Collection close-up

All objects have a story to tell. In medical history in particular, these stories are often a thrilling blend of terror, hope, skill and beauty.  

Here, we shine a light on an object from the Marks-Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History collection to reveal fascinating detail of past lives and to celebrate its important place within the collection.

Magneto-electric machine c. 1880

Electric corsetsElectricity revolutionised late Victorian society, ushering in an exciting era of electric lights, telephones and batteries. With the public fascinated by the promise and mystery of electricity, it did not take paramedicals long to capitalise on the electrical nature of animal tissue. They spruiked the logic that if a system is ‘run down’ or ‘lacking energy’, a quick application of electricity would restore vitality. This philosophy spawned a myriad of electrical belts, brushes, corsets, and this magneto-electric machine popular in the mid-late 1800s.

The device works by rotating two solenoids (fine wires tightly wrapped around a metal core and encased in velvet) within the field of a very large magnet (blue in the photos). The spinning of the solenoids is powered by a manual crank, which generates a ‘mild’ alternating electrical current (AC) to the attached electrodes.

To use, the operator would place the electrodes in the patient’s hands or elsewhere on the patient’s body and turn the crank. The faster it was turned, the greater the current. The makers claimed that it could relieve pain, as well as cure numerous diseases, including cancer, tuberculosis, diabetes, gangrene, heart disease, tetanus, and spinal deformities.

The Museum is lucky to have two of these objects in excellent, presumably working, condition in its collection.

Magento electric machine


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