The loss of a limb through illness or accident can be a truly devastating blow and, until recent years, prosthetics did not really offer much in the way of compensation for sufferers. False limbs tended to be clunky and clumsy, providing only basic functions and rudimentary in their construction.
That is now changing as the science of bionics advances at a rapid rate. Indeed, one of the biggest challenge when considering the developments is separating fact from science fiction. Increasingly, the two tend to blend into each other. Despite advances which have produced more effective prosthetics, there remains much to be achieved, with the biggest challenge the creation of prosthetics that are fully controlled by the brain.
Nevertheless, for a scientific field that is only sixty years old, bionics has made dramatic progress. Credit for the creation of the term “bionics” seems to lie with Jack. E. Steele, a worker at the Aeronautics Division House at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in the United States in 1958. Steele was a medical doctor and Air Force Colonel and when he coined the term he was not referring to the concept of bionics as it has been popularised but to the study of biological systems and organisms to find solutions to problems in engineering.
His work, and the new word, attracted the attention of science fiction writer Martin Caidin, who in 1972 wrote a book called Cyborg, which referenced Steele. This book, in turn, was the basis for The Six Million Dollar Man, the TV series which, while highly imaginative in its representation of a man who was rebuilt after a terrible accident, was instrumental in popularising the concept. In the years that followed, the gap between fact and fiction has narrowed as scientists develop devices that edge closer to mimicking the body’s natural functions.