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An electrifying discovery?

From having your hair stand on end to getting a jolt of static electricity – electricity definitely affects the body, and it is even responsible for controlling many bodily functions. It is what causes nerves to communicate, and electrical impulses are what stimulate the muscles. As far back as around 1750, doctors and medical researchers began experimenting with static electricity generated through friction, attempting to cure diseases with what they called “electric fire.” In most cases, tingling fingers, hair standing on end, or tiny jolts were the first tangible effects. These early experiments took place with “electrification machines,” followed in 1800 by batteries and after 1831 by induction machines. The method was heralded for its many successful treatments, but also dogged by charges of charlatanism, earning electrotherapy a dubious reputation in the medical community at first.

Around 1860, Guillaume-Benjamin Amand Duchenne de Boulogne (1806–1875), a French physician, performed a series of spectacular experiments showing how the muscles of the face could be stimulated with electricity. Just two years later, he wrote a groundbreaking paper on his discoveries. He called the area of the muscles that is responsible for smiling the “happiness muscle.” Duchenne used photography – at the time, still a recent development – to create unique images that document his experiments.

Siemens MedMuseum Electromedicine experiments Guillaume-Benjamin Amand Duchenne de Boulogne
Duchenne’s experiments with electricity (1860)© Wikimedia commons

In the late 19th century, new inventions such as the telegraph and incandescent light bulb helped spark public fascination with electricity, and with it, belief in the healing power of electrical charges. At the same time, scientists and physicians discovered and proved that electricity affects the body, and even that it is responsible for controlling many bodily functions. Electricity is what causes nerves to communicate, and electrical impulses are what stimulate the muscles. It was not long before the first ideas began to circulate about how to put these findings to work and implement them in technological terms as well.  

 

A new industrial segment arises
In 1844, Werner Siemens and his brother Friedrich got an idea: They would use one of Werner’s inventions for medical purposes. Friedrich was suffering from toothaches, and the brothers decided to treat him with electricity. For their plan, they used one of Werner’s devices, which he had christened the Volta Inductor. Werner Siemens had a business partner, Johann Georg Halske, who worked with a physiologist named Emil Du Bois-Reymond to improve the device later on. The new unit was produced in volume by the company Siemens & Halske and became a success all over the world. Reiniger’s “immersion battery” is another early therapeutic device. It is a very specific way to store energy: When the lid is opened, carbon zinc elements are immersed in a chromic acid solution. This generates electricity that can be used for electrical stimulation therapy. The device was developed by Erwin Moritz Reiniger before 1882, and sold by the thousands over the next ten years. This makes electrotherapy one of the oldest forms of medical technology in existence.  

Siemens MedMuseum Electromedicine Reinigers immersion battery
Reiniger’s immersion battery (ca. 1890)

Electricity as a tool for treatment…  

Ideas like these and many more gave rise to a completely new industrial segment in the late 19th century, one that specialized in production and sales of various electromedical devices. The first companies to produce these kinds of equipment – initially only for therapeutic purposes – included Siemens & Halske, in Berlin, and Reiniger, Gebbert & Schall (RGS), which was based in Erlangen. The two companies were rivals until 1925, when Siemens & Halske acquired RGS. 

 

… and diagnosis
The era of electrodiagnostics started around 1900, with the development of the electrocardiogram. The new devices were able to measure the body’s subtle electrical currents more accurately, for an even clearer picture of how the body works. The results, in turn, helped make more targeted therapy possible – including through methods using electricity. The Pantostat universal connection device, for example, was used for various therapeutic and diagnostic purposes, including vibration massage and electrical stimulation therapy, but also for examinations using endoscopes. The Pantostat replaced the many specific devices that had previously been commonplace, with each one serving only a single use. With more than 16,000 units sold worldwide, it was one of the most widely used apparatus of this kind in its time.  

Siemens MedMuseum Electromedicine Pantostat
A nose operation using the Pantostat (1910)

Electromedicine is still an important area of medical technology to this day in terms of both diagnosis and treatment.

1 © Wikimedia commons

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