7 Shocking Uses for Electricity

Electricity has been sold as a wonder cure for everything from rheumatism to brain fog. Here are 7 examples of some of its more creative uses.

Man sitting on a chair with his bare legs stuck in electrified buckets.

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In the Victorian era, inventors and con-men alike promised that electricity could ease ailments, improve vigor, and…warm your prostate? Here are seven inventions that employed electricity in alarming ways.

The Belt of Life

An ad for an electric powered belt
An ad for The Belt of Life from the January 17, 1885 issue of The Saturday Evening Post

The Belt of Life was flexible voltaic battery that you wore around your waist or other body part, and which generated a low electrical charge. As with many Victorian era “cures,” it claimed to treat a wide variety of ailments, from lumbago to deafness. The belts were wildly popular in the United States, with at least a dozen companies vying for the public’s business.

The Temple of Health and Hymen Celestial Bed

Illustration of Dr. James Graham
Dr. James Graham (John Kay, Wikimedia Commons, 1785)

The Celestial Bed was created in 18th century London by sexologist James Graham. Graham lived in Philadelphia in his 20s and became familiar with Ben Franklin’s electricity experiments, which piqued his interest in using electricity to cure patients. The bed was meant for couples who were trying to conceive, and featured a tilting frame, flowers, “oriental fragrances,” organ music, and even turtle doves. On top of all this, the couple experienced electromagnetic stimulation.

Electric Bath

Article describing the Schnee bath
Schnee’s four-cell electric bath (Wellcome Gallery, Wikimedia Commons via the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license) (Click to Enlarge)

 

Man demonstrating the Schnee Bath device
Schnee bath, c. 1915 (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

These baths, often used to alleviate joint pain, allowed a patient to be treated without disrobing completely (a significant advantage in the Victorian era). Separate currents could be run through each tub. These electric baths are still used today in alternative medicine.

Electric Corset

Advertisement Dr. Scott's Electric Corset
Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset (New York Public Library Digital Collection)

For $1 to $3, your corset would cure you of “Nervous Debility, Spinal Complaints, Rheumatism, Paralysis, Numbness, Dyspepsia, Liver and Kidney Troubles, Impaired Circulation, Constipation, and all other diseases peculiar to women.”

Electric Hairbrush

Dr. Scott Electric Hairbrush advertisement
Dr. Scott’s Electric Hairbrush (Harper’s Weekly, 1882)

If you could electrify it, Dr. Scott made it. In addition to his electric corset, the Dr. Scott line offered electric hair brushes, tooth brushes, and flesh brushes. His devices all contained magnetized iron rods, not actual electricity. But he knew that appealing to Americans’ keen new interest in all things electric would sell, and he was right.

Violet Ray

The Violet Ray device
A Violet Ray device ( Karl Bednarik, Wikimedia Commons via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The violet ray device, invented by none other than Nicola Tesla, was purported to not only remove brain fog, but also treat an array of ailments from constipation to carbuncles. One would apply low-voltage electricity to parts of the body using a wand with interchangeable glass attachments. The devices were popular before the Depression, but fell out of favor when the materials were repurposed to make components for World War II.

Torpedo Fish

The title page of Scribonius Largus
The title page of the notes of Scribonius Largus, which included the use of the torpedo fish (Wellcome Gallery, Wikimedia Commons via  the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

 

Diagram of the Torpedo Fish
Torpedo fish from John Walsh’s “Of the electric property of the torpedo,” a letter from Walsh to Benjamin Franklin (1773) (downloaded from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1773.0039)

Scribonius Largus, the court physician for Roman emperor Claudius (AD 41-54), used the properties of the electric torpedo fish to help with gout, migraines, and even prolapsed anuses. The cure was one of 271 prescriptions that appeared in The Compositiones Medicamentorum of Scribonius Largus. He advised, ““to immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain, until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.” It’s believed to be the earliest known use of electromodulation to treat ailments.

 

Featured image: Schnee’s four-cell electric bath (Wellcome Gallery, Wikimedia Commons via the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

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Comments

  1. What a fascinating feature that’s absolutely electrifying. This from someone as a young boy fascinated and played with electrical outlets, plugs, lamps plugged in with the bulb out and more. (Played with matches too. Shhhh…)

    I could see how the Belt of Life would have quite appealing, and sold well. The Celestial Bed also, for different reasons. It seems very ‘New Age” seriously! The Electric Bath too has ties to our modern (yet ancient) Asian foot baths and de-tox pads to wear overnight in removing toxins for optimum health. Even then I’m sure they knew caution must be taken regarding water and electricity. Experiments gone wrong? Probably.

    Having read the ad copy of the Electric Corset, I can see how this product would have been a hit with women. Didn’t women have to wear corsets back then? I think they did, so it might as well be doing some good, right? This seems like it had more legit benefits than the Electric Hairbrush, but did it really matter? Obviously not.

    The Violet Ray had that electric visual (from this photo) people could “see” working. Who’s to say it wasn’t a good (enough) product? It probably fell out of favor because of the Depression and lack of money, then World War II really killed it off. Not sure what to say about the Torpedo Fish other than it may have worked to some extent on some people. It’s going back well over 200 years, and I’m neither a doctor, scientist or an electrician.

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