The Electric Purple Snake-Oil Machine

The violet ray machine has an wonderful name that conjures up images of cartoon supervillains using out Gotham, but its precise heritage is even odder—and it contains a superhero, not a villain.

The technology underpinning the device commences with none other than
Nikola Tesla and his eponymous coil. After Tesla and some others built some refinements to the machine, an influential clairvoyant named Edgar Cayce popularized violet ray devices for treating just about each and every sort of ailment—rheumatism and anxious ailments, acne breakouts and baldness, gonorrhea and prostate troubles, mind fog and writer’s cramp. Even Wonder Woman experienced her have overall health-restoring Purple Ray system. For the duration of the very first fifty percent of the 20th century, a number of organizations created and offered the machines, which turned ubiquitous for a time. And nonetheless the scientific basis for the therapeutic effects of violet rays was scant. So what accounted for their acceptance?


The chopping-edge tech of the violet ray machine

Violet ray machines use a Tesla coil, also known as a resonance transformer, to make a superior-frequency, low-existing beam, which is then utilized to the pores and skin. Nikola Tesla kicked off this line of invention following traveling to Paris for the duration of the summer season of 1889 to attend the
Exposition Universelle. There he acquired of Heinrich Hertz’s electromagnetic discoveries. Intrigued, Tesla returned to New York City to operate some experiments of his very own. The outcome was the Tesla coil, which he envisioned remaining utilised for wireless lights and energy. In April 1891, he utilized for a U.S. patent for a “System of Electric powered Lights,” which he acquired two months later. It would be the very first in a sequence of linked patents that spanned extra than a 10 years.

In Might of that yr, Tesla unveiled his wondrous invention to associates of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, for the duration of a
lecture on his “Experiments with Alternate Currents of Extremely Superior Frequency and Their Application to Strategies of Artificial Illumination.” He continued to check unique circuit configurations and patented some (but not all) of his enhancements, these types of as a “Means for Producing Electric Currents,” U.S. Patent No. 514,168. Just after additional a long time of tinkering, Tesla perfected his resonance transformer and was granted U.S. Patent No. 1,119,732 for an “Apparatus for Transmitting Electrical Energy” on 1 December 1914.

An old black and white photo showing a man sitting next to a large electrical apparatus that is emitting sparks.
Nikola Tesla envisioned his eponymous coil staying utilised for wireless lighting and ability. It was also at the coronary heart of the violet ray machine. Stocktrek Photos/Getty Illustrations or photos

Tesla promoted the
clinical use of the electromagnetic spectrum, suggesting to medical professionals that diverse voltages and currents could be employed to take care of a assortment of situations. His endorsement arrived at a time when educated doctors as well as shrewd hucksters had been already experimenting with electrotherapy and ultraviolet mild to assistance patients or to make a buck, based on your perspective.

The market place was beautifully primed for the violet ray equipment, in other words and phrases. Tesla himself never commercialized a health care unit based mostly all around his coil, but others did. The French doctor and electrophysiologist
Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval modified Tesla’s structure to make the unit safer for human use. It was further improved by an additional French health care provider and electrotherapy researcher, Paul Marie Oudin. In 1893, Oudin crafted the initial performing prototype of what at some point grew to become the violet ray machine. Four decades later on, Frederick Sturdy designed an American variation.

An influential clairvoyant named Edgar Cayce popularized violet ray equipment for treating just about each sort of ailment—rheumatism and nervous conditions, acne and baldness, gonorrhea and prostate difficulties, mind fog and writer’s cramp.

A further charismatic individual will get credit rating for popularizing the gadget: the psychic
Edgar Cayce. As a young grownup, Cayce reportedly lost his voice for about a yr. No medical doctor could get rid of him, and in desperation he underwent hypnosis. He not only regained the potential to communicate, he also began suggesting health care tips and homeopathic remedies. Cayce, who claimed to have had visions from childhood, grew to become a skilled clairvoyant, and for the future 40 years he dispensed his wisdom by way of psychic readings. Out of far more than 14,000 recorded readings, Cayce talked about the violet ray device pretty much 900 times. In circumstance you doubt his position as an influencer, Cayce counted Thomas Edison, composer George Gershwin, and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson among his consumers.

Was there almost nothing the violet ray machine couldn’t overcome?

