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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Mercedes Gives a Kid a Bionic Hand

A touching letter by a 14-year-old garnered him one of the most advanced prosthetic limbs in the world.

  • August 22, 2011

Writing to companies with requests or complaints is a chancy business. More often than not, you’re likely to get a form letter with an auto-signature. If you’re lucky, and have made an eloquent case, maybe you’ll get your money back, or a free sample. So when Matthew James, a 14-year-old British lad, wrote to the boss of F1 team Mercedes GP Petronas, his expectations weren’t exactly high–even though his request (which the UK paper the Telegraph calls “cheeky”) was astronomical: £35,000 (or almost $60,000). Specifically, Matthew James, who was born without a left hand, wanted Mercedes to pay for a top-of-the-line artificial limb. He was even willing to rent out ad space, racecar style.

As he says in a video on the Telegraph’s site, “I was just thinking I’ll send a letter off, they might be nice, they might, like, maybe give me a tee shirt.” Instead, Matthew’s note struck a chord with the company. “Matthew’s letter to the team was very touching,” Ross Brawn, the letter’s addressee, said. Mercedes teamed up with a company called Touch Bionics, and collaborated with Matthew to make a customized i-LIMB Pulse, which the paper characterizes as “the most advanced prosthetic limb in the world.”

The old hand was something of a glorified claw, Matthew is the first to admit. The new, deluxe, chrome affair is almost as good as the real deal. “With this one I can do everything,” he said. With his old hand he would pick up objects and have to press them against his chest to manipulate them. With the new one, he grasps them and lifts them simply and naturally.

The main benefit of the i-LIMB Pulse is the way each finger is powered individually. As Matthew explains in the video, the hand has two electronic sensors that detect muscle movement in the lower part of his arm. These sensors send signals to a small computer, which in turn send signals to each of the five individual motors, enacting the intended movement. The hand is encased in an “chassis-style casing” made of aluminum; it can lift up to almost 200 pounds, according to the Telegraph.

Ultimately, Mercedes didn’t pay for the hand itself. It did, however, agree to help Matthew raise the funds necessary, asking fans and sponsors to pitch in. And Touch Bionics donated fitting and training time to Matthew free of charge, a value of some $40,000. Still, the family must raise further funds, which they are doing via this website.

It’s unclear to what extent Matthew’s success can be replicated (it apparently helped that he and Brawn attended the same prestigious British educational institution, Reading School). His has to be one of the most successful letters casually sent to a company in history. Matthew’s story, though, offers some hope that those letters we sometimes send off blindly into the corporate thicket don’t always get lost there. Writing, it turns out, is one of our oldest and most potent technologies, and it’s encouraging to learn that a simple letter, with the right mixture of wit and pathos, was able to bear such fruits.

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