Electric Age: Cornelius B Harness and his electropathic belt

31 May 2017

Electricity transformed the lives of Victorians. Inspired by its spectacular properties, they found some ingenious and bizarre uses for it.

At the end of the 19th century Cornelius B Harness was managing director of the Pall Mall Medical Association and the Medical Battery Company, and the driving force behind the Electropathic Belt. Harness’ devices used what he called “electropathy or the cure of disease by electricity”. The theory was that if, for any reason, the natural supply of electricity to an organ or function of the body, such as the kidney, was disrupted, then an artificial source of electricity could be used to “restore the function or maintain its healthy condition”.

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Advert for Harness’ “Electropathic Belts”, c.1890. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Electropathic Belt consisted of a series of copper and zinc discs linked by copper wire and fastened into a tight-fitting belt. When placed next to the skin, the patient’s sweat was “sufficient to excite a mild continuous current that was a specific treatment in some diseases”, a relief in many, and “improved the general health in all and could never do any harm”. Harness’ device was not the first electric belt made for medical purposes – Isaac Pulvermacher brought out an electric chain in the late 1850s, and there were many other rivals – but the Electropathic Belt became a brand leader, and made Harness a fortune.

Harness used every possible promotional technique to sell his electric products, including large full page advertisements in major trade publications and the popular press. These made bold claims for the health benefits of electricity, and included testimonials from satisfied customers, another popular marketing tactic of the time. He also published information booklets about electropathy, extolling the virtues of electric medicine.

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The Electropathic and Zanderr Institute. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The prestigious Oxford Street building depicted in many of Harness’ adverts became his company’s flagship store, and was named The Electropathic and Zander Institute. Furnished with lavish showrooms, it also offered free daily “Electrical Entertainment”. A concert party gave performances, alongside talks on electrical science, and demonstrations of “Electrical Experiments”. Salesmen – called “medical electricians” – were on hand to provide consultations on the most suitable product for any complaint.

The health and curative claims made for electric belts didn’t go unnoticed by the medical establishment. The editor of Health News noted the case of a labourer who was “so poor that he could barely get food enough of the humblest kind”. Nevertheless the man was persuaded to buy the much vaunted and extensively advertised electric belt of “an unnamed Oxford Street firm”. After the man died, the belt was examined found to contain only a dozen tin discs embedded in flannel. Who was to blame for this state of affairs, the editor lamented, “the mendacity of the advertisers, the folly of the purchasers or the weakness of the publishers of a high class paper?”

L0074969 All in search of health should wear Harness'

Advert for Harness’ Electropathic Belt, c1893. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As Harness was to discover, glossy advertising and electric-mania could only go so far. In 1892 a bank cashier called Jeffery brought an electric belt for “a rupture” on the advice of a “medical expert” at the Electropathic and Zander Institute in London. When the belt brought no relief, he went to a doctor who told him he had a hernia, and the belt was doing him no good at all. It may even have made the problem worse. The disgruntled Jeffery demanded a refund from the company, foolishly Harness responded by suing him for the balance owed on the belt. Jeffery counter-claimed and eventually won the case because the salesman who sold him the belt had falsely claimed to have medical expertise.

The case was widely reported by the media. More unhappy customers emerged, along with legal claims and counterclaims from Harness, who threatened legal action at every turn. A parade of electrical experts gave evidence on both sides, including the eminent physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, who reported that the current produced by the Electropathic Belt was infinitesimal, if it existed at all. Others came forward and revealed that demonstrations at the Electropathic and Zander Institute, which showed that the current generated from the belt could ring a bell or light a bulb were staged. A concealed battery was used in the demonstrations, but there was no battery in the belts sold to customers.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1893 the Pall Mall Gazette (which had run adverts for Electropathic belts itself) ran a six-part exposé entitled “The Harness Swindle” detailing the company’s transgressions and court cases. By then the damage was done. As word of its unscrupulous sales practices and ongoing court cases spread, sales declined. The company was put in receivership due to court judgements and thousands of pounds of legal fees, and in November 1893 the Board liquidated the Medical Battery Company.

The fall of Harness may have signalled the decline of showmanship and widespread quackery in the Electric Age, but electricity continued to inspire medical devices and gadgets even in to our own age.