Disability, Prostheses and Patenting
University of Leeds, 18th-19th September 2014
An international workshop supported by the AHRC Network grant: Rethinking Patent Cultures
Thanks to the AHRC we have funding to support speakers’ travel and accommodation expenses both in the UK and internationally.
By the end of the nineteenth century, an industry built around prosthetic appliances – hearing aids, spectacles, walking sticks and specialist furniture – flourished across the industrial world. Much historical work to date has been conducted on the significant effect of the American Civil War and the First World War on the rise of prosthesis production and usage in Europe and the USA (Ott, Serlin & Mihm 2002). Yet, we are still some way from understanding the relationship between physical impairment and commerce and the ways in which the commodification of disability during this period and beyond affected everyday life and health. At least some of this production operated independently of the medical system since not all disabled groups were medicalized nor did all inventors developed assistive devices under the jurisdiction of clinical professionals. Nonetheless, this increase in production was often linked to systems of patenting. The study of patented devices for disability support therefore provides us with ways to uncover trade/user relationships, as well as a way of assessing meanings and conceptions of disability more holistically – especially for those cases in which disabled groups themselves took the initiative in patenting activity.
Your proposal should address at least one of the following themes, covering any historical period:
i) What sorts of appliances (patented or unpatented) were used by people with disabilities to manage their condition? Most studies have focused on artificial limbs but we need to open up the field to include other prostheses such as breasts, dentures, ears, larynxes, noses and penises but also other appliances such as hearing aids, wheelchairs and furniture (Ott, Serlin & Mihm 2002). Analyses of more inclusive sets of aids should also be compared to other everyday objects, such as furniture.
ii) What sorts of relationships can be adduced between consumption, production and patenting both in the UK and globally? Appliance manufacturers certainly seemed to patent their devices more regularly than for other medical items but how and why did this vary between appliances? Were manufacturers who were themselves disabled, or had people with disabilities among their relatives, particularly prominent in the use of patents to protect their appliances from plagiarism or infringement proceedings by rivals? Examples might include hearing aids (the Amplivox collection at the Thackray Museum in Leeds), prosthetic limbs (numerous examples from the US Civil War and subsequent conflicts) wheelchairs, and improvements to Braille. How far were medical practitioners involved with these developments? Were prosthetic appliances seen as occupying a kind of non-medical domain for which patenting was acceptable?
iii) How did war affect patenting activity of such appliances? Lisa Herschbach, for example, has demonstrated the dramatic increase in the registration of patents in America following the Civil War and others have examined similar trends in facial reconstruction after WW1, but was this the case elsewhere and for other appliances? (Herschbach 1997).
iv) How did the gendered nature of appliances affect patenting activity? Most studies of artificial limbs and facial reconstruction are almost always exclusively male because they focus on industrial works and primarily, soldiers, but how far did women also play a role in the patenting and marketing of such appliances?
If you wish to participate, please send a paper proposal (300 words maximum) to Claire Jones by Friday 2nd May. Further enquiries about topic and the scope of papers are welcomed.
Dr Claire L. Jones
Director of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine
School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
Woodhouse Lane, University of Leeds
Leeds, LS2 9JT