goes mute and the writing hand serves as a conduit for others, or for unknown areas of Gillingham’s own mind. As in the photograph of Singleton and others around the wheelbarrow, there is an implicit enframing of tool-use as a vehicle of communal care and a mediator of collective life. Such an enframing refuses a rational calculation of its value. Thus automatic writing conveys with all the hyperbole of pseudo-science a desire to spiritualize the hand’s use of tools, arguably as a bulwark against a rising technological assault on mystery. The hand that writes automatically is a kind of magical artificial hand, an uncanny experience of one’s one hand as both self and other, both volitional organ and alienated machine. Its inexplicable behavior inserts a stubbornly non-rational element into the use of an everyday tool, the pen. Coupled with photography, Gillingham’s other hobby of his late career, automatic writing crystallizes a concern with the subordination of technology (including pens and cameras, technologies of representation) to spirituality. It is as if the chief influence on Gillingham’s ideas about embodiment shifted from the threat of mutilation by machinery and war to the threat of an instrumentalist reframing of the human body by technology in general, including the reframing that occurs in the work of artificial limb designers like Gustav F. Ernst.

In 1893, the year after Gillingham discovered automatic writing, Gustav F. Ernst published On the Application of Suitable Mechanism to a Case of Amputation of Both Hands, which, in many ways clarifies why Gillingham might have been so desperate for a magical use of tools that mediated spirits and other rationally resistant aspects of human life. Ernst’s approach to a case of bilateral hand amputation is thoroughly pragmatic, less interested in holism, spiritual or organic, than it is with the his patient’s ability to interface with things. A body that interfaces with things does so most visibly and actively with the hand. Thus Ernst’s pragmatic approach to human embodiment is very effectively expressed in this case of manual appliances.

Ernst was commissioned to design a set of artificial hands for a wealthy young Englishman known here as C. C., who had lost both of his forearms when a gun exploded while he was on a hunting trip in map iconSouth Africa. Ernst, who referred to himself as an “orthopedic mechanician,” was one of an elite corps of new artificial limb designers who purported to be more technologically ambitious and scientifically sophisticated than their predecessors. For example, in a departure from the usual practices of artificial limb designers, Ernst refused to enter his work in exhibitions—and yet he won prizes anyway (Phillips 38). Ernst executed C. C.’s commission with a set of devices that declare independence from conventional notions of a beautiful hand; technological wizardry is their primary objective. Hence he is coolly realistic about aesthetic substitutes; “artificial hands with articulated fingers” are only useful “as a matter of personal appearance,” he writes, and so he creates multiple devices for C. C.—one aesthetic set of hands, and in addition devices that are unapologetically tool-like in appearance. All of them enable C. C. to put them on without assistance, thus giving the bilateral hand amputee a much desired independence (8-9).

engraving from Ernst book

Figure 5: Gustav F. Ernst, _On the Application of Suitable Mechanism to a Case of Amputation of Both Hands_ (London: Sprague & Co., 1893: n. pag.; courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.)

The plates are arranged like a visual course in post-operative rehabilitation. First, we see C.C. without hands; secondly, C.C. with hands for social occasions; thirdly, C.C. in a series of plates showing the several attachments that enable him to eat, drink, shave, brush his teeth, and comb his hair, all without assistance (see Fig. 5). The photographs of C. C. eating (or shaving, or combing his hair) create a three-dimensional space, but a spare, practical, and utilitarian one. They were printed using ink photo plates, a relatively inexpensive method. Ernst’s willingness to defray the costs of illustrating a manual devoted to an expensive, high-end set of prosthetics is sensible, given his purpose. The job of the photographs is simply to communicate technical information and demonstrate how C. C. uses the devices. In doing so, they deemphasize the qualitative difference between C. C.’s human form and his non-organic attachments. The camera does not aestheticize C. C.’s body, as do Cayley’s exquisite drawings of an artificial hand, nor does it try to. C. C. exists here in service to the non-artistic display of his artificial hands.

In fact, the photographs wipe away affect altogether, so that nothing interferes with the suggestion of a technological victory over amputation. This effect is heightened in the photographs that show C. C. wearing his cosmetic hands, situated in an austere negative space. The cosmetic hands are feats of techno-corporeal hybridization, with leather and metal fixtures interpolated between the flesh of C. C.’s upper arms and that of his verisimilar hands. Both in the photograph of C. C. with his cosmetic hands and in the one without them, he is impassive, blanched of emotion; he appears equally indifferent to his bare stumps as to the bionic nudity of his prostheses. Indeed, he maintains the same frozen composure in all the photographs, whatever device he wears. While these impassive facial expressions are not unusual in photographic portraiture in this period, in the context of prosthetic demonstration and advertisement, impassivity becomes part of an instrumentalist field. They communicate an egalitarian attitude towards the categories of human and machine, with no interference from narrative or emotional suggestiveness. The human body interfaces with its habitat, a pragmatic field.

