1. A new form of electricity for healing: faradic
By the mid XIXth century electricity was transportable in batteries that were able to keep an arc lamp alight for hours. The technicians who had distributed ‘fluid’ along a telegraphic system for hundreds of kilometres, inventors from a wide variety of backgrounds had wound it onto reels, switches, receivers, cables, battery accumulators that were patented and sold, and meanwhile physicians, publishers, charlatans and experts had brought electricity down from the heights of experimental research onto the workbenches for displays of electrification set up in marketplaces.
The technical versatility of electricity and the vast range of applications to which it lent itself was also initially responsible for its success in the medical field. Although the idea that electricity could cure wasn’t new, research carried out in the twenties and thirties by Hans Christian Øersted and Michael Faraday revolutionised this field: the discovery of electromagnetism put faradic electricity (defined also as induced or interrupted electricity), a new kind of electricity that differentiated itself from both the static and the continuous, at the disposal of doctors. Furthermore what made this new current particularly useful to the doctor was the fine tuning of a new electromagnetic tool: the induction reel. This machine was composed of a wire wound up around an nucleus of fine wire which if fed with a week electric current, which was continuously switched on and off, was capable of generating a high voltage in a secondary wire coil. This was the new tool at the disposal of the “elettrojatra”. All the machines described in this section are made of a reel (or bobbin) and had a central role during the second half of the XIX century.
For a long time after they were invented it was much debated as to whether or not faradic current was more or less similar to the role that electricity played in human physiology and consequently more or less appropriate for the cure of one or the other disease. In the meantime departments of electrotherapy multiplied in hospitals and university clinics, while oblivious patients underwent treatment presented as the ultimate frontier in medicine.
2. “Prêt-à-porter” electrotherapy: out of the clinic and into the home
The interest of doctors in the curative powers of faradic (or induced) electrotherapy immediately brought about growth in requests for efficient devices, of limited size, that at the same time required little maintenance and were easily transportable. These were the requests of “elettrojatri” who practiced electrotherapy not only in clinics but also at home and were the requirements that shortly infected the tool makers, sparking off competition and a process of miniaturization of the electro-medical machines.
To make the faradic machine simple and easy to maintain first of all meant to reduce to a minimum the size of the induction reel, but especially to limit as much as possible the inconvenience of having to also carry around big batteries that required elaborate preparation procedures before being charged and ready for used. A Parisian tool maker Adolphe Gaiffe at the beginning of the 1860s virtually stamped out competition and gained a good slice of the market by fine-tuning an electro-medical device that weighed less than 600 grams; a portable box 17 centimetres long held the reel, the clamps, the stimulators for the applications and two or three batteries that were switched on by simply emerging in a solution of bisulphate of mercury, which was also included in the case. Once the treatment of the patient was over the doctor had only to throw away the solution and put back the batteries. This machine, imitated and improved on, but always recognisable as a reproduction of this prototype, circulated widely and was used up to the end of the 1920s.
The competition among the tool makers and that among doctors to find new patients kept each other going reciprocally and did not only effect the structure of the hospitals themselves but also the very concept of the sick. When one looks at the machines that have been preserved in the collections and studies them together with archive documents it’s also possible to re-read the history of electrotherapy as a story of technical innovation and market competition. This is what has been done in this section of the exhibit in which, as well as the device made by Gaiffe, the electromagnetic machine of Joseph Gray is presented. Made in 1850 and awarded a prize at the Universal Exposition of London in 1861, this device eliminated completely the battery feeding process typical of the electromagnetic machines: the electric current was produced by rotating (manually) a “handle” next to the poles of a permanent magnet. The fact that the tool maker took out a patent and that further patents were taken out for the technical improvements made later, testify to great success of this machine and the boost given by the market to technical innovation in the medical field.
3. The revival of aform of electricity: galvanism
Electro-magnetic devices fed with batteries and those magnetic-electric which moved mechanically that have been described in the previous sections represent the jewel in the crown of faradism, a new science concerned with the application of electricity to patients based on the idea that faradic currents (induced or interrupted) were more related to human physiology and consequently more appropriate in the treatment of patients. This idea wasn’t simply the result of therapeutic praxis, but the experimental outcome of research aimed at defining the function of the nervous-muscular system and the effects that a specific type of current had on it.
