This small and unassuming box squirreled away in our attics contains something rather interesting. Aside from an unusual handle on the outside, the wooden exterior does not elude to the intricate contraption inside. Once opened, instructions attached to the lid of the box in bright, bold letters reads:
‘IMPROVED PATENT MAGNET-ELECTRIC MACHINE: FOR NERVOUS DISEASES’
My first reaction to the box was one of mixed emotions. I was immediately struck by the sophistication of the machine’s compact design and of the technology needed to make the device. I then thought of the theories surrounding the creation of such a machine for ‘nervous disorders’ and wanted to find out more…
The late nineteenth century saw advancements in electrotherapy in a therapeutic setting. This growth was due to numerous experiments conducted in the early 1800s, which were based on the idea that nerves were electrically excitable. This logic led some physicians and scientists to believe that electrical stimulation could correct a nervous defect. It was widely thought that the body had a natural amount of electricity and that nervous disorders caused an upset to this balance. The magneto-electric machines attempted to stabilize the body’s believed electrical nervous energy.
In England, the first ‘static’ machines were used in 1767 at Middlesex hospital and later at St. Bartholomew’s in 1777. An important figure in support of these machines was the founder of the Methodist Church John Wesley (1703-1791), who was also an aspiring physicist. He believed that there was ‘no remedy in nature for nervous disorders of every kind, comparable to the proper and consistent use of the electrical machine’. He also stated that fifty to one hundred shocks should be used in one session to cure a particular ailment. In 1787, a description of these electrical machines further claimed that ‘nervous head-aches are often mitigated and entirely relieved by the electric wind from a metallic or wooden point applied at successively round the head’.
Ideas surrounding electricity and its use on the human body inspired novelists such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, the famous story of a ‘mad’ scientist creating a life form by piecing together human body parts and using electricity as a stimulant. Shelley was only twenty-one at the time of publication and was clearly intrigued by the scientific experiments of the day. On writing Frankenstein, she wrote:
‘[P]erhaps a corpse could be re-animated … galvanism had given token to such things’
Galvanism (the contraction of muscle by the use of an electrical current) was an important element to the story of Frankenstein. Named after Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) the discovery did much to capture the imagination of the public. In 1780, Galvani revealed that dead frog’s legs jumped when an electrical spark was introduced. His findings contributed to early bio-electric studies and with Shelley’s galvanism inspired novel, the public’s fancies soon turned to images such as cartoons of corpse’s coming into life.
Shelley wrote about her monster Frankenstein:
‘I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion’.
The story is famous even today – with many film adaptations, most notably Universal Studio’s Frankenstein (1931) and Victor Frankenstein (2015) starring Daniel Radcliffe, revealing the fictional horrors of creating life through the power of electricity.
In some ways it is surprising that despite such fanatical media attention, the use of electricity as a means of curing an illness was widely taken up. Above is a photograph of the Magneto-Electric machine found in Scotney Castle’s ‘Hidden Collection’. There are instructions attached to the inside lid of the wooden box that outline how to use the contraption to cure toothache, tie-doloreux and neuralgia (to name a few). There are also quotes written on these instructions, including one from a famous contemporary doctor, Dr. John Abernathy (1764-1831). The quote was taken from a lecture of his that was published in the popular newspaper The Lancet, and says ‘all other means operate on the surface of the body but electricity will pervade the very centre of the body’.
Portrait of Dr John Abernathy
Abernathy had a celebrity status, not onlydue to his unique lecturing style, but also through his eccentric and blunt delivery when treating his patients. Originally conducted in his house, his lectures became so popular that he had a theatre built to keep up with demand, which led to Abernathy becoming the founder of St Bartholomew’s medical school. The instructions further promote Dr Abernathy as ‘World Celebrated’ in an attempt to give the machine credibility. Indeed many would have known of his status and with his quote endorsing the magneto-electric machine, patients would have trusted its capabilities.
The drawings that feature on the top left and right hand corner of the instructions depict how the machine and its components should be used. There appears to be a variety of ways in which a person can apply the machine, such as either standing up, sitting down or even attaching the wires to your foot. It surprises me that toothache should be deemed an ailment curable by the ‘electric’ machine – it sounds like a rather unpleasant solution to the problem!
There is much to say about this strange and unique object. It embodies theories and scientific understandings that have now become outdated. For me, the machine is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It has a history that is shrouded in misguided scientific perspective and mystery. It is an interesting item in the Hussey’s ‘hidden collection’ and an important symbol of scientific discovery in the early twentieth century.
 S. Finger, Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function (Oxford, 2001) p.434
 Ibid, p.432
 J. Weasley, Primitive Physik (1761, London) p.87
 S. Finger, Origins of Neuroscience, p.431
 M. Jenkins, Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend (Washington, 2010) p.68
 Wikipedia, Luigi Galvani https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Galvani (Last Accessed 6 January 2016)
 Wikiquote, Frankenstein (novel) https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Frankenstein_(novel) (Last Accessed 6 January 2016)
 The Lancet, ‘Surgical Lectures delivered by Mr. Abernethy’ (5 November 1824) p.105
 Wikipedia, John Abernethy (surgeon) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Abernethy_(surgeon) (Last Accessed 6 January 2016)