Hugh Herr: Building a Better Body

“I believe that by the end of this century, there will be no disability in the world.”

– Hugh Herr

Who is Hugh Herr?  He’s an engineer, inventor, biophysicist, and world class rock climber who also happens to have both of his legs amputated below the knee.  In place of his natural limbs are two highly advanced bionic legs that he helped create.

The legs provide such great support and functionality that if you watched him walk across the room, you’d never notice anything was different.  Unless, of course, he was wearing shorts.

Though he always had a passion for invention, creation, and technology, his focus on limbs didn’t arise until he found himself in need.

A Change in the Weather

By the age of 17, Hugh was a nationally recognized mountain climber.  That same year, he and his friend Jeff decided to climb Mount Washington.  What started as a nice day for a climb quickly became a wintery nightmare.

The two friends found themselves trapped without 100 mph winds that reached as low as -110 degree windchill.

In the chaos of the climate change, Herr fell into a river, forcing them to stop.  Disorientation set in.  Though the two were trapped on the mountain for 4 days, Herr said they thought it was still the first day.

At this point, the two had accepted the fact that they would die on the mountain.

But just when all hope seemed lost, a rescue crew arrived that was able to get them to the hospital.  A week later, Herr had lost both his legs to frostbite.  Jeff lost his lower left leg, a toe on his right foot, and the fingers on his right hand.

Hugh was given a pair of prosthetic legs shortly afterwards and was immediately disappointed by them.

He decided to do two things at this point: make his own legs and start rock climbing again.

Climbing Back Up

Against doctors orders, Hugh found himself visiting the mountains in his area.  He quickly began realizing some important things.  First, his legs gone, his body his body weighed 14lbs less.  Even with the prosthetics, he had less weight to carry then before.

Second, though this body would get cold, sore, and tired, his artificial limbs did not.

Finally, he realized that his new legs didn’t have to be like his old ones.  Their length, their shape, the way they moved.  He could reengineer a part of his body to actually be better.  So he did.

His friends quickly noticed that Hugh was actually becoming a better mountain climber than before.  He could reach spots previously unreachable and began climbing mountains he wasn’t able to before.

With that, he turned his goals towards helping others like himself.

Rebuilding the Body

Hugh Herr is now the director of biomechatronics at MIT.  He established the Center for Extreme Bionics, which concentrates on lower body prosthetics like knees, ankles, and hips.

The center works to improve natural motion in biological limbs.  They’ve even created exoskeletal devices that improve the motion abilities of an able-bodied person.

Recently, Hugh displayed their latest advances at the TED conference.  He did this, of course, while standing on his own pair of advanced prosthetics.  Now that they’ve successfully captured and recreated natural motion in prosthetics, their next goal is to make an artificial limb that not only works the same, but looks and feels the same as the real thing.

Having our own in-house mechanics, machinists, and engineers, we’re big fans of new technology.  Though building new legs is a little different than building new wheelchair vans, the goal is ultimately similar: providing better mobility for people.

To see more of Hugh’s recent work, click the video below:

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