What historians now describe as the Victorian Age, was then referred to as the Electric Era. Electricity lit up city centers and transformed the means of communication. Constant availability of power led to automation which, in turn, allowed for the mass production of goods. Electricity gradually entered the home and convenience stores were filled with new household devices. Even the death penalty went electric.
Medical electricity was celebrated as a scientific breakthrough leading to a commercial explosion of therapeutic devices to improve health and/or physical performance. The most sought-after invention was the electropathic belt (or hydro-electric chain). A contraption of zinc, copper coils, and wires that surged parts of the body with dosages of electricity, it could be adapted to treat a variety of ailments such as headache, rheumatism, dyspepsia, palpitations, dropsy, piles, fatigue, nerves, or loss of virility.
Linking health to the therapeutic potential of electricity has a long history. Scribonius Largus, physician to Roman Emperor Claudius, recommended placing an electric torpedo fish (a species of electric ray) on the head to cure migraine.
Benjamin Franklin discussed his experimental research with electricity in letters to London colleagues. These reflections were published in 1751 as Experiments and Observations on Electricity. Franklin explored shock effects in the treatment of female hysteria. Having instructed patient “C.B.” in the technique of self-electrocution, perhaps unsurprisingly, she declared herself “cured.”
Whilst teaching at the University of Bologna, Luigi Galvani investigated the effect of electricity on dissected frogs. He summarized his observations on animation in 1791 in an essay entitled “De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari” commentaries which was soon translated in many languages. Electricity sparked excitement in medical circles and beyond.
On January 18th, 1803 George Forster was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his wife and child. The dead body was handed to a scientist to be used in an experiment. Giovanni Aldini (a nephew of Galvani) performed a public demonstration of electro-stimulation techniques. The Newgate Calendar (an account of public executions in London) reported the stunning news of re-appearing life, the legs had moved, one eye was opened, and the right hand clenched.
Galvanism made a huge impact. Shocks of electricity promised to turn into reality the long held dream of a miracle cure. The medical use of direct current became the rage of the day. It was inevitable that “spark of life” theories would touch upon literature. Scientists queried whether galvanism was a force of life and, therefore, could create it – without suggesting that attempts should be made to do so. Such ‘outrageous’ speculation was left to the novelist.
The idea of bringing an organism to life by the use of electricity was explicitly stated in the 1831 (revised) edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel posed questions that intrigued both scientists and physicians. What is the boundary between life and death? If electricity could power life, could it reverse death? Medical ethics had to be re-defined.
By the mid-nineteenth century such fundamental questions had receded. Electric treatment and therapy had become routine cures for practically all ailments. General practitioners turned into sparkies and money-makers were on the prowl.
Between October and December 1856, Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary was serialized in La revue de Paris. Attacked for the story’s obscenity, the author was taken to court. After his acquittal in February 1857, the novel became a bestseller when published in two volumes three months later. The figure of Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist who practices medicine without a license, is an intriguing character in this tale.
A pompous character, he is a man with a strong sexual appetite (shared by his bourgeois wife). In order to improve his performance Homais acquires the latest marketed sensation, a hydro-electric Pulvermacher chain (chapter 11). His wife is overcome and dazzled when seeing her husband plus garrotté qu’un Scythe et splendide comme un mage (more bandaged than a Scythian, and splendid as one of the Magi).
To Flaubert it was evident that his audience would be familiar with this allusion to the name of Pulvermacher. To most contemporary readers the reference is somewhat of a mystery.
Electrical engineer Isaak Louis [Lewis] Pulvermacher was born Isak Löbl Pulvermacher on March 15th, 1815 in Breslau into a Jewish family. Having studied at Vienna’s Technischen Universität, he settled in London in 1850 and invented a range of medical instruments.
A smart businessman, he established the firm J.L. Pulvermacher at no. 194 Regent Street from where he produced and sold electric belts that would benefit every part of the human anatomy: limbs, abdomen, chest, and neck. His hydro-electric chain attracted wide interest. Thanks to astute marketing, his “magic band” soon turned out to be a lucrative invention, selling in its thousands across Europe and the United States where the firm was represented in New York by L. Meinert.
