Sunday, 13 January 2013

A Cabinet of Curiosities - William Skidmore's "Improved Magneto-Electric Machine"

William Skidmore's "Improved Magneto- Electric Machine".
[From my own collection]

This is the first of an occasional new blog series featuring interesting and unusual Items from my own personal collections entitled "A Cabinet of Curiosities".

My "Magneto-Electric" machine manufactured by William Skidmore, a surgical instrument maker of Cemetery Road, Sheffield, is designed to administer a mild electric shock of varying strength in order to assist with the cure of not just nervous diseases but also toothache and neuralgia.

The inside label of the "Improved Magneto-Electric machine".
[From my own collection]

The Directions read : "Connect two metallic cords or wires with the sockets in the ends of the Box, and apply handles connected with the other ends of the metallic cords or wires to any part of the person through which is desirable to pass the current of Electricity. Then turn the crank, regulating the strength of the current by the speed, and by the knob at the end of the box : it being desirable to increase the strength to that degree most agreeable to the patient. It is less unpleasant to the patient if wet sponges are placed in the ends of the handles and these applied to the skin, as they prevent the prickling sensation. The sponges should never be put inside the Box while wet as they rust the machinery. In applying it for the Toothache, Tic-Doloreaux or Neuralgia, the operator takes one Handle and places fingers or sponge over the part affected, while the patient hold the other Handle. In applying it to the foot place one of the Handles in the Water with the foot, and hold the other in the hand, or apply it to any other part of the person. The Bearings and Spring must be oiled occasionally".

William Skidmore was active from 1850 to 1920 although I would date this machine to the 1870's - 1880's. I must say that it can "pack a punch" and is capable of making the muscles in my hands absolutely tighten up to the point of suffering quite some pain. But on a lower setting the tingling sensation actually feels quite pleasant. But does it actually cure "nervous diseases"?

William Skidmore's "Improved Magneto-Electric Machine".
[From my own collection]

The great Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1757 that he had experimented with "Electrical Cures". While he found patients received temporary relief it appeared not to be permanent. He did however consider the idea worth further research : "...Perhaps some permanent Advantage might have been obtained, if ... Electric Shocks had been accompanied with proper Medicine and Regimen, under the Direction of a skilful Physician. It may be, too, that a few great Strokes, as given in my Method, may not be so proper as many small ones; since by the Account from Scotland of the Case in which 200 Shocks from a Phial were given daily, seems that a perfect Cure has been made...".

'Moorhead' was the first to patent a "Magnetic-Electric Machine" on the 4th Nov 1848 and thereafter the idea of electrical therapy appears to have quickly caught on. Others, however, considered such devices mere "medical quackery". The Thomas Jefferson University Archives writes that : "Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, physicians had an assortment of devices which would apply electrical applications to their patients. Diathermy is one area of such treatment that is almost a century old. However the scientific evidence for many health claims was often lacking, yet surgical instrument catalogs abounded with batteries, electrodes and dynamos."

While a "cure for nervous diseases" would indeed appear to be pushing the limits of believability, I do believe that such therapy may at least have relieved some conditions. According to my Father, this machine was used by my Grandfather who later purchased a battery operated shock machine, possibly to save having to turn the handle. So it naturally stands to reason that he must have received some temporary benefit from this "treatment". All quite fascinating.

Bibliography :

- General Internet resources
- All images are from my own collection and may be freely copied provided a link is given back to this page.


  1. Very interesting piece. I have one as well which bears the exact same graphic label. However, on mine the manufacturers stamp area is blank. Also, on mine there are no gears, just a single very ornate brass wheel with a belt that drives the mechanism. I did not have much information on the device and found your posting most informative.. Many Thanks

    1. Very glad I could be of some assistance. Your own machine sounds rather interesting. Thanks again.

  2. I have one of these machines. However it has lost its driving belt. I read that cat gut was used. Could you be kind and tell me if this was so.
    Thank you.
    John Knight

    1. A very interesting question. I honestly have no idea if cat gut was ever used but would have led to a small ugly knot. The thin strip of leather used on my driving belt has been carefully stitched together so that no join is terribly obvious. I would wonder if cat gut would maybe be too slippery or hard to maintain the tension? Please let me know if you discover anything definitive.

    2. Dear Don001,
      Not sure if you have received my reply. Have now fitted cat gut 1.4mm from Andrew Firth antique clocks and barometers. Works very well. I used a sleeve (electric wire covering) to join the ends. I think that this was probably one of a number of materials used in the 19th century


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