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The History of Bionics

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 9/29/2008

Bionics is a fascinating subject with a relatively short but interesting history. Find out more about this exciting field.

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    When was Bionics first “Discovered?"

    The term “bionics" was created in 1958 by Jack. E. Steele, a worker at the Aeronautics Division House at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Steele was a medical doctor and Air Force Colonel who served in the force for twenty years following medical school and a teaching fellowship in neuro-anatomy. Note that when he coined the term Jack Steele was not referring to the concept of bionics as it has been popularized, but to the study of biological systems and organisms to find solutions to problems in engineering (this field is now called biomimetics).

    Interestingly enough, it was Jack Steele’s work, and the new word, bionics, which attracted the attention of science fiction writer Martin Caidin, who in 1972 wrote a book called Cyborg, which actually referenced Steele. This book was the basis for The Six Million Dollar Man, the TV series which, while highly inaccurate in its representation of the field, was instrumental in popularizing the concept of bionics.

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    A Timeline of Bionics History

    1945: Willen J. Koff develops the first kidney dialysis machine.

    1950: The Turing Test is created by Alan Turing. The test is a process in which a “judge" engages a computer and a real person in “conversation." The computer passes the test if the judge cannot determine which party is the computer.

    1958: In the same year as Jack Steele invented the term bionics, the first artificial pacemaker is fully implanted into a human patient, at Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden. This early experiment is not a great success, however, as the implant is functional for only three hours.

    1961: A computer-operated mechanical hand is developed at MIT.

    1962: High-density polythene—which would later be used in artificial hip joints—is developed by John Charnley.

    1971: Bausch & Lomb develop the world’s first soft contact lens.

    1978: The multi-channel cochlear implant, which allows the recipient to hear by mimicking the function of the cochlea, is first used.

    1987: A patient with advanced Parkinson’s disease is fitted with a deep-brain electrical stimulation implant.

    1996: Scottish researchers announce they have produced the first cloned mammal: a sheep named Dolly.

    1997: World chess champion Garry Kasparov is beaten by a computerized chess machine called Deep Blue.

    1999: AIBO, the first artificially intelligent pet, is introduced by Sony. The pet can walk, see, and understand and respond to spoken instructions.

    2000: An artificial silicon retina is implanted into a human eye. The artificial retina is made from silicon microchips which contain thousands of tiny light-converting units.

    2001: Amputee Jesse Sullivan receives a fully robotic arm developed by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The arm has a nerve muscle graft which allows him to use his own thoughts to move the artificial limb.