10 Shocking (Mis)Uses for Electricity


During the 17th and 18th centuries, people knew electricity was the next big thing—they just weren’t sure how to use it. So they tried it all.


For most of history, treating a toothache was a matter of tenacity and creativity. The Aztecs sought to stave off pain by eating chilis. Native Americans chewed on mistletoe berries. Ancient Scots wrapped caterpillars in cloth and tucked them near the ailing tooth. In 1700s pre-dentistry England, people simply had the tooth extracted—by barbers and blacksmiths. So it’s no wonder that, by the late 18th century, those suffering from dental laments didn’t think twice about trying an electric shock to the mouth. Doctors would take a metal wire, encased in glass or strung through a feather, and apply it to the throbbing molar. Unfortunately, the jolting pain offered no relief, making berries and caterpillars seem like a tea party.


In 1730, an Englishman named Stephen Gray realized that electricity moves through some objects (like metal or people) but not others (like rubber). Today, we know this as conductivity. To demonstrate the phenomenon, Gray built a harness out of silk cords and paid an orphan boy to be his guinea pig. He strapped the 47-pound boy to the silks, suspended him in midair like Superman for an audience, and gave him a charge with an electrostatic device. The boy appeared to acquire mystical powers: Small objects floated toward him. He could turn book pages without touching them. When people tried to poke him, sparks flew. Gray was awarded a medal for his experiments. But, presumably, not custody of any children.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein terrified readers not because its titular monster was outlandish, but because the story seemed a little too plausible—it had “an air of reality attached to it,” one reviewer noted, and it was, after all, the height of galvanism. Decades earlier, Italian physician Luigi Galvani sent a jolt of electricity through a dead frog’s legs and watched them dance. Surely, he thought, electricity could also restart a dead human heart! (While he was onto something, defibrillators don’t actually restart a stopped heart, as your favorite medical TV drama would have you believe. An AED disrupts the heart’s electrical patterns and resets the heart’s normal rhythm. A heart that has flatlined doesn’t have a rhythm to disrupt.) In 1803, his nephew put that theory to the test. With conducting rods, he tried to reanimate the corpse of convicted murderer George Forster before an audience of students. Forster’s legs wriggled, one of his eyes opened, and his arms flew into the air—but he failed to return to a life of crime (or life at all).


James Graham was the Dr. Ruth of the 1780s. The sexologist opened the Temple of Hymen in London, where the main attraction was something called the “Celestial Bed,” which visitors could use for £50 a night. The bed was 12 feet long and stuffed with supposed aphrodisiacs like fresh wheat, rose leaves, lavender, and hair from stallions’ tails. Exotic fragrances flooded the room, a pair of turtle doves perched above the bed, and, in a decorating move that anticipated the 1970s by nearly two centuries, a mirror was situated on the ceiling. The bed was also supported by 40 glass pillars, since electric currents zipped through the headboard and could be felt in the air “to give the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves.” This didn’t just mean a night of passion—anybody who slept in the bed was guaranteed a child!


Few snake oil salesmen were as successful as the mysterious Dr. Scott. Lauded in the 1800s as the “man of the century,” he used early American magazine ads to sucker countless people into buying electric toiletries. (Scott also claimed that sarsaparilla was the “greatest medical discovery of the age.”) The problem? None of his inventions were actually electric. The Electric Flesh Brush, for example, was advertised as a cure for balding and headaches. Buyers were encouraged to test its charge by putting it next to a compass. (The compass would spin, but that’s because Scott hid a magnet inside the brush handle.) Scott usually conflated electricity with magnetism—his magnetic “electropathic” corsets and belts claimed to “renew vital energy” and heal a laundry list of maladies. Mostly, they just caused indigestion.


In the 18th century, scientists started playing with static electricity and began wondering: How can we store it? That’s how one of the first and most successful generators, the electrophorus, came about. Popularized in 1775 by Alessandro Volta, the machine produced seemingly endless amounts of energy—all you had to do was rub it with a dead cat. The device consisted of two plates, one metal and one insulated. Rubbing the insulated plate with cat fur created static electricity, and when the two parts were brought together, the metal plate picked up the charge. Users could transfer that energy to a Leyden jar, an early capacitor that stored energy (and inspired the phrase “lightning in a bottle”). Why cat fur? Scientists tested other ways to charge the device, but according to John Cuthbertson in 1807, “That which seems to answer best is a cat’s skin.” (Steel wool would have worked too, but it didn’t exist yet.)


In 1847, W.W. Hilton wrote a testimonial to the Baltimore newspaper Republican and Argus about the wondrous Dr. William R. Massey, a galvanist doctor. Hilton’s daughter had suffered from paralysis, painful spasms, and memory loss. But after the girl’s second visit to Dr. Massey, who used electric shocks to “equalize her circulation,” her memory was reportedly completely restored. It turns out that while electricity is better known for its potential to erase memory—it’s a notorious and unexplained side effect of electroconvulsive therapy, for example—it can also improve it. According to a 2014 study in the journal Science, researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine discovered that a stimulating jolt to brain regions connected to the hippocampus (your brain’s memory center) can improve your ability to retain new things.


Published in 1916, Electro-Therapy in the Abstract for the Busy Practitioner is the perfect tome for the electrically curious. The book purports that most ailments can be treated with effluve, the emanation or spray dissipated into the air from a wire or electrode charged with a high-tension current. That’s right: It suggested that if you grab some hot exposed wires and point them at your eyes, all that effluve will make your cataracts disappear! While that treatment might not pass modern standards, it has an inkling of merit. A 2001 FDA study showed that a small microcurrent to the eye could help people with macular degeneration.


In 1749, Benjamin Franklin had an ingenious idea. “A turkey is to be killed for our dinners by the electrical shock; and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle,” he gloated in a letter. At the time, electricity was just the stuff of magic tricks, but Franklin believed it could be more useful. He practiced the stunt by electrocuting birds in his backyard, and on December 23, 1750, showed off his bird-crushing death ray. An audience gathered. Franklin applied the lethal charge. Then things got crazy: He was shocked senseless and rendered numb for the rest of the evening. Worse, the turkey kept gobbling away. When the French read about Franklin’s tests in Experiments and Observations on Electricity, they were intrigued enough to try them, too; later, they discovered that electrical charges inhibit rigor mortis. Today, some slaughterhouses still use electricity to make meat easier to trim off the bone.


As buildings grew taller, lightning became a big problem. Church steeples and high buildings were catching fire, prompting Benjamin Franklin and Prokop Diviš to independently invent the first lightning rods. By the 1780s, they were topping new buildings—and becoming all the rage. In Paris, men and women donned top hats and umbrellas with personal lightning rods. Designed by Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, the rodware featured a tall wire with a coil that trailed to the ground. According to Martin Uman, author of All About Lightning, a protective parasol proved its worth when a bolt streamed down the coil, striking only the person’s hip as it grounded. Without the rod and coil, the charge likely would have killed the person. Who says high fashion can’t save lives?