During his grueling reading tours of the late 1860s, Charles Dickens suffered severe leg pains. On the advice of actress Marie Bancroft, he ordered a Pulvermacher’s “magic” band across his right foot in June 1870. Dickens’s very last letter was addressed to Pulvermacher & Co, acknowledging receipt of the device.
Pulvermacher also designed a “suspension sack” to attach to the male genitals. He claimed that it would cure erectile dysfunction. He promoted a theory that loss of “male vigor” was a consequence of masturbation in early life. Pulvermacher’s device addressed this shortcoming.
Pulvermacher made a fortune out of his belt and band business. Windmill House, the family home, was located in one of the most exclusive spots in Hampstead, London. His success stretched the competitive market for medical chains, both in Europe and America.
By the 1880s medical commodities dominated advertising. Companies were involved in a fierce “battle of the belts.” Lavish posters of muscular men and busty women, flanked by glowing testimonials from stars and medics, promised that Superman was for sale and affordable to all. Tens of thousands belts were sold in America alone between the 1890s and 1920s.
During that period, mail order companies emerged that printed catalogues offering thousands of products to customers in city and country. In 1886, former railway-employee Richard Warren Sears started a watch business in Minneapolis and was joined by Alvah Roebuck. A year later, having relocated business to Chicago, the company published Richard Sears’ first mail-order catalogue, offering watches, diamonds, and jewellery.
By 1894, Sears, Roebuck & Co. had started to diversify the product line. In a catalogue of over three hundred pages, items were recorded that varied from guns, sewing machines, bicycles, and cars, to agricultural machinery, groceries, and patent medicines.
The 1902 Sears catalogue advertised obesity powders, snuffs to ease catarrh, and cures to combat tobacco and opium habits. A full page was reserved for blood, nerve, liver, brain, and “female” pills.
Health came in capsules. Tonics, tinctures, syrups, and bitters were advertised to remedy everything from rheumatism to scrofula. It was a quack’s paradise. Even laudanum and heroin were put on sale. The passion for belts was driven by sophisticated means of advertising. For a while, Sears and other catalogues functioned as an appendix to medical encyclopedias.
Although electric belts were briefly promoted by physicians, by the 1890s they had come to symbolize quackery. Medical research had moved on and practitioners rejected these devices as fake and fraud. Everywhere, health associations began to expose and prosecute unlicensed manufacturers.
Great Belt Swindle
The first notable court case was against Cornelius Bennett Harness, a former jeweler and furniture salesman, who founded the Medical Battery Company in 1885 in London, after having established a flourishing business in electric hairbrushes in New York. He billed himself as a “medical electrician” and advertised the Electric Corset, the “very thing for ladies.”
In 1892, a male client sued Harness for fraud after buying a belt to cure his hernia. The judge confirmed that the man’s condition got worse after using the device. Soon after the Battery Company was battered by negative press reports and customer trials. In 1893, the firm suffered a devastating exposé in the Pall Mall Gazette being accused of “The Harness Electropathic Swindle.” The era of (portable) electric medical equipment was over.
Despite the decline of those devices, the use of electricity has never disappeared from mainstream medicine. Psychiatrists have long been interested in the use of electroshock – now known as electroconvulsive (ETC) – therapy in the post-war treatment of depression (controversially depicted in 1975 in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Controversy continues over effectiveness versus damaging side effects.
Illustrations, from above: A Galvanized Corpse, 1836. Revived by a galvanic battery, newspaper editor Francis Preston Blair rises from his coffin; An Account of the Gymnotus Electricus (Electric eel, 1775) by John Hunter; Pulvermacher’s Galvanic Belt advertisement; Dr. Sanden’s electric belt advertisement; $12 electric ‘Heidelberg’ belt in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue; 1897 Sears Roebuck and Co Catalog; and Harness Electropathic Belts advertisement.