Approximately midway through the XIX century, when approaches to the study of physiology were remodelled, especially following the research conducted in Berlin by Du Bois-Reymond and in Paris by Claude Bernard, the debate on the use of electricity in the medical field also opened up. Many in this period, encouraged by charismatic figures such as the German Robert Remak, revived the use in electrotherapy of galvanic (or continuous) currents, in opposition to the “ruinous and unjustified” use that had been made of faradic (or interrupted) current.
Which was the most appropriate choice and on what did it depend? Different positions were taken up. First of all there were those who embraced the theory of Du Bois-Reymond, according to which at the basis of electrical transmission in the human body there was a system of bipolar electrical molecules, and secondly those who like Matteucci were against this position and were faithful to the concept of electrical fluid. Furthermore the role of electricity itself in the body was in dispute: it wasn’t yet clear, for instance, if muscular excitement was the effect of nervous excitement or if nerve and muscle were both excitable electrically independently one from the another. Furthermore the interpretation of physiological structure was further confounded by the problem of the different structures of the various organs on which the electrical doctor intended to intervene. In 1859 Julius Althaus, among the most important English medical electricians, wrote that the choice of the type of current to apply, the dosage, the intensity and the choice of the more appropriate device required a breadth of knowledge in the therapeutic, physic and physiologic fields that too few yet possessed.
It is in this intricate context that galvanic electricity regains its status and is once again widely employed. In 1873 Plinio Schivardi, the principle authority in the field of electrical medicine, stated that in the previous10 years “galvanic electricity was reborn” and this was one of the reasons for which it could be argued that the relationship between electricity and medicine had entered a new phase. The machines with continuous current that are presented in this section now played a primary role and continuous current became a primary curative method by virtue of the effects that Remak had defined as “catalytic [dilation of blood-vessels], anti-paralytic and antispasmodic”.
4. ‘Energo’: a machine to cure every ill
In this section of the show the galvanic device with continuous current “Energo” is presented. It was sold by the company “Energo” of Turin from the 1920s, but produced in the same period also by the German company G. Wohlmuth & Co. The device, that weighs about 16 kg and is about 36 cm long was thought to be bought and used at home without the help of a doctor. Powered by dry batteries that require no maintenance, the machine was activated through a simple patch box equipped with an inverter, through which it was possible to change the “direction” of the current without disconnecting the electrodes, and with a rheostat to regulate the intensity. The “indicator of current”, or current meter, made it possible to control the current that was applied and to dose it as required. The electrodes (or applicators or stimulators) were bought separately depending on the pathology with which the patient was affected.
What made this machine particularly interesting are not the quality or technical details that could differentiate it from other machines in commerce during the same period, but the fortunate retrieval of the Guida pratica per la cura Energo. This instructions manual for the device set out to explain to the non-specialized public of potential patients what the positive effects of electricity would be, what the actual state of the scientific research in this field was and why the machine represented an not-to-be-missed opportunity to take home a sort of upside down vase of Pandora: a tool for the cure of every ill. The catalogue. in which the main techniques of cure were presented through explicative images, is embellished with a text that explains in about 350 words how electricity could be applied to the cure of 173 different pathologies.
5. Marvellous cures
In the history of electricity professional research and quackery are often confused and sufficient attention is not yet dedicated to the reciprocal relationship that fed them and to how difficult it is in certain periods to distinguish one from the other and to limit the contributions that both provided to the conception and the continuous redefinition of the concept of the body and of the nature of electricity itself.
The objective of this section of the show is to exhibit certain ambiguous objects, traces of out-of-date theories or evidence of complicit cover-up simply to make a sale. From whatever perspective you look at them it is clear that their success and the vast circulation that they benefited from were founded in a solid cultural awareness of electricity that nourished hopes not only among physicians and physiologists, but also and especially within society itself that authorized them to research into this branch of knowledge.