The recognition of violet ray devices exploded after 1915, the moment all of the parts for a transportable unit could be very easily created. They could be plugged into a lamp or wall socket or wired to a battery—remember that most households and organizations in the early 20th century ended up not still electrified, and so most producers presented the two alternating and direct latest options. The machine’s handheld wand consisted of a Tesla coil wrapped in an insulating substance, these as Bakelite. The coil generated 1 to 2 kilovolts, which charged a condenser, and then discharged at a level involving 4 to 10 kilohertz when handed around the skin. A voltage selector controlled the depth of the spark, building anything from a moderate feeling to a thing pretty intensive. This movie demonstrates the sparks coming from an antique equipment:

Glass electrodes—partially evacuated glass tubes identified as Geissler tubes—could be inserted into the wand. These came in distinct styles depending on their supposed use. For example, a rake-formed attachment labored to massage the scalp, although a slim tube could be inserted into the mouth, nose, or a different orifice. The higher voltage ionized the gas within the glass tube, generating the purple glow that gave the product its title.

Numerous suppliers sprang up to create the moveable devices, which include Detroit’s
Renulife Electric powered Co. Launched by inventor James Henry Eastman in 1917, Renulife offered various products for diverse takes advantage of. In accordance to enterprise literature, Model M was its most well known normal-reason products, although Model D was for dentistry, and the tricked-out Model R [pictured at top] had finer regulation of existing and a built-in ozone generator to enable with head and lung congestion.

In 1917, editors at the
Journal of the American Health care Affiliation reported that a violet ray generator absolutely couldn’t deal with “practically each individual ailment identified to mankind,” as 1 producer had claimed.

Guidelines for the violet ray equipment manufactured by Charles A. Branston Ltd. comprise an alphabetical checklist of problems that could be treated, from abscess to writer’s cramp, with dozens of other ailments in among. Like the Renulife items, the Branston devices also came in different flavors. The Branston machine’s large-frequency manner had germicidal results and purportedly could be used to cure infections as effectively as minimize ache. Sinusoidal mode was utilized to gently massage absent nervousness and paralysis. Ozone manner was for inhaling, to address lung ailments. The Branston units ranged in cost from US $30 for the Product 5B (large-frequency method only) to $100 for the Design 29 (which experienced all three modes).

A page from a pamphlet showing the potential uses of an electrotherapeutic machine.
The violet ray devices manufactured by Charles A. Branston Ltd. experienced distinct modes for dealing with a wide assortment of conditions.Historical Healthcare Library/Higher education of Doctors of Philadelphia

Throughout the 1st half of the 20th century, companies promoted the devices to medical professionals and people alike. By the time Wonder Female debuted in her very own comedian book in June 1942, the violet ray equipment was a nicely-regarded house know-how. So it was not as well shocking that the superhero had a device of her personal.

In the pretty initial situation, Surprise Woman’s potential enjoy interest, Steve Trevor, is grievously hurt in a aircraft crash. Searching for to get rid of his wounds, Diana will work tirelessly for five days to full her Purple Ray machine—but she’s too late. Trevor has died. Undeterred, Diana bathes her patient in the glowing gentle of the machine. The consequence may have humiliated even the admen who wrote the advertising duplicate for Branston’s items: Ponder Woman’s Purple Ray
delivers Trevor again to lifetime.

Science frowns on the violet ray device

Irrespective of their popularity, the equipment did not fare very as effectively inside the healthcare establishment. In 1917, editors at the
Journal of the American Professional medical Affiliation documented that a violet ray generator absolutely could not deal with “practically just about every ailment recognised to mankind,” as a single maker experienced claimed. Even though the devices emitted a violet colour, they were being not in actuality emitting ultraviolet light-weight, or at the very least not in quantities that would be valuable. In 1951, a Maryland district courtroom dominated in opposition to a enterprise named Grasp Appliances in a libel accommodate. The cost was misbranding, and the courtroom located that the device was not an helpful procedure nor capable of producing the claimed results. At the time, Master Appliances was 1 of the final producers of violet ray equipment in the United States, and the ruling properly ended manufacturing in this place.

And nonetheless you can even now invest in violet ray devices today—both the antique assortment and its
modern day equivalent. Today’s models are primarily promoted to aestheticians or marketed for property use, and some dermatologists are not prepared to categorically dismiss their gains. Despite the fact that they most likely will not cure indigestion or grey hair, the higher frequency can dry out the skin and ozone does eliminate bacteria, so the devices may assist handle acne breakouts and other pores and skin situations. Moreover, there is the placebo impact. As with all consumer electronics for which outrageous statements are manufactured, allow the consumer beware.

Component of a continuing series wanting at photos of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

An abridged version of this report seems in the Oct 2022 print situation.

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