Ernst engravings

Figure 6 (left): Gustav F. Ernst, _On the Application of Suitable Mechanism to a Case of Amputation of Both Hands_ (London: Sprague & Co., 1893: n. pag.; courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London). Figure 7 (right): Gustav F. Ernst, _On the Application of Suitable Mechanism to a Case of Amputation of Both Hands_ (London: Sprague & Co., 1893: n. pag.; courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)

The photographs of C. C. wearing his various hand prostheses (for example, Figs. 6 and 7) suggest a departure from the allegiances to organic body in Cayley and Gillingham—a mode of being predicated on technological and situational interpolation. The bodily whole in his schema hybridizes with its tools and its environment; the borders between body and world are the sites of functional couplings. What matters here is not the elegance of the human form, organic, isolate, and whole, but rather a male body, devoid of personality and affect, moving in alliance with things. The point is not that Ernst lacked the compassion of Gillingham (or, for that matter, of Derenzy or Cayley), or that he neglected the relational element in working with his patients; on the contrary, Ernst emphasizes his concern with the gravity of C. C.’s need, and pays C. C. full credit for assiduously and courageously endeavoring to master the implements (vii). The point is that every explicit and subliminal element in the visual representation of C. C. contributes to a new reframing of prosthetic life as utterly modern, technologically hybridic, and without nostalgia for a sacral power in the organic, humanist body. Technology is ascendant in ways that redefine the phenomenology of embodiment. Moments of being are situational possibilities; ontology is functionality.

The contrast between Ernst and Gillingham is especially apt since Gillingham also photographed his patients. His most important images were taken between 1890 and 1910—thus overlapping the date of Ernst’s manual—but the style and purpose of his photographs differs dramatically from those of Ernst. (His different aspirations are discernible in his choice of methods and materials, since, unlike Ernst, Gillingham spared little expense, although he did allow the photographs to be copied in cheaper wood-block prints for catalogues and advertisements.) Marquard Smith argues that Gillingham’s photography was both a commercial and aesthetic venture: commercial because he used the photographs to advertise his products, aesthetic because their style “employs the accouterments of portraiture.” Thus the settings, lighting, backdrops, and drapery all convey an attempt “to both humanize and individualize” (54-5). “Humanize and individualize”: the very feel of the words sharpens the contrast with the contemporaneous photographs of C. C. in Ernst’s manual. It is a question, at the most general level, of the relationship between humanity and technology. The question is especially provocative when depicting the body part where the human meets and take up technology, the hand.

Gillingham engraving

Figure 8: James Gillingham, “Man wearing a pair of artificial arms,” 1890-1910 (courtesy of the Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library, London)

One of Gillingham’s portraits (Fig. 8) shows a man, a young bilateral amputee, who looks calmly and confidently into the camera, his mouth relaxed, as if ready to smile. The distinctive personality in his face and comportment commands as much attention as his artificial hands. Someone has helped him get dressed, and belted the devices snugly around his arms, crunching up his sleeves. The hooked device on his left hand is held a little forward of the body; the right device holds a letter; together, they underscore the openness of his self-presentation. He politely beckons a greeting—like the letter he holds, a communicativeness. The image conveys care, tenderness, and strength; it’s about the young man, the quality and beauty of his life, and his artificial hands blend into this purpose rather than being (as in the photos of C. C.) the purpose. Artificial hands are the vehicles of his personality; that is the presentation they serve.

Gillingham photo of man wearing artificial arm

Figure 9: James Gillingham, “Man wearing an artificial arm,” 1890-1910 (courtesy of the Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library, London)

The same is true of another photograph of an arm amputee (Fig. 9), although this image is more elaborately staged, with a painted set (possibly painted by Gillingham) and the leg of a chair visible in the corner. The subject wears a hat, as if out on a walk on the lush summer day suggested by the backdrop, which is old-fashioned even by fin-de-siècle standards. His artificial arm is part of the aesthetic composition, reinforcing the vertical line of his thin, erect stature. The arm and its circular steel hand define the center of the composition—again, the device is the point without being the point, because woven into a narrative setting and a portrait that captures distinctive features—the young man’s angular profile, his monocle, his pants that are too big, all conveying a bourgeois identity or aspiration—unlike the man in the other photograph, a primness. The artificial arm and hand define the focal point of the composition but they are not the only focal point—the man’s natural hand competes for the viewer’s attention, creating a visual dialogue between the shiny circular form of the device and the cupped posture of his other hand. Recalling Gillingham’s earlier insistence on soul-forms, it is interesting that the tone does not convey a melancholy separation from wholeness but rather the reimaging and reliving of another kind of wholeness, one that fuses with machinery but with an old style and significance in doing so—as old-fashioned, or perhaps proleptically old-fashioned, as the painted backdrop, the bowler hat, and the awkward leg of the chair. While the man’s artificial hand is a functional device (like most of C. C.’s), its only function here is to suggest a narrative, a story of loss and adaptation, of a Sunday walk in the country.

While earlier in his career, Gillingham had deflected his narratorial gaze away from his patients’ bodies to thoughts of their heavenly restoration, as he developed his photographic practice he learned to let the gaze of his camera rest squarely on those bodies. Previously, he thought of their lives as an interregnum of separation from their more perfect forms. Photography, in contrast, became a way of paying homage to life in the interregnum.

