Victorian "rather sinister" artificial arm and hand

This Victorian artificial arm and hand is part of the London Science Museum's collection: "Made from steel and brass, this unusual prosthetic arm articulates in a number of ways. The elbow joint can be moved by releasing a spring, whereas the top joint of the wrist allows a degree of rotation and an up-and-down motion. The fingers can also curl up and straighten out. The leather upper arm piece is used to fix the prosthesis to the remaining upper arm. The rather sinister appearance of the hand suggests the wearer may have disguised it with a glove."

Artificial right arm, Europe, 1850-1910 (Thanks, Mista J, via Submitterator!)


    1. I came here to say the same thing. If you’re illustrating something where right and left matter, you’d think you would know better than to flip the image.

    2. I laughed fairly loud when I read that comment about the sinister left hand attached to the right hand. I was in a very quiet public place. Thanks for my day.

  1. Vee had better confeerm de fect dat Yunk Frankenshtein iss indeed VALLOWING EEN EES GANDFADDA’S VOOTSHTAPS.

    1. Cant really be steampunk if the mechanism has a distinct lack of steam driven function.

      Anyways, i was going to say that i’m fairly impressed over how modern this mechanical arm looks in it’s different parts. Would love to see a recreation of this and having a video featuring how it’d work on someone with a missing arm.

        1. Modern items made intentionally to look Victorian are neo-Victorian. Steampunk infers an exclusive fixation with steam-driven machinery.

          Either way, this particular prosthesis is actually from the Victorian period, which simply makes it Victorian. It’s a beautiful and probably very expensive example of a prosthesis from that time, too. Your average working man would have had to make do with carved wood and a hook, if he could afford anything at all.

        2. Not all Steampunk aesthetic objects needs to work with steam, in my opinion.

          Steam goggles, for instance, would be singularly self-defeating.

          1. Clearly someone needs to steam punk an iron.. Or steampunk an electric or gasoline engine.

            <- so over steampunk

  2. The History major in me wants to nitpick: I’m surprised the writer says that “The rather sinister appearance of the hand suggests the wearer may have disguised it with a glove.” A curator should know better than to make such an assumption, as it is based on a modern standard of normalcy that directly results from our quite recent ability to properly disguise prosthetics. Before we invented efficient skin grafts and other cosmetic enhancements to prosthetic surgery, it would have been more likely for a gentleman of sufficient means to afford this piece to proudly display his mechanical limb, which his contemporaries would not have found sinister because they lacked any standard of comparison for articulated prosthetics that did *not* look like this. If I may be a hypocrite and offer my own counter-assumption, I think Victorians would have found this piece to be beautiful, intricately crafted, and worthy of respect for craftsman and buyer/user alike.

  3. in victorian times, prosthetics were so expensive that even if your right arm was missing, you had to take what’s left.


  4. PAY ATTENTION MAKERS: Not every piece you make REQUIRES copper conduit from Home Depot. This is proof.

    Beautiful craftsmanship on that piece.

    1. @Anon #13: Considering that the Victorians shuddered upon viewing bare skin that wasn’t on a head or a hand, they would collectively faint if they saw this holding a parasol in broad daylight.

      @DeWynken #19: If the Victorians had Home Depot, trust me, they would have used plenty of copper tubing. ;)

  5. “A curator should know better than to make such an assumption, as it is based on a modern standard of normalcy that directly results from our quite recent ability to properly disguise prosthetics.”

    I would guess it was based on the ancient standard of normalcy that directly results from having hands. Were wealthy Victorians less concerned with appearances? You may be right, of course. I’m just speculating, too.

  6. The prosthetic would have been disguised with a glove:

    A: Hand is inarguably “skeletal” in appearance;

    B: English and Continental Victorian-era etiquette emphasised not shocking others;

    C: A skeletal hand one is not otherwise accustomed to is likely to cause concern, dismay, shock, fright, and attendant offense;

    D: One who is carelessly or purposefully advertising their particular condition to all present is either seeking attention or seeking to cause offense, and either is rude;

    E: Such foreseeable concern, dismay, shock, fright, and attendant offense may easily be remedied by the application of a pair of gloves;

    F: Anyone who could afford said prosthetic could likely afford a pair of gloves;

    G: Ergo, and to wit, the hand of the prosthetic would be covered by a glove.

