DIY Iron Lung (Jan, 1952)

Should you ever need one, here are detailed instructions on how to make your own
iron wooden lung.

Amazingly, in a later issue they have a little notice saying that due to the huge response the magazine got about this article they were offering a large set of blue prints and templates. I guess a lot of people actually built these.

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Emergency Wooden Respirator

Could a life have been saved in your community if a mechanical respirator had been at hand for immediate use? Often just a matter of minutes means the difference between life or death for a little child stricken with polio, or a victim of drowning or a paralyzing accident. Here’s a chance for every community to be ready at little expense for such emergencies. Members of clubs and civic organizations can do a great service by making one of these respirators and placing it in competent hands. Save a life — maybe your own.

INTENDED only for emergency use until a commercial respirator could be obtained, this “wooden lung” was designed by engineers and built by a volunteer group under the supervision of Dr. Gerald M. Cline, Dr. Homer O. Dolley, and Sister Celine of the medical staff of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Bloomington, Illinois. On completion, the unit was put into immediate use in emergency treatment of eight-year-old Rudy Landheer, a victim of polio in the epidemic of 1949. The original unit did emergency service for 12 hours until a conventional iron lung could be obtained.

The unit, detailed on the following pages, has been approved only for emergency use under the direct supervision f a doctor or registered nurse. The motor-driven mechanism can be changed to hand operation in a few seconds, if necessary. As detailed, drive ratios have been arranged to give the proper diaphragm action, and a variable-speed pulley on the motor can be adjusted to give a respiratory frequency within the required range of 12 to 20 cycles per minute. The large sprocket on the final drive shaft has 26 teeth.

The cabinet and frame, Fig. 2, are of the simplest construction, all joints in the cabinet assembly being glued and screw-fastened. Note that the bed, Fig. 1, and the end panel and headrest are joined to form one unit which rolls on swivel casters. When the bed is in position in the cabinet, luggage clamps placed at the four corners hold the head panel, Fig. 4, and draw it tightly against the gasket. Note that all openings into the cabinet, Fig. 3, are fitted with gaskets and that the access doors are fitted with ordinary sash locks, which exert sufficient pressure on the gaskets to assure an airtight seal when the doors are closed and locked. The top openings into the cabinet are closed with clear-plastic panels screwed over sponge-rubber gaskets. Note that the clamp which holds the sponge-rubber head gasket in place is drilled to slip over two bolts in the head panel and is locked with wing nuts. Although the photo on page 262 shows two hanger bolts located above the wing nuts, two additional bolts should be added below the wing nuts, to permit anchoring four straps to alleviate tension of the gasket on the patient’s neck.

The base for the motor mount, Fig. 2, is screw-fastened to the frame stretchers and is reinforced with two crossmembers placed underneath with the ends joined to the stretchers. The motor mount, Fig. 5, is made entirely of metal and is provided with an adjusting screw so that the motor can be positioned and the belt properly ten-sioned in accordance with the setting of the variable-speed pulley. The slotted slides are bolted to the mounting base and care must be taken to position them properly so that the parts do not bind. The exact position of the motor mount on the base is determined by the location of the reduction drive unit, shown in working position in the two photos below Fig. 6. The reduction drive is connected to the drive lever, or rocker arm, by means of a link cam, Figs. 7 and 9, and a drive link, Fig. 7. The drive lever is pivoted in the manner detailed, one end being attached to the diaphragm yoke and the other pinned to the drive link by means of a removable T-pin, Fig. 8. Removal of the pin disconnects the power unit and permits hand operation of the diaphragm by the emergency handle.

Fig. 10 shows the construction and method of mounting the diaphragm chamber. The diaphragm is made from a section of tractor-tire inner tube, as specified, and is clamped onto the diaphragm chamber by means of a circular clamp. Note in the lower detail that a gasket is placed between the bottom of the cabinet and the top of the diaphragm chamber. The final fittings on the cabinet are the centimeter gauge, the inlet and discharge valves and the valve-adjustment guides, Fig. 6. The valves are located on the back panel of the cabinet.

