Like other weeklies of the time, the Scientific American covered the Civil War extensively, with a lengthy section of each issue devoted to reports of the latest skirmishes and assessments of the situation—including naval activities along the coast. In addition to these field reports, the magazine also published hundreds of articles about the new technologies that were being deployed during the war or tested for possible use. Almost every issue that appeared during the war years contained multiple articles on the newest developments in the construction of warships and weaponry. A sampling of those articles, which focused on the technology of the war rather than its chronology, appears in this Scientific American Classics compilation.
If the development of mass communication technologies during this period made the war seem more real to civilians, a very different stream of technological innovation reflected the grim actualities of war during the years afterward. The thousands of men maimed by the improved arsenals of both armies inspired entrepreneurs to design new and improved prosthetic limbs. The Patent Office granted 133 patents for artificial limbs and other prosthetic devices between 1861 and 1873; at the same time, the federal government and many states also established programs that distributed artificial arms and legs to veterans free of charge.
The empty sleeve and the crutch became the most obvious symbols of patriotism and sacrifice in the years following the war. Perhaps 60,000 men survived the war as amputees, and inventors and investors sought to make the prosthetics industry more profitable by turning out more realistic-looking artificial arms and legs. They used natural woods, dyes and leather covering to make artificial limbs appear more natural, but also tried to make them more functional by inventing new types of joints, ball bearings, springs and rubber bands to substitute for ligaments and tendons, and other mechanical innovations to try to create a natural gait and to allow men to conceal their disability if they so desired. A promotional book by one manufacturer of prosthetic limbs attributed the growing markets for entrepreneurs and inventors to the bloody, increasingly industrialized wars of the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s—when the British, French and Russians fought in the Crimea; the United States and Confederacy fought in America; and Prussia crushed France.
In words that no doubt represented the attitudes of most of the inventors of the technologies described in the following pages, one inventor of prosthetic limbs bluntly stated “the bent of human ambition is for the acquisition of money instead of a few plaudits from the world.” The Civil War provided a huge market for the application of new technologies to the myriad facets of warfare, from the political to the medical. Most of the inventions and ideas reported by the Scientific American during this crisis probably failed to earn fortunes for anyone. But they were nevertheless part of the grim yet creative application of technology to the challenges and opportunities created by the Civil War.