The main contention of this survey of nineteenth-century artificial hands is that their representation plays a relevant and possibly crucial role to changing conceptions of the human body, especially as they move between images of organic autonomy and images of technological hybridity. What appears as progress in the nineteenth-century history of artificial hands is only partly a result of improvements in the quality of their design and construction. Instead of following a pattern of linear scientific improvement, the technology of prosthetic hands oscillates within limited parameters, occasionally lurching forward, but never achieving the results promised by the designers and the positivist discourse of which they were a part. The more dramatic changes occur in the norms, media, and philosophical implications of representing artificial hands and the human bodies that wear them. (“Changes” is a neutral term; sometimes it seems like a debate.) Cayley was faithful to the classical representational autonomy of the organic human form; Gillingham saw a melancholic gap between the organic human form (vulnerable to mutilation and deviations from the norm) and a soul-form to which everyone returns; Ernst simply jettisons these humanist and religious concerns in the pursuit of C. C.’s functional autonomy.

Hovering behind these figures is Captain Derenzy, the one-handed veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. World War I makes Derenzy relevant again; war temporarily put the lie to the kind of technological optimism expressed in Ernst’s manual and forced back into consciousness the traumatic histories of artificial hands to which Derenzy, circa 1822, briefly but eloquently attested. In so doing, the war also made craft and relationship relevant again. Perhaps as a compensation for the staggering blow to technological optimism, and in the midst of an unprecedented scale of bloodshed, the treatment of amputees was seen and experienced as a heroic task drawing on the artisanal and mechanical labor of the men and now women involved in the manufacture of artificial limbs.

In the 1820s, there were three artificial limb firms in London; by the 1880s, there were eighteen (Phillips 34-5). Despite this exponential increase, the combined forces of all the artificial limb firms in Britain were incapable of meeting the needs of the vast number of “limbless servicemen” created by World War I. As a result, the British requested assistance from the major American firms of J. E. Hanger, Inc., Rowley & Co., and the Carnes Artificial Limb Company of Kansas (Warren 69). The opening of this essay noted the three factors driving the growing demographic of artificial limb users in the nineteenth century: population, militarism, and medicine. The Great War brought these factors together in an exacerbated version of a familiar formula: more soldiers, more destructive weapons, and better chances of surviving surgery. Over the course of the one-hundred years considered in this essay, the disappointing progress in the technology of hand prostheses proceeded side-by-side with an exponential increase in the number of war-torn human bodies. The handless among these soldiers faced the same choice between a cosmetic and functional device that their ancestors had been making for many generations, since Derenzy and before.

The final date in this chronological overview commemorates the event of their collective losses and the poignant exigency of the need to replace, heal, accommodate, or overcome that loss. The Great War was not yet over in 1917, but a publication from that year reassured its British audience that its “limbless” soldiers were benefiting from the combined forces of the best in modern crafts, industry, and medicine. The Manufacture of Artificial Limbs for the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers is a series of photographs of the various stages in prosthesis construction in the hospital. The photographs are reproduced without commentary. Perhaps the absence of text is fitting, since one thing we have seen in all of the texts considered here is that visual representations (in painting, drawing, or photography) do most of the work in communicating the layered personal and symbolic valences that circle around the amputee and his or her “surgical mechanician.” One of the photographs shows a craftsman carving hands out of blocks of wood (Fig. 10).

photo of carving an artificial hand

Figure 10: “Carving out Artificial Hand” (sic.), )_The Manufacture of Artificial Limbs for the Princess Louise Scottish Hospital for Limbless Sailors and Soldiers_ (Glasgow: Macklehose, 1917. n. p.; courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)

Using hands to make hands; hands appearing out of blocks of wood: the photograph dramatizes a latent suspicion of technology that periodically resurfaces in the history of artificial limbs, and no doubt resurfaces here as part of a complex response to the social trauma of the war. It’s an image of prosthesis manufacturing that desires organicism and an organic body but looks to mechanical and technological remedies for mutilations of that form. It is thus paradoxically hopeful about the future and nostalgic for the past, and it attaches this difficult dream to the relationship between a craftsman, his materials, and an absence on the body of a fellow human being.

published October 2015

Sue Zemka is Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the author of Time and the Moment in Victorian Literature and Society, Cambridge, 2012.


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[1] The author wishes to thank Tamara Ketabgian and the other anonymous BRANCH reviewer for insightful corrections and improvements to an earlier version of this essay. Heather Tilley and Ryan Sweet also provided helpful suggestions for the project from which this essay is drawn.

[2] Erin O’Connor calculates that “men wounded in the Civil and Crimean Wars [made] up the majority of amputees” in America and Britain between the 1860s and 80s, after which factory accidents became more prevalent (238n3).

[3] Joseph Lister attributed many of the reasons for wrist excision surgery (an alternative to amputation that he devised) to “caries” or bacterial tuberculosis (1: 417).

[4] Building on work in social science, Garland-Thomson defines staring as a type of gaze that longs “for vivid particularity to enliven the insensate flatness of repetitive sights” (30). Her analysis of the sociability of staring follows, with emphasis on behaviors of staring aimed as “extraordinary” bodies (33-46).