Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: March 13, 1915
In a war that was defined by the mass production of war supplies, the great manufacturing center of Pittsburgh, Pa., was already an important source of matériel for all the armies involved: “Pittsburgh’s great industrial plants are furnishing practically all the barbed wire used by the belligerent countries in the European war, and thousands of tons of material for the making of ammunition are being shipped from Pittsburgh to Europe.”
But “the Steel City,” as Pittsburgh was and is called, also provided a medical device that had been perfected to help with the factory workers injured by iron and steel fragments from the military goods they manufactured:
“Besides furnishing much that is intended to destroy human life, Pittsburgh is sending, in large numbers, one mechanical agent of mercy to the battlefields of France, Austria, and Belgium. It is the powerful magnet that is taking the place of the surgeons painful and perilous probe—a machine that will prevent untold agony. The removal of pieces of shrapnel, steel-jacketed bullets and other metal substances by the use of powerful electromagnets in hospitals in the European war zone has been acclaimed by many as the very latest application of science to surgery. But this has been in practice in some of the Pittsburgh industrial plants for more than a year, the first machine having been constructed and installed at the East Pittsburgh works of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.”
The 4,000-watt electromagnets were limited to hospitals that could supply the amount of current they required and could only be used to help those injured by metal that was magnetic: splinters from exploding steel shells or bullet jackets made with nickel or iron alloys. But for the doctors trying to help the flood of wounded men from the front lines, it was a very useful tool in the right circumstances. Even in the 21st century, powerful magnets can still be useful in drawing out magnetic particles that have become embedded in the eye, or shreds of shrapnel embedded near organs at higher risk from surgical intervention.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on advances in medical technology during the war. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi