Jonathan Kuniholm: Prosthetics Engineer

Utne Reader visionary

| November-December 2009

After losing an arm while serving as a Marine in Iraq in 2005 , Jonathan Kuniholm needed a replacement. He tried several prostheses but found the best available option to be a body-powered arm with a split hook—patented in 1912.

Kuniholm has since focused on turning research into reality, using novel approaches like open-source design to push improvements all the way to consumers. As a researcher at Duke University, he’s one of more than 300 engineers working on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program.

“We’re playing catch-up,” Kuniholm says. “Most of the advances from the 1950s and the 1970s sort of end up being stillborn in many ways. Because of the size of the industry, they don’t evolve.”

Kuniholm hopes to advance the prosthetic arm market, which is relatively small, by tapping into a larger one. Through the Open Prosthetics Project he’s developing a video game controller that could be instrumental in bridging the gap between the niche and the mass market. 

“We have performed a 50-year experiment in doing things the traditional way and it has completely failed,” Kuniholm says. “We need to try something else.”


If you missed his article, “Building a Better Arm,” in our July-Aug. issue, it offers more insight into Kuniholm’s work with DARPA. To read the full version of his story, check out “Open Arms,” the original piece he wrote for IEEE Spectrum . Jonathan was also featured in the magazine’s article about amputees using Air Guitar Hero as a training tool for using prosthetics.

We featured an exclusive online interview with Jonathan as part of a special package on radical design for disabilities. For more on Kuniholm’s other projects, check out his design firm, Tackle Design Inc., which launched the Open Prosthetics Project. You can also hear him talk about open source prosthetic design on NPR’s Marketplace.   

Read More:  50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World .

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