Today it seems hard to believe that anyone would take these medical devices seriously, but in decades past, a combination of scientific ignorance and hope for a magical cure-all allowed quack gadgets like these to multiply and prosper. Even today, a causual peek at late-night infomercials on TV show that medical quackery is still going strong, feeding on the hopes of the sick and and gullible until the next big health fad comes along.
Phrenology Devices (1810s – 1930s):
Phrenology was a pseudo-science developed in the 19th century that held that one’s personality, talents and mental ability could be determined by measuring different portions of the brain, each of which corresponded to a different trait. The bigger the part of your brain that controls “firmness,” for instance, the more stubborn you are apt to be. Rather than cutting into the skull to measure the brain itself, various devices were constructed to measure the different parts of the cranium — sometimes using electricity. The fad died down by the mid-1800s, and by the 20th century, the machines (like the Psycograph or Phrenometer) often served only novelty purposes.
The head piece, which looks like a metal basket measures the head at 32 points per a five-point scale ranging from “Deficient” to “Very Superior.” It consisted of a huge hemispherical frame with thirty-two probes pointing inward at the victim’s head. The contraption produced a printed tape that evaluated the character of the person whose head had been poked at.
Radionics machines (1920s – 1960s):
Radionics was a process created in the early 1900s by American doctor Albert Abrams by which a physician could supposedly diagnose patients without even meeting them in person. All that was needed was a sample of hair, blood or even handwriting or a photo. A machine would interpret the “energy frequency” (the “electronic reactions of Abrams,” or ERA) of the sample to determine what the health issue was and could then treat the patient by emitting healthy frequencies to balance out the unhealthy ones. The diagnosing process involved attaching the sample to the machine and then connecting the machine to the head of a a healthy volunteer (who must be facing west, as must the patient when he donates the sample). The doctor would then tap on the volunteer’s stomach to locate areas of “dullness” that corresponded to the donor’s illness. Other strange rules for the process include the restriction of orange- or red-colored material from the room in which either the patient or volunteer were and the fact that readings could be compromised by skeptical minds. Various models of radionics machinery were made over the years, from the Radio Disease Killer (third row below) of the ’20s to the Pathoclast (fourth row below) of the ’60s.
Electropathy (1850s – 1930s):
As electricity became more and more a part of people’s lives in the 19th century, there was natural curiosity about the technology’s curative powers. Some hucksters took advantage of this and invented devices that purported to cure a variety of illnesses through a jolt of electricity: everything from impotency and rheumatism to back pain, insomnia, depression, liver, kidney and heart disease, indigestion and “female weakness.” Since in most cases, people could actually feel them “working,” these instruments proved very popular. Some items used batteries to generate electrical current, others used magnets and others used various metals that produced no charge at all.
Electric Belts: These belts typically generated “electricity” through magnets, claiming to cure back pain, kidney and bladder disorders, sexual dysfunction and more. By the 1920s, they had evolved into plug-in monstrosities like the Teronoid and I-On-A-Co “body coils” (fourth row below), which actually did use electricity but proved just as useless.
Electric Brushes: Popularized by a Dr. Scott, these devices, constructed for use on hair, teeth and even skin, contained a magnetised iron rod to generate “electricity” and claimed to cure not only ailments of the hair, teeth and skin, but also rheumatism, paralysis and blood disorders. A particularly shrewd sales ploy proclaimed that “In no case should more than one person use the brush. If always used by the same person, it retains its full curative power.”
Electric Baths: These devices were large cylindrical generators through which a patient was passed to absorb the “curative powers” of electricity.
Mechanical Hearts: A misnomer if there ever was one, a mechanical heart wasn’t a forerunner to the artificial heart, but rather a battery-operated roller that was moved across the skin to treat pain, asthma, constipation, indigestion and, with the hairbrush attachment, stimulate hair growth.
Perkins Tractors: One of the simplest yet one of the most popular quack devices, Perkins Tractors were just metal rods — one steel, one brass — that inventor Elisha Perkins claimed were rare alloys that had the power to draw out “noxious electrical fluid that lay at the root of suffering” by simply passing them over the skin. Reportedly, even George Washington bought a pair.
Electropoise: This device consisted of a small metallic cylinder attached to a wire with electrodes on the end. The cylinder would be immersed in water, and the electrodes attached to the body, and voila, you would be cured. Strangely, it implied not only electrical power but also the ability to supply the body with oxygen, when in fact it did neither.
Electric Corset: Dr. Scott strikes again! This magnetized article of clothing claimed to treat rheumatism, paralysis, indigestion, liver and kidney disorders, constipation and more.
Elektroller: This Czechoslovakian device consisted of a metal handle and two rubber wheels that would be rolled over the patient’s skin, delivering a significant electric current into the body. It was more like an early version of the stun gun than a useful medical instrument.
Radiation Devices (1910s – 1950s):
As with electricity, the discovery of atoms and their structure spurred interest the possibility of a new cure-all: radiation. Water jars with names like Revigator, Radium Spa and Zimmer Emanator were made to add low levels of radition (radium) to drinking water, using either a radioactive insert or radioactive material built into the walls of the jar. Other products proudly declaring themselves “radioactive” sprouted up, including Degnen’s Radioactive Solar Pads (second row below), which could boast both radioactive and solar power by claiming that its “radio-activity is further increased by exposing the pad to sunlight”. The Radiendocrinator (third row below), meanwhile, was an expensive ($150) credit card-sized device containing radium-soaked materials that was to be worn at night “under the scrotum” to aid sexual function.
Rectal Devices (1750s – 1940s):
Over the years, there have been several quack movements focusing on the rectum as a vital location for health. There were the tobacco smoke enemas of the 18th century (first row below), in which smoke was blown into the anus to promote respiration. Then came the rectal dilators (second row below), which claimed to treat not only rectal and anal conditions, but also joint and back pain, headaches, stomach aches and more. The prostate warmer (third row below) appeared to be little more than a dildo attached to a light bulb. And then there was the Recto Rotor, which is just frightening.
Chiropractic Devices (1890s – present):
While chiropractic is accepted by many people today as useful therapy for back and neck problems, chiropractors of the past were more bold in their proclamations of what they could do for people’s health. They often followed the lead of chiropractic founder D.D. Palmer, who asserted that “a subluxated vertebra…is the cause of 95 percent of all diseases.” As such, devices like the seemingly torturous “mechanical chiropractor” below (from 1932) were touted as treating not only spinal curvature, but also headaches and circulatory and digestive problems.
Miscellaneous Lunacy (Timeless):
Lung Paddles: This device was to be used to squeeze the lungs of people who have difficulty breathing. Broken ribs optional.
Radio Pads: These foot pads would actually connect to the radio with the intention of using the radio waves traveling up through the soles of the feet to improve blood flow and heal scar tissue.
Vibrators: There may be some validity to the benefits of vibrating massage, but many of these devices claimed to cure everything from indigestion to deafness — even though the designs looked like little more than hand-cranked mixers.