As with so many things in life, it all started with whalebone, a steampunk convention and a 19th century Australian dentist.
In 2011, engineer Ivan Owen created a giant mechanical puppet hand as part of his costume for a steampunk convention in Seattle, Wash. Five years later, through a string of improbable digital age connections, Owen's initial idea has grown into the the open-source e-NABLE Community, volunteer army with nearly 10,000 participants in 40 countries, bringing 3D-printed prosthetic hands to kids everywhere.
It's actually pretty simple, in a grassroots kind of way. By sharing open-source designs online, any tinkerer with a 3D printer and a nearby hardware store can print and assemble various assistive devices for needy people in their local community. These prosthetic devices - mostly hands - aren't as functional or durable as commercially available medical devices, but they're cheap and easy to make, with total costs typically less than $50.
In developing countries, the technology is a godsend for those in need - particularly kids. And because kids grow, it doesn't cost a lot of money to 3D print the next size up.
"Children who were born with no fingers, or have lost them due to accident, disease or war, now have an option for an assistive device that can grow with them, for little or no cost," Jen Owen, Ivan's wife and the other half of the Owen family project, told Seeker.
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Jen now handles the bulk of the logistics for the rapidly growing initiative, whose digital rallying point is the sprawling Enabling the Future website. Speaking from the their home in Seattle, she said the grassroots group has now delivered more than 2,000 3D-printed hands to those in need, mostly kids, around the world.
So how did this all happen? That takes us back to the steampunk convention. After the con, Ivan posted a YouTube video of the mechanical puppet hand he'd thrown together for his costume. He soon received an email from a carpenter named Richard in South Africa, who had lost his fingers in a woodworking accident.
Together, Richard and Ivan collaborated on a version of the design that could work as an ultra-basic prosthetic hand. Soon they were designing a smaller version for a five-year-old South African boy who was born with no fingers.