Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Plywood Savior

December 14th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Upon re-watching the infamous Arthur Digby Sellers scene in The Big Lebowski, we were recently motivated to check into the history of iron lungs. To our amazement, the archaic contraption recently received a shout-out in a Central Illinois newspaper, which recalled the invention of a more eco-friendly alternative: the wooden lung:

The six-foot-long wooden lung was built from materials “you’d find in any hardware store or lumber shop in any one horse town,” noted Ralph C. Osborn, Eureka Williams vice president of engineering. The “Bloomington lung” was put together using, among other items, household electrical switches; a washing machine motor and gear box; an inner tube from a tractor tire; a wash tub; an alarm clock; and the aforementioned plywood.

On Aug. 10, [1949], the machine was put to an unexpected life-and-death test. That night, 8-year-old Rudy Landherr of the Whiteside County community of Morrison arrived at St. Joseph’s to find both iron lungs occupied. With paint still drying on the plywood, hospital staff realized they had no other choice than to use the wooden lung. Landherr remained inside the cobbled-together machine through the night, unable to breathe without it. The next morning he was moved to an iron lung when one became available.

Popular Mechanics would later advise its readers how to build DIY versions of the machine. And even once polio ceased to be much of a threat in North America, fabrication geeks kept at it—just check out the video above, filmed in 1979.

We now wonder, sadly, if this sort of technology has to be brought out of mothballs, given the recent uptick in polio cases in the developing world.


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