    1. (Same anon here)

      Your post is rational and I do not question the logic behind your conclusion, but I do question the curator’s place to come to such a conclusion. You, in posting on a forum, are free to say “This would probably be worn with a glove!” because such is likely true, but a curator only as a matter of their job should not qualify “may have disguised it with a glove” with “[t]he rather sinister appearance of the hand”, no matter how likely. Keep in mind that Victorians were individuals, and it is just as fallacious to say “English and Continental Victorian-era etiquette emphasised not shocking others” as it is to say that modern etiquette emphasises not participating in internet flame wars (an example, not an accusation). Both statements are true, but the various Victorian-era memoirs, legal records, and other primary sources I’ve studied suggest that like most temporal norms, Victorian etiquette went mostly ignored, especially among men of sufficient means to afford an item such as this prosthetic arm. A significant number of upper-class Victorian men, at least in the sample afforded by my studies, took great steps to flaunt their status by purposefully and publicly ignoring social custom by such means as swearing, fighting, participating in non-conventional sexual activities (with multiple simultaneous partners), and wearing outlandish and modern fashions and accessories.

      I would have to make assumptions on the character of the prosthetic’s owner to determine whether or not he would have worn it with a glove. My point is that a respectable historian should not make the claim that “[t]he rather sinister appearance of the hand suggests the wearer may have disguised it with a glove” without a shred of evidence indicating that such was the case.

      If I sound like a pretentious undergraduate student who feels entitled to define the world after a few years of study, maybe it will help my case (or at least your perception of me) to say that my studies included producing research in Victorian history, not just a bachelor’s degree. I mean to say not that you should believe me because of my degrees but rather that you should believe my assertion that the curator does not well represent my field (which is presumably why he is a curator and not a historian/researcher).

  7. I neglected to mention one other point:

    Anyone who was concerned about the utilitarian capabilities of their prosthetic could have acquired and used the much more recognised and utilised hook — such a device having the connotation of someone who had need of lifting and manipulating things for themselves, rather than having the luxury of having someone else attend to any lifting requiring two hands, implies that the prosthetic above was meant for cosmetic reasons, holding a hand of cards, grasping a beverage, or tucking into a coat breast.

  8. What the picture is clearly missing is the original, ingenious flamethrower apparatus which was actuated by first releasing the safety catch (by raising the fingers with the other hand to reveal the palm; this action also lit the “pilot” flame), and then pressing the little raised button to eject the flammable liquid.

    That way, anyone having the sheer temerity to suggest that it was sinister would perish in a searing fireball.

    Ah, if only.

  9. Love the funny and inane discussion on steampunk or not. Anyway, this is one beautiful old object.

  10. It looks like there is even a stud at the top of the wrist for the attachment of a loop to hold a glove or sleeve (or both) in place. gorgeous piece though

  11. If you’re in London, a trip to the Wellcome collection is definitely a must – they have all sorts of diverse medical antiquities on display, including some fascinating prosthetics, and it’s all free (as in beer)

  12. With those holes in the wrist it looks like it could double as a potato masher or some kind of slotted spoon to fetch things out of boiling liquids.

  13. They fixed it to “left” arm after I emailed them last night. Or maybe other people also emailed them… Either way, you might want to correct the post too.

  14. I work for the Science Museum, and we wanted to let you know that we got so excited about all the tweets about the artificial arm that we wrote a blog post with more information about it:

    If you’re in London, you can go see the arm at the Wellcome Collection (Euston, ) or find other similar arms in our ‘Science and Art of Medicine’ gallery (South Kensington, )

    We’re also taking part in ‘Ask A Curator’ day on twitter, so you can ask any questions about it with the hashtag #askacurator or as comments on the blog post.

  15. This is not a left hand. Look at how the fingers would curl, the curvature of the distal phalanges, and the curvature of the palm. I think it is a right hand, palm side up, with the fingers and thumb bent backwards in a manner that makes it look like a left hand. The dead give away for me is in this photo:
    Why would you make the dorsal side of a hand concave? It’s hard to say definitively without having physical access to the arm, but based on the images provided I’m almost certain that it is a right hand.

    1. If your supposition was correct, the curvature on the fingertips would be reversed. As a left hand, the four fingers match the thumb in having outward-curving tips. If it was arranged as a right hand, the thumb tip would curve out while all the fingertips curved in like claws.

      I suspect the back is concave for the same reason it’s got all those pretty holes arranged just so – because why the hell not?

      Do you have any reason to suspect otherwise?

  16. This was one of my favourite items when I visited the Wellcome Museum in London. It’s sure to catch your eyes !

  17. I’ve always felt, if I ever lost a limb I’d want a replacement that looked like it had been taken from a Terminator.

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