During World War 1, Pittsburgh, PN, was a whirling manufacturing center that mass-produced war supplies, including munitions and almost all of the barbed wire used by Americans forces in Europe. Among the injuries that workers in these plants suffered were embedded fragments of metal shot out by the tools on the line.

This spurred the development of a large, 800lb magnet that literally pulled the metal bits out. After it was proven over a year in Pittsburgh, it was shipped to France, Belgium, and Austria to aid doctors in removing shrapnel from their patients.

An article in Scientific American explained:

“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.”

— Scientific American

The 4,000-watt electromagnets demanded a robust power supply, which prevented its use in many hospitals. The magnet was effective on splinters from exploding steel shells or bullet jackets made with nickel or iron alloys. It was also used by doctors at the front lines.

Even in the 21st century, powerful magnets have a place in pulling out magnetic particles embedded in the eye, or shreds of shrapnel embedded near organs where surgical intervention is dangerous.

For more on medical advances during the war, consult “Scientific American Chronicles: World War I.” They cover medical innovations between 1914 – 1918. The book is for sale at Scientific American