02 Oct 2014 Report: Rethinking Patent Cultures - Mike Mantin


Last month, a major project at the University of Leeds on the history of patenting called Rethinking Patent Cultures turned its attention to disability with the two-day workshop, ‘Disability Prostheses and Patenting’.  Covering multiple time periods and disciplines, varied papers on the workshop showed how patents enabled and limited material disability culture, and looked for ways in which historians can use them to illuminate previously hidden aspects of disability history.

The history of prosthetics is dominated by artificial limbs, but the first day of the conference focused on new research in the history of hearing aids. Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity University) provided a history of interpreting aids, from original ‘hearing trumpets’ to disguised hearing aids; whilst Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi (University of Toronto) looked at artificial eardrums, which were viewed negatively but continued to be used into the 20th century. These aids to Deaf people are inherently political objects; their contentiousness manifests itself today in the issue of cochlear implants (as encapsulated, for example, by the 2000 film Sound and Fury).


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[Ear trumpets from the 19th century. Source: Wellcome Images]


These papers gave historical context to this continuing debate, identifying ways in which these objects presented themselves as a ‘cure’ for deafness – one particularly striking advertisement in Virdi-Dhesi’s paper was headed ‘DEAFNESS IS MISERY’. An energetic discussion afterwards identified how this treatment of deafness as a problem solved by technology continues. Coreen McGuire (University of Leeds)’s paper moved us into the 20th century to look at early amplified telephony for Deaf people. Here, similar issues arose – as telephone technology changed, so did language and identity: users were now ‘hard of hearing’. 

Demonstrating the wide range of material history of patenting and disability that is largely yet to be explored, other papers on the first day included Mara Mills (New York University) on visual aids such as the ‘pen that reads’, a form of optical character recognition that originated form the rehabilitation of blinded war veterans and the optaphone, the first reading machine for blind people. A problem with this history is the fact the significance of these artefacts has largely gone unnoticed. A stimulating public debate followed this, moving these issues of preservation and representation  of material disability history from academia to the public space of the museum.

The next day’s papers continued to find new sources and new directions for the discussion to take. An equally hidden but altogether different source of material disability history was identified by Laurel Dean (College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia), who discussed George Webb Derenzy’s 1823 text ‘Enchridion: A Hand for the One-Handed’. Dean showed argued that the handbook is not just a fascinating insight into Derenzy’s personal inventions for his everyday life as an amputee, it also illustrates the class and gender dimensions of material disability history: Derenzy’s inventions almost entirely excluded women and working-class people. Caroline Lieffers (Yale University) discussed antebellum artificial limbs, controlled under a near-monopoly by the B.F. Palmer company, and distributed philanthropically. Lieffers’ argument brought out the potency of patents to control the prosthetics industry and place a stamp on the profession – in this case literally, as limbs were stamped with the patents. 



[George Webb Derenzy's Enchiridion, 1822]

Zorina Khan (Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME)’s excellent commentary on these papers emphasised the value of economic history to provide detail of the gender and occupational status of those who used them. A key driver of change was the impact of war, which was elaborated upon by Julie Anderson (University of Kent)’s paper on amputation in World War I. The war had a huge effect on the progression of artificial limbs: increasing demand, and immensely politicising the issue: in Germany, for example, it became a crime against the state to give information to the enemy about artificial limbs.

As well as economic history, literature proved an enormously useful discipline to apply to the history of patenting and disability. A panel on this issue pointed to Victorian periodicals as well as the better-known novels of the era as a source for this. Kristen Starkowski (Princeton University) discussed patenting in lesser-known works by Dickens such as ‘A Poor Man’s Tale of a Patent’, whilst Ryan Sweet (University of Exeter) looked at the surprisingly common trope of prosthetics in Victorian marriage plots. The periodicals criticised supposedly flashy or pretentious artificial limb usage by warning their readers not to be like ‘Kitty the Careless’, whose false teeth were seen as ‘unladylike’ and scared off a potential proposal.

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[Disabled miners using crutches at The Rest miners' home, Porthcawl, South Wales]


A closing roundtable discussed the many issues raised by the workshop, and everyone almost certainly went away applying these new ideas to their own work. In the case of this project, patents and prosthetic provision certainly had an impact on disabled people in the coalfields. Coal provides an important case study for the application of patents and technology, with its own specific variables: the work and community structures of various coalfield societies, and an uncertain mix of voluntary and state welfare provision. Ben Curtis and Steven Thompson’s recent article on artificial limb provision in South Wales for Social History of Medicine (open access) illustrates just how important these questions of community and space were. Artificial limbs were provided in coalfield societies through mutual aid societies and workplace artificial limb funds, demonstrating community support in times when often there would be no other alternatives. Questions of cost, value and usage also necessitated miners’ involvement in the changing technology of artificial limbs.

As disability history consistently evolves with new angles and methodologies, the workshop put a great case to looking further for patents. Not only do patents have immense political, literary and economic significance, they majorly affected the lives of disability people in history. Hopefully this workshop will be a springboard to even more disability history yet to be uncovered.