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World War I boosts need for Carnes Artificial Arm

Photo from eBay This advertisement for the Carnes Artificial Arm highlights how it “keeps men on the payroll” with an arm “which both looks and acts like the natural arm. The elbow bends, wrist turns, fingers flex and grasp. Only by close inspection can the Carnes be detected from the living arm.”

International events proceeded to enhance the reputation – and sales – of the Carnes Artificial Arm.

The international event? World War I.

The Warren Times-Mirror spoke with Carnes when he was in Warren for a couple weeks in June 1917.

At that point, Carnes had been able to sell the British (which saw over 11,000 upper limb amputations during the war), Canadian and Australian governments on the invention.

The Times-Mirror’s headline recognized what this would do for Carnes in its headline – “WILL GREATLY ENLARGE CARNES ARMS PLANT.”

Photo from the Warren Evening Mirror The Carnes Artificial Arm was first produced in Warren before manufacture was transferred to Kansas City, Mo. Local papers still reported on the progress of the effort, especially given the rush of prosthetic limbs needed during and after World War I.

The paper noted in the lead that “in fact it was in this city that the Carnes arm was invented and the first manufacturing done.”

Production shifted to Kansas City in 1910 “and since that time has enjoyed a growth little short of remarkable. The present output of the plant is 100 arms per month, according to a statement to the Mirror by William T. Carnes, who arrived Friday night from Kansas City and, accompanied by his wife, will spend a couple weeks here.”

Carnes told the Mirror that expansion plans would push that amount to 1,000 arms per month “owing to the great demand for them for the wounded soldiers of the allies.”

The company also negotiated with the Russian government to provide arms while a factory was also built for production of the devices to the chief Axis power, as well – Germany.

Carnes told the Mirror that the device was pitched directly to the German Kaiser, who they found to “be a very ordinary man to converse with.”

He added that Canada had initially intended to purchase another product “but soldiers returning from England had seen the Carnes arm and demanded it. Then the government stated they would order Carnes arms for above-elbow amputations only, but I noticed the other day that as many orders are coming from there for below-elbow as above.”

The paper at one point lamented that “Warren capital could not see the possibilities of this invention and keep skilled labor in Warren instead of sending it away.”

In an ironic twist, Carnes also seemed to be playing both sides of the market to some degree.

The Mirror tacked this paragraph on to the end of its story: “Mr. Carnes has invented an inexpensive aerial torpedo which works great destruction when dropped from an aeroplane, but is almost impossible to explode unless dropped from a great altitude. This he has offered gratis to the United States government and is expecting to hear within a few days whether or not it is accepted. The explosive used in it is as cheap as water, being one of the natural elements, and he believes the government will accept the offer.”

While the marketing materials may have suggested that the Carnes Arm was wonderful in every way, information from the National World War I Museum and Memorial states that the arm was provided for amputees needed to perform light office work.

“While not useful for manual labor, and often uncomfortable to wear, the arm set expectations for future prostheses.”

And if any idioms are true, this one is – “Technology marches on.”

One account said the Carnes Arm was fading from use by the early 1920s and obsolete by the time the world next went to war, just 20 years later.

A 1954 National Academy of Sciences report entitled “Artificial Limbs – A Review of Current Development” succinctly noted the strengths and weaknesses of the Carnes Arm.

“Most authors admired the dexterity achieved by the Carnes devices–particularly because of their ingenious construction, the passively adjustable wrist flexion, and the possibility of coordinating supination with elbow flexion to assist in eating–but criticism was leveled at complexity, relatively heavy weight, lost motion, and the restriction against interchange of a hook for the hand.”

But that report cited prior technology found in many countries that was often limited to “various wooden hands, usually with spring loaded or voluntarily controlled thumbs.”

It seems likely that some of the platitudes used to describe the device were offered to promote marketing efforts. That’s pretty common for newspaper writing in the early 20th century.

The Carnes Arm wasn’t the first technology turned obsolete and it certainly won’t be the list.

But it’s also clear that the Carnes Arm provided options for people.

And those options could transform a patient’s life.

(For anyone interested in seeing a restored Carnes Arm in use, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd_w2I7OXzQ.)

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