Fluence and the Machine

August 16, 2010 at 5:08 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , )

At the recent talk by Andy Lewis at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub, I saw a demonstration of an odd machine.

Here’s a picture of Andy’s magneto-electric therapy machine:

magneto-electro therapy machine

While looking for more information on this odd machine, I found this electric belt, another example of the promotion of electricity as a cure-all. Some friends on the Think Humanism forum then provided me with some interesting links.

The Wellcome Collection includes an electrotherapeutic cage, and an advert for an electropathic belt:

Harness’ Electropathic Belts were supposed to generate ‘new life and vigor … for weak men, for delicate women’ as well as cure ‘nervousness, debility, sleeplessness, rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago, torpid liver, organic weakness and kindred ailments’ but actually produced no sensation whatsoever (despite testimonies from Dr Herbert Tibbits and Dr Arthur Harries on the reverse).

This page for a magneto-electric machine (which recently sold for £95) includes some interesting information:

In the late nineteenth century it was claimed that electricity could treat almost every conceivable ailment, and one could buy an electric helmet, an electric corset for ladies who wished to shed a few pounds, gents could purchase “Dr Moffats Electropathic Belt for Extra Vigour”, electropathic socks, or even “Dr Scott’s Electric hairbrush”.

The Spark Museum website has a marvellous page with pictures of several magneto-electric therapy machines.

Last, but not least, here’s something I dug up from the family archives:

I remember Aunt Rose as a very amiable person. Her particular foible was a belief in the electric fluence as a cure for all ills and she persuaded me to try this on one occasion. She had a most beautifully made hand-operated dynamo, with an ivory handle. When not in use this was kept under a glass cover, together with the leads and cylindrical hand grips. When the machine was in use the victim held one of these in each hand and Aunt Rose then turned the handle to generate the electric fluence, slowly at first, then faster and faster until the voltage produced was not quite high enough to electrocute one.

I can’t work out when this was, but I’d guess it was sometime around the First World War. It’s interesting to note the skepticism of the author – Aunt Rose’s belief in the electric fluence machine is described as a foible, a minor weakness or eccentricity that is tolerated.

Update, 20:48 16th August

Blue Wode has alerted me to these pages: Collect Medical Antiques & Museum of Quackery. Collect Medical Antiques features everything from Perkins Tractors to Phrenology, and the Museum of Quackery has all manner of weird and wonderful devices – including The Battle Creek Vibratory Chair (the Battle Creek Sanitarium’s chief of staff was John Harvey Kellogg) and the more recent Relaxacisor (a device that provides electrical shocks to the body through contact pads).

Edit, 19th August

A version of this post also appears here on Brum Skeptics blog.


Thanks to Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub for allowing me to use their photograph of Andy’s machine. Thanks are also due to Dave B, Emma Woolgatherer, lewist, and Alan H from Think Humanism for their interesting comments and useful links.


  1. Tweets that mention Fluence and the Machine « Stuff And Nonsense -- Topsy.com said,

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James, Alan Henness. Alan Henness said: RT @jdc325: [New Blogpost] Fluence and the Machine: http://bit.ly/cB3zmL electro-quackery from the Victorian Era. […]

  2. Zeno said,

    Andy’s machine looks absolutely identical to the one that featured in the second episode of the BBC’s Victorian Pharmacy: watch here at 34 minutes in (but it’ll only be available until 10pm this Thursday!)

  3. JDM said,

    “Medical Electricity” is a fascinating distraction from the altie crap.

    It was as widely used as cupping in most hospitals in the Victorian age, and well into the 20th Century. Some have argued that medicine adopted this curious placebo in order to look more “scientific”, in an age when science was becoming the only distinguishing characteristic of medicine, compared with utter quackery. Of course, once medicine embraced electricity as a therapy, the quacks jumped right on the bandwagon.

    Read the manual: http://tinyurl.com/38rtcj

    The @quackwriter had an interesting post related to quacktricity recently:


  4. jdc325 said,

    @Zeno – thanks for the iPlayer link.

    @JDM – I meant to check Quackwriter’s blog to see if he had anything on electro-quackery, but forgot! Thanks for posting the link.

    Edit: whoops, confused Quackwriter and Quack Doctor. They’re both good.

  5. JDM said,

    Ooops. One of those links has gone Japanese…. Don’t know what happened there.

    This should lead you to EM Magill’s “Notes on Galvanism and Faradism”:

  6. jdc325 said,

    Thanks JDM.

  7. Neuroskeptic said,

    Loving the post title!

  8. The Year In Nonsense. And Stuff. « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] apart from a curiosity piece on Victorian electro-quackery, the only post worth mentioning is one on the Daily Mail. Or, as I call it, The People’s […]

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