We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

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.

Learn from the humans leading the way in intelligent machines at EmTech Next. Register Today!
June 11-12, 2019
Cambridge, MA

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Print + All Access Digital.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

    The MIT Technology Review App

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.