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Electricity in Medicine - Part 1

Galvanic Spectacles

Richard Van Vleck, Reprinted from issue 21

Quack devices, such as electric belts, rings, and batteries proliferated in the second half of the 19th century, as evidenced by the profusion of magazine ads, booklets filled with testimonials of users, and other literature. Many editors quickly distanced themselves from the advertisers of quack devices, suggesting that some were humbug while others were shoddily constructed and, probably, of no value. When readers inquired about specific advertisers, the magazine often claimed ignorance of the product and cautioned "the buyer beware".

This large amount of advertising, over a period of several decades, suggests that many quack batteries and devices were sold. Even today, Boyd's batteries, Oxydonors, and magneto shock boxes can sometimes be found at flea markets. While these gadgets may have no medical value, they would have made excellent long term investments, considering the current interest in collecting.

One interesting, but rather obscure class of galvanic quack device is the electric spectacle. Judah Moses, of Hartford, CT, received the first U.S. patent for "galvanic spectacles" in 1868. The next patent for electromagnetic spectacles was granted to John Leighton, of Scotland, in 1888. Four patents were granted in 1889, and 5 more through 1901. Most of these spectacles relied on a small zinc and copper plate to generate the tiny current desired. This current was delivered to the wearer at the bridge or nosepieces, where it was thought to reach the optic nerves.

The medical benefit of applying an electric current to the optic nerve was usually not specified in these patents, however, strengthening eyesight and allowing the user to read for a longer time were claimed in Smith and Martin's patent in 1889. Of the 11 patents, only one claimed a different purpose than treating the eye. Herman Welker's 1889 patent for electric eyeglasses claimed only to prevent nasal congestion from the common cold.

Twenty years before the first U.S. patent was granted for galvanic spectacles, the following notice was printed in the Boston Cultivator in 1848.

"Mr. J.S. Paine, optician, of Worcester, Mass, has invented something new in the way of spectacles. He has constructed that part of the bows holding the glasses, and the bridge, of two metals, viz., silver and zinc - and he is confident of having thus achieved an important improvement by an uninterrupted flow of electricity, which he believes invigorates the eyes and actually relieves them from a world of small physical annoyances, independently of waning vision. By touching the tip of the tongue on the nosepiece, an unmistakable sensation is produced and a flash of light is instantly perceptible. Mr. Paine thinks that he feels a cool current constantly passing by the orbits, while the glasses are worn. Like a genuine Yankee, he secures a patent, of course, and if the discovery equals his expectations, the millions of spectacle wearers of all countries will soon begin to pay tribute to New England ingenuity."
While a J.P. Paine, of Worcester, did patent a spectacle frame on July 1, 1861, it had nothing to do with electricity. Whether the J.S. Paine referred to in the Boston Cultivator article above is the same person, and whether he ever marketed his galvanic spectacles is not clear. What is clear is that the first tingles and flashes of light from galvanic spectacles were experienced no later than 1848 and twenty years before the first patent was granted.

Electric spectacles may be quite rare, however, it is likely that some have been overlooked by collectors and dealers. Hopefully, the following illustrations will be of help in identifying this elusive collectible.

Judah Moses, 1868 John Leighton, 1888Frederick Fear, 1889
Casper Brust, 1889 Hermann Welcker, 1889Smith & Martin, 1889
William Price, 1893 Abraham Mayer, 1897Thomas Zeller, 1900
P. Balme, 1901 A. Humphrey, 1901other SMMA articles

© 1996, 1998 Greybird Publishing.
Reprinted from SMMA #21
Contact: Richard Van Vleck at