  1. MAKE: Blog says: January 26, 200610:11 am

    DIY wodden Lung…

    Here’s how to make an wodden lung, from a 1952 Popular Mechanics – “Could a life have been saved in your community if a mechanical respirator had been at hand for immediate use? Often just a matter of minutes means the difference between life or deat…

  2. Oldster says: January 26, 20061:55 pm

    I’m old enough to remember when polio was a real threat in the summer months, especially in August, when as kids we weren’t allowed to go to movies, swimming pools or anywhere else where there were likely to be crowds. It was really scary. Many small town hospitals could not afford the real thing so it doesn;t surprise me that there was a big demand for plans for this wooden version. The artificial lung, whether iron or wood, could literally be the difference between living and dying for someone with the variety of polio that paralyzed the ability to breathe. Ah, the good old days—not.

  3. Charlie says: January 26, 20063:07 pm

    I agree completely, I got the impression from the magazine that the readers were very happy to have the plans. I have a number of other Iron Lung articles I’ll be posting in the future.

  4. Uplifter Weblog » Early Uplifters says: January 26, 20065:45 pm

    […] From MAKE:Blog today, a reprint of a 1952 Popular Mechanics article on how to make your own iron, or in this case, wooden lung. I was alive, though generally oblivious, to the polio scare in the ’50s. It was, however, a subject of lots of conversation and consternation among the adults of the era. […]

  5. Barseblog says: February 1, 200612:12 pm


    Det finns ritningar och beskrivningar pÃ¥ massor av bra grejor som man kan skruva ihop själv om man har lite tid över. Jag mÃ¥ste nog börja spara ihop en lista med bokmärken pÃ¥ projekt som verkar intressanta som jag kan……

  6. […] […]

  7. Wade George says: March 26, 20083:31 pm

    This could have been a godsend in smaller communities in the 50’s, hell it might even be workable in the Third World today.

  8. steve says: September 21, 20093:10 am

    Rudy was my uncle. After surviving polio, no small thanks to the people built that wooden lung, he lived a long life under the care of his mother. He passed away in 2006.

  9. The Cat and the Iron Lung | History of Science says: September 21, 20097:09 pm

    […] at Children’s Hospital. The technology was simple enought that Popular Mechanix would published instructions on how to build your own emergency respirator out of wood in January, […]

  10. Lynne Reagan says: November 28, 20092:39 pm

    I wanted to post that Dr. Homer Dolley was my great uncle and I recently came across a copy of the plan that his sister (my Grandmother) had. He reported that the wooden lung was successfully used in Bloomington, IL on a patient with polio until an iron lung could be found.

  11. Plywood Savior says: December 14, 200912:35 pm

    […] 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 […]

  12. Patrick de Haan says: June 9, 20117:28 pm

    My Rotary Club used these plans from your website to build a wooden lung. It will be used to raise funds to support Rotary’s efforts to erradicate polio worldwide. We had to update the plans to reflect material currently available. You can see a short video about it at… We are going to see if the Eureka Company will build the mechanism, since they created the original. Thanks for publishing this. The knowledge you shared will be used to benefit thousands of children. I can send you pictures if you’d like. Tempe Rio Salado Rotary Club, District 5510, Tempe, Arizona USA.

  13. Charlie says: June 10, 20117:01 am

    Wow, Patrick that’s great. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  14. Greg Fasking says: March 9, 201211:31 am

    My uncle, Charles Trigg, helped develop the wooden lung design while working for Eureka Williams. Here’s a link to a story that ran in the local paper with a picture of the first wooden lung. Uncle Charles is furthest to the left.


  15. […] Do they want stuff like this to be necessary DIY Iron Lung from 1952 […]

  16. Sam W says: March 18, 20202:22 pm

    Hi Charlie, Thank you very much for posting this! In 2006 you mentioned that you had other iron lung articles that you would be posting. Did you do so? If not, this would be a good time to post them!

  17. […] to develop their own.  It’s not a new idea – back in 1952, Popular Mechanics magazine published a design for a DIY Iron Lung made out of […]

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