12 Early Uses of Electricity That Proves History Was F#@%ed
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 ...
Hanging Electrified Orphans from the Ceiling
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.
Curing Every Complaint Ever ... With Vibrators
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 ."
Shocking Yourself (for Shits and Giggles)
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.
Hazing Club Members by Zapping Their Balls
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.
Controlling Horses With Electric Shocks
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 ...
Getting Electricity Out of Dead Cats
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?
Having Sex Therapy in Electric Beds
Presumably very few of you find light sockets or power cords particularly erotic, unless you're an exceptionally impassioned engineer. Well, the clearly aroused lady in the electricity-charged bed above disagrees. This was just one of the electric sex therapies present at "Doctor" James Graham's infamous Temple of Health and Hymen in the 1750s.
The temple was advertised as a place to improve the sex lives of married couples through all things electrical. You could pay to get a shock from the Celestial Throne -- that is, kick start your gonads in an electrified chair. But the crowning glory, the finest sex toy in the entire building, was the Celestial Bed. A childless couple could pay a fortune to spend a night in it, surrounded by an electric field, which supposedly guaranteed conception ... because, you know, science.
"Electrocute me like one of your French girls."
The bed was decorated with little musical robots, and "electricity crackled across the headboard." If the whole electric aura wasn't quite enough to get the groove on, the temple would provide an extra couple of half-naked "Goddesses of Health" to help things along. OK, yeah, that was a brothel.
Putting Lightning Rods in Hats and Umbrellas
Tired of having your top hat constantly knocked off by bolts of lightning? This French lightning-rod-fitted umbrella solves this common problem while making you look stylish and even doubling as a pointy weapon to fend off muggers and panhandlers. Yes, this was a thing people actually walked around with. In 1769, lightning struck an arsenal in Italy and destroyed 190 houses, all because the owners had refused to have Ben Franklin's lightning rod installed (he had more luck when he made the same offer to numerous old ladies).
Anyway, people in Europe overreacted just a little and started putting lighting rods on everything, even their fashion accessories. Take this lightning rod hat made in the 1770s (note the chain trailing behind -- if a bolt struck, the electricity would be diverted there).
Some ladies also used it to walk their dogs, with tragic results.
Taking Medicinal Electricity "Baths"
Despite sitting in what looks like a steampunk torture device, this gentleman looks remarkably calm about the situation. That's because those ghastly spikes above the man's head actually emit electric waves that "bathe" him in pure healing science. The plus and minus signs represent the magnetic charges that are no doubt rendering his sperm sterile.
This bath is just one of countless electric therapies Enlightenment doctors pulled out of their asses. They would blast away any ailment, from a sore throat to your STD of choice. Does your kid have diarrhea? Try some electricity. Granny suffers from rheumatism? Hook her up to the current. Even major complaints like paralysis or tuberculosis were deemed entirely manageable with a good shock or 16. Sometimes the thing to do was to step into a literal electric bath ...
... and sometimes the doctor would invert the process and draw sparks out of you, a preferred treatment for deafness. And if you think these were just ruthless quacks taking advantage of the ignorant masses, even Charles Darwin's brilliant grandfather Erasmus was known to prescribe electric shocks for everything from toothache to gallstones. We don't want to know where they inserted the wires on that last one.
Curing Baldness and Dandruff With Magnetism (and Racism)
Electric brushes were a popular fad of the latter half of the 19th century, as this delightfully racist ad demonstrates. Besides supposedly curing male pattern baldness and dandruff, this particular brand of multitasking electric hairbrush will somehow also rid you of headaches, rheumatism, and even constipation. Wait, under what scenario is this thing even close to the part of the body where digestion happens (or doesn't)? What type of body hair does Dr. Scott think we're brushing?
These things are full of old-time pubes, aren't they?
In truth, this thing was electric only in name -- it was actually a regular brush with magnetized rods in its handle. How exactly that was meant to cure anything is anyone's guess. This didn't stop advertisements of the era from warning that "in no case should more than one person use the brush." Why? Because "if always used by the same person it retains its curative power," naturally. So, you see, if your hair didn't stop falling out after you bought this, it isn't because it doesn't actually do anything: It's because your wife borrowed it that one time.
Selling Electrified Women's Underwear
There's that Dr. Scott again, putting electricity into any household object he could get his hands on. This precursor to today's light-up bras was not only fashionably elegant but could also "ward off disease" -- it was said to cure "any bodily ailment," including liver and kidney troubles, spinal complaints, and rheumatism (was there anything that didn't cure rheumatism back then?). It even granted women shape-shifting powers, judging by this part: "Ladies who wear these corsets will have no difficulty in molding the figure to any desired form."
We're just glad this guy didn't sell toilet seats.
Unlike the hairbrush or other bullshit products peddled by Dr. Scott, this thing did actually have some electric qualities: The patent states that the corset was stuffed with metal bands that induce "galvanic action." Strangely, this was Scott's last invention. Apparently his idea for a pair of men's briefs with the same qualities never took off.
Electrocuting Human Corpses (in the Ass)
Frankenstein's creator, Mary Shelley, didn't just come up with the idea of bringing life to human body parts with electricity by herself -- that's something that scientists of her era were literally trying to do, some with more success than others. For every doctor who managed to resuscitate accident victims by blasting away at them, you had 10 more feeding electricity into days-old corpses just to see what happened.
What exactly is the best case scenario here?
One of the earliest scientists to try this was Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of the guy who first discovered that you could make a dead frog's legs twitch by electrocuting it. Aldini took his uncle's ideas to the next (insane) level by procuring the bodies of executed criminals and trying to reanimate them by sticking wires into every possible orifice -- and we mean every possible orifice. During one public demonstration, he applied electricity to a dead guy's butt, "causing his clenched fist to punch into the air, as if in fury."
Aldini was also known to electrocute sewn-together human heads, making them open their eyes and change their expressions. So really, Dr. Frankenstein seems pretty sensible by comparison.
For more ways people in the olden days were nuts, check out 8 Terrifying Instruments Old-Time Doctors Used on Your Junk and The 7 Most Hilariously Badass Magazine Covers Ever.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Reasons to Fear The New Gun That Can Post To Facebook.