10 Shocking (Mis)Uses for Electricity


During the 17th and 18th centuries, people knew electricity was the next big thing—they just weren’t sure how to use it. So they tried it all.


For most of history, treating a toothache was a matter of tenacity and creativity. The Aztecs sought to stave off pain by eating chilis. Native Americans chewed on mistletoe berries. Ancient Scots wrapped caterpillars in cloth and tucked them near the ailing tooth. In 1700s pre-dentistry England, people simply had the tooth extracted—by barbers and blacksmiths. So it’s no wonder that, by the late 18th century, those suffering from dental laments didn’t think twice about trying an electric shock to the mouth. Doctors would take a metal wire, encased in glass or strung through a feather, and apply it to the throbbing molar. Unfortunately, the jolting pain offered no relief, making berries and caterpillars seem like a tea party.


In 1730, an Englishman named Stephen Gray realized that electricity moves through some objects (like metal or people) but not others (like rubber). Today, we know this as conductivity. To demonstrate the phenomenon, Gray built a harness out of silk cords and paid an orphan boy to be his guinea pig. He strapped the 47-pound boy to the silks, suspended him in midair like Superman for an audience, and gave him a charge with an electrostatic device. The boy appeared to acquire mystical powers: Small objects floated toward him. He could turn book pages without touching them. When people tried to poke him, sparks flew. Gray was awarded a medal for his experiments. But, presumably, not custody of any children.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein terrified readers not because its titular monster was outlandish, but because the story seemed a little too plausible—it had “an air of reality attached to it,” one reviewer noted, and it was, after all, the height of galvanism. Decades earlier, Italian physician Luigi Galvani sent a jolt of electricity through a dead frog’s legs and watched them dance. Surely, he thought, electricity could also restart a dead human heart! (While he was onto something, defibrillators don’t actually restart a stopped heart, as your favorite medical TV drama would have you believe. An AED disrupts the heart’s electrical patterns and resets the heart’s normal rhythm. A heart that has flatlined doesn’t have a rhythm to disrupt.) In 1803, his nephew put that theory to the test. With conducting rods, he tried to reanimate the corpse of convicted murderer George Forster before an audience of students. Forster’s legs wriggled, one of his eyes opened, and his arms flew into the air—but he failed to return to a life of crime (or life at all).


James Graham was the Dr. Ruth of the 1780s. The sexologist opened the Temple of Hymen in London, where the main attraction was something called the “Celestial Bed,” which visitors could use for £50 a night. The bed was 12 feet long and stuffed with supposed aphrodisiacs like fresh wheat, rose leaves, lavender, and hair from stallions’ tails. Exotic fragrances flooded the room, a pair of turtle doves perched above the bed, and, in a decorating move that anticipated the 1970s by nearly two centuries, a mirror was situated on the ceiling. The bed was also supported by 40 glass pillars, since electric currents zipped through the headboard and could be felt in the air “to give the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves.” This didn’t just mean a night of passion—anybody who slept in the bed was guaranteed a child!


Few snake oil salesmen were as successful as the mysterious Dr. Scott. Lauded in the 1800s as the “man of the century,” he used early American magazine ads to sucker countless people into buying electric toiletries. (Scott also claimed that sarsaparilla was the “greatest medical discovery of the age.”) The problem? None of his inventions were actually electric. The Electric Flesh Brush, for example, was advertised as a cure for balding and headaches. Buyers were encouraged to test its charge by putting it next to a compass. (The compass would spin, but that’s because Scott hid a magnet inside the brush handle.) Scott usually conflated electricity with magnetism—his magnetic “electropathic” corsets and belts claimed to “renew vital energy” and heal a laundry list of maladies. Mostly, they just caused indigestion.


In the 18th century, scientists started playing with static electricity and began wondering: How can we store it? That’s how one of the first and most successful generators, the electrophorus, came about. Popularized in 1775 by Alessandro Volta, the machine produced seemingly endless amounts of energy—all you had to do was rub it with a dead cat. The device consisted of two plates, one metal and one insulated. Rubbing the insulated plate with cat fur created static electricity, and when the two parts were brought together, the metal plate picked up the charge. Users could transfer that energy to a Leyden jar, an early capacitor that stored energy (and inspired the phrase “lightning in a bottle”). Why cat fur? Scientists tested other ways to charge the device, but according to John Cuthbertson in 1807, “That which seems to answer best is a cat’s skin.” (Steel wool would have worked too, but it didn’t exist yet.)


In 1847, W.W. Hilton wrote a testimonial to the Baltimore newspaper Republican and Argus about the wondrous Dr. William R. Massey, a galvanist doctor. Hilton’s daughter had suffered from paralysis, painful spasms, and memory loss. But after the girl’s second visit to Dr. Massey, who used electric shocks to “equalize her circulation,” her memory was reportedly completely restored. It turns out that while electricity is better known for its potential to erase memory—it’s a notorious and unexplained side effect of electroconvulsive therapy, for example—it can also improve it. According to a 2014 study in the journal Science, researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine discovered that a stimulating jolt to brain regions connected to the hippocampus (your brain’s memory center) can improve your ability to retain new things.


Published in 1916, Electro-Therapy in the Abstract for the Busy Practitioner is the perfect tome for the electrically curious. The book purports that most ailments can be treated with effluve, the emanation or spray dissipated into the air from a wire or electrode charged with a high-tension current. That’s right: It suggested that if you grab some hot exposed wires and point them at your eyes, all that effluve will make your cataracts disappear! While that treatment might not pass modern standards, it has an inkling of merit. A 2001 FDA study showed that a small microcurrent to the eye could help people with macular degeneration.


In 1749, Benjamin Franklin had an ingenious idea. “A turkey is to be killed for our dinners by the electrical shock; and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle,” he gloated in a letter. At the time, electricity was just the stuff of magic tricks, but Franklin believed it could be more useful. He practiced the stunt by electrocuting birds in his backyard, and on December 23, 1750, showed off his bird-crushing death ray. An audience gathered. Franklin applied the lethal charge. Then things got crazy: He was shocked senseless and rendered numb for the rest of the evening. Worse, the turkey kept gobbling away. When the French read about Franklin’s tests in Experiments and Observations on Electricity, they were intrigued enough to try them, too; later, they discovered that electrical charges inhibit rigor mortis. Today, some slaughterhouses still use electricity to make meat easier to trim off the bone.


As buildings grew taller, lightning became a big problem. Church steeples and high buildings were catching fire, prompting Benjamin Franklin and Prokop Diviš to independently invent the first lightning rods. By the 1780s, they were topping new buildings—and becoming all the rage. In Paris, men and women donned top hats and umbrellas with personal lightning rods. Designed by Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, the rodware featured a tall wire with a coil that trailed to the ground. According to Martin Uman, author of All About Lightning, a protective parasol proved its worth when a bolt streamed down the coil, striking only the person’s hip as it grounded. Without the rod and coil, the charge likely would have killed the person. Who says high fashion can’t save lives?

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.


Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.


Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.


Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”


Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.


Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.


Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."


In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.


In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.


Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.


There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.


Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.


Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.


As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.


Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.


In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]


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