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Putting the ‘me’ in mechanical: lessons from the mechanical men of health 1928–1948
  1. Catherine Stones
  1. School of Design, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Catherine Stones, School of Design, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK; c.m.stones{at}


During the interwar years, health exhibitions and pavilions were commonplace in Europe and the USA. Within these exhibitions were a small number of life-sized or oversized mechanical men used to represent physiological processes. Although they received significant press attention at the time, little academic analysis exists to date. These mechanical men, I argue, all provide important insights regarding the way design could be used to heighten the appeal of physiology and crucially, in the formation of a new term—the Accessible Body.

First, this study re-introduces three mechanical men of health to an academic audience, identifying provenance and unearthing key details of their performance and visual appearance. I argue that there is much to be gained by their analysis in comparison to the more notorious body representations that they orbited. Through detailed analysis of their forms, the three mechanical men are shown to challenge the dominant notions of the Ideal Body and Fordist Body embodied in the Dresden Transparent Man (1930) and ‘Der Mensch als Industriepalast’ (1926), respectively. The study examines and classifies these mechanical men as a new type of body— the Accessible Body. This term refers to representations that embody a sense of consciousness, the re-appropriation of popular culture and engagement with humour and visual appeal.

The study concludes with discussion about the Accessible Body in contemporary health education. What tropes and approaches may remain significant today? By leaning on contemporary thinking about linguistic rather than visual metaphors in health, this study concludes with provocations for the alignment of other appropriate metaphors within a mechanical man and Accessible Body framework. Ultimately, I call for a reshifting of man/machine visual metaphors as a means of re-engaging the audience today.

  • education
  • science communication
  • medical humanities

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.