When mankind first figured out how this mysterious thing called electricity worked, everyone went a little crazy for a while there. Electricity was given diverse and often unbelievably ridiculous uses that ranged from the stupid to the cruel to the perverted ... you know, kind of like what we're doing with the Internet today.
Turns out people in the "Age of Enlightenment" weren't as smart or classy as their mustaches would seem to suggest. Let us introduce you to the most surprising trends stemming from early electricity, like ...
If you ever wondered how the morbidly curious entertained themselves 250 years before Honey Boo Boo was on TV, here's your answer: They paid to watch orphaned children being hung from ceilings and charged with electricity. Wait, what?
Stephen Gray's "Hanging Boy" experiment required a kid (preferably one with no parents), two planks, a silk rope, and an electrified glass tube. The tube would be rubbed against the child's feet and, according to one account, "sparks of fire evoked from his face and hands." Because of the electric charge, the kid could also attract feathers or small brass fillings.
"I don't know what a supervillain is, but I see no reason why we shouldn't try to create one."
This was originally an experiment to find out if electricity could be conducted through bodies (meaning that Gray probably wasn't sure if the orphan would just explode or something), but it soon became a popular parlor trick people paid good money to witness. Sometimes little girls would be added. Luckily for Gray, in those times defenseless orphans were in steady supply from any charity house, so playing bondage with electrified minors was a socially accepted brand of entertainment for a while.
You wouldn't expect to see a full-page ad for vibrators in The New York Times today, but back in 1913, people were a lot more liberal with their use of these electric pleasure-bringing devices -- as in they would openly rub them on their pecs or faces (as seen above) as a solution for, well, pretty much every complaint you could think of. Yep, in an era when they couldn't admit that people were almost certainly using them for nothing but masturbation, vibrators were advertised as nearly magical healing instruments.
"Wow, I can feel how it's curing my indigestion! Wait, nope ... nope, that's a boner."
The ad claimed that by applying the vibrating massage to different body parts, it would grow your muscles, help you sleep better, restore your hearing, stop headaches, and even block a cold. But don't take our word for it -- check out some of the testimonials included on the same page:
Yeah, in the wrist.
Also included were the opinions of several "prominent physicians" about the benefits of owning a vibrator. One even admitted to sticking the thing in his ear, which "restored good hearing in myself and many others [in my sex dungeon]."
Back in the 18th and 19th century, everyone wanted to experience electricity -- literally. People in France, for example, would line up to voluntarily shock themselves with the newly invented generators, like a nation of babies who haven't learned not to stick their fingers in the wall sockets. The above image from 1844 is called "An Electrocuted Warrior," and it shows a French official finding out what being tased feels like.
Scientists, intrepid seekers of arcane knowledge that they are, were the first to willingly taste the volts. Researchers shocked themselves silly to gauge the strength of the voltage, reporting nosebleeds, headaches, convulsions, and hours and hours of shaking. British investigator Johann Winkler, even after reporting horrible side effects, still went ahead and shocked his wife twice, just to verify his findings.
"Attempt 371: She is now a smoking crater on the carpet. Fascinating."
Then there were the ordinary people jumping and bouncing on the electric bandwagon. People would ask showmen to dole out shocks -- one particularly gallant showman advertised "shocks given for amusement first to the ladies, then to the gentlemen." It's just common courtesy.
Yeah, people didn't give up on the charms of excruciating electric pain even in the 20th century. For instance, the second creepiest human centipede produced by the human imagination was this bizarre novelty torture item created in 1928. This monstrosity was designed to dole out electric jolts right to the nuts of gentleman's club aspirants.
It's not like you'd ever sustain an erection again after seeing this thing anyway.
Then again, this was a pretty good bargain: For only $52, you could have the most shocking hazing rituals in town ("shocking" as in "electrifying" and as in "holy shit what is that thing"). The man sitting on the front of the giant woolen centipede had access to a dial that, when turned, would shoot voltage straight into the unmentionables of the men sitting behind. The lines coming out of their rears in the illustration seem to imply that the would-be gentlemen have also shat themselves in succession after having their balls fried. So, all in all, this isn't that different from present day college hazings after all.
It turns out folks were driving around in electric-powered vehicles in the mid-1800s ... only instead of using batteries, these beauties were fueled by horse tears.
So how did this work? Well, in the image above, you can see that the carriage comes equipped with an electricity generator (the tiny box under the rider's hand), which when activated sends a shock through the reins. A description of this "ingenious and efficacious method" of controlling unruly horses claims that the animal felt "a disagreeable but not painful sensation of an electric pricking." Considering that the shock was administered directly on the horse's teeth, we think it was probably a little more than a "pricking" (you're free to chew a wire if you don't believe us).
The same inventor later came up with an electric whip. Then again, electrocuting animals was one of America's favorite pastimes in the 19th century, and it wasn't just that dickwad Thomas Edison doing it, as we've mentioned before -- Ben Franklin also killed his share of critters. And speaking of animal abuse ...
Pictured: The invention of dubstep.
At last, science has come up with a way to harness the power of dead cats. What you see above is an electrophorus, an 18th century device that could produce seemingly endless amounts of electricity, if only you charged it first. How was it charged, you ask? By simply rubbing it with the maligned corpse of a feline, causing the static produced by the animal's fur to separate the electric charge from the metal plate. OK, sure, you could also charge it with some silk or woolen cloth, or really anything fluffy, but where's the fun in that?
"Dead cat sold separately."
The user could then hook up other electric conductors to this device to carry out their deranged experiments. We think at least one scientist had to set up this thing to electrocute more cats -- you know, for later use (the one they've been using is gonna start stinking up the place at some point). These enlightened gentlemen probably envisioned a bright cat-powered future where every man, woman, and child carried dead felines in their pockets like phone charges. Where did we go wrong?