Saturday, July 08, 2017

History of Biomechanics

Who does not like a riddle?

What have the French Revolution, Charlie Chaplin, Korean War and NASA all in common?

A. Biomechanics.

The term is now used more and more in everyday language and has come to mean the study of human movement. Or to be more precise, the study of normal movement. Patho-mechanics is the technical term to describe abnormal movement.

At the time of the French Revolution people, especially poor people, started to matter and hospitals which were glorified brothels where people went to die, usually in great pain and distress, started to clean up their act. Increased concerns for the proletariat meant radical thinking and the teaching hospital was invented. Clinical experts were engaged to teach as well as practice. Body systems were referred to as biomechanics. Modern interpretation takes rather a narrow meaning and relates it to human movement only, but originally it meant the complete biological system.

Throughout history many researchers have tried to analyse walking but it took to the introduction of cinematography before real insights were made. Even today the strides made in the early 1920's and 30's have not been surpassed.

One of the first people to acknowledge walking as a basic human trait, on celluloid anyway, was Sir Charles Chaplin the man with the original funny walk. To accentuate these characteristics Chaplin filmed many of his sequences backwards then to the delight of his audience run them forward. Why peculiar walks should amuse is a strange phenomenon, which has never been satisfactorily explained. But I digress.

Frame by frame analysis helped researchers later make much sense of the human condition.

By the 50s an alarming number of wounded veterans returned, first from Korea then later the Vietnam Wars, without much in the way of care programs. Middle America were appalled at the apparent lack of research and development in the science of rehabilitation for amputees and those physically afflicted by combat. Greater political pressures resulted in the introduction of a national rehabilitation initiative. Coincidentally at the same time, Americans were concerned Russia would dominate space and began to throw zillions of dollars into aerospace development.

On a plane flying to Seattle for separate conferences were two strangers sitting in adjoining seats. By chance one was the director for new US Rehabilitation Research and Development program, the other the NASA supremo. They had a few cocktails to break the ice before they started a casual conversion to pass the hours of travel ahead. Not long after the introductions were over (and a few more cocktails downed) the aerospace engineer said rather boldly. "Do you know if we made aeroplanes like you make false knees, our planes would never get off the ground."

"What do you mean?" came the puzzled reply.

" You chaps try to replace the knee with something that looks like the human knee but does not work like one. We, on the other hand, design planes from first principles and observe the laws of nature."

The two scientists agreed to meet the next day in a city park after their respective engagements for an experiment. One brought a couple of bottles of wine and the other a few sticks of French bread.

The aerospace engineer told his new friend to take some bread and dip it into a glass of wine before feeding it to the ducks. He asked him to take a sip of wine each time he fed the same ducks. After half an hour or so, he asked his companion to stand up and walk in a straight line. Now somewhat inebriated the orthopod staggered and stumbled. Safely sitting down he asked the tipsy orthopod to watch the ducks who were able to walk in a perfectly straight line. “Now, explain that.” He said.

That day was the beginning of a very long and fruitful relationship which was also the birth of biomedical engineering or modern biomechanics. From that keen observation the science of orthoses and prostheses changed to reflect Newtonian Physics and Momentum Physics with emphasis of three and four (time) dimensional analysis. Combined with cinematography, anthropometry, force and pressure analysis, modern biomechanics has been incorporated into sports science and forms a major part of preparing elite athletes for the Olympic Games.

Today, biomechanical analysis helps commentators understand the intricacies of movement that are unseen by the naked eye and also assists sportwear designers to manufacture performance enhancing footwear and swim suits, the effects of which are so eagerly awaited by spectators in expectation of record breaking performances.

Reviewed 8/07/2017

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