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The Electric Purple Snake Oil Machine

The purple ray machine has an awesome name that conjures up images of cartoon supervillains taking out Gotham City, but it’s Really the story is even stranger and includes a superhero, not a villain.

The technology behind the machine starts with nothing less than
Nicholas Tesla and his coil of the same name. After Tesla and others made some refinements to the device, an influential clairvoyant named Edgar Cayce popularized violet-ray machines to treat almost all kinds of ailments: rheumatism and nervous conditions, acne and baldness, gonorrhea and prostate problems, mental confusion. and writer’s cramp. Even Wonder Woman had her own Purple Ray device to restore her health. During the first half of the 20th century, various companies manufactured and sold the machines, which became ubiquitous for a time. And yet, the scientific basis for the healing effects of violet rays was scant. So what explains its popularity?

The cutting-edge technology of the violet ray machine

Violet ray machines use a Tesla coil, also known as a resonance transformer, to produce a low-current, high-frequency beam, which is then applied to the skin. Nikola Tesla started this line of invention after traveling to Paris during the summer of 1889 to attend the
Universal exposition. There he learned of the electromagnetic discoveries of Heinrich Hertz. Intrigued, Tesla returned to New York City to conduct his own experiments. The result was the Tesla coil, which he envisioned being used for wireless lighting and power. In April 1891, he applied for a US patent for an “Electric Lighting System”, which he received two months later. It would be the first in a series of related patents that spanned more than a decade.

In May of that year, Tesla unveiled his wonderful invention to members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at a
conference on his “Experiments with alternating currents of very high frequency and their application to methods of artificial lighting”. He continued to try different circuit configurations and patented some (but not all) of his improvements, such as a “Means for generating electric currents”. US patent no. 514,168. After more years of tinkering, Tesla perfected his resonance transformer and was awarded US patent no. 1,119,732 for an “Apparatus for Transmitting Electric Power” on December 1, 1914.

An old black and white photo showing a man sitting next to a large sparking electrical appliance.
Nikola Tesla envisioned his namesake coil being used for wireless lighting and power. It was also at the heart of the violet ray machine. Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Tesla promotes the
medical use of the electromagnetic spectrum, suggesting to clinicians that different voltages and currents can be used to treat a variety of conditions. His endorsement came at a time when trained doctors, as well as astute street vendors, were already experimenting with electrotherapy and ultraviolet light to help patients or to make money, depending on his perspective.

In other words, the market was perfectly primed for the violet-ray machine. Tesla himself never marketed a medical device based on his coil, but others did. French physician and electrophysiologist
Jacques Arsene d’Arsonval modified Tesla’s design to make the device safer for human use. It was further improved by another French physician and electrotherapy researcher, Paul Maria Odin. In 1893, Oudin drew up the first working prototype of what eventually became the violet-ray machine. Four years later, Frederick Strong developed an American version.

An influential clairvoyant named Edgar Cayce popularized violet-ray machines to treat almost all kinds of ailments: rheumatism and nervous conditions, acne and baldness, gonorrhea and prostate problems, brain fog and writer’s cramp.

Another charismatic individual gets credit for popularizing the device: the psychic
edgar cayce. As a young adult, Cayce reportedly lost his voice for over a year. No doctor could cure him and in desperation he underwent hypnosis. He not only regained the ability to speak, but also began to suggest medical advice and homeopathic remedies. Cayce, who claimed to have had visions since childhood, became a professional clairvoyant and for the next 40 years imparted his wisdom through psychic readings. Of more than 14,000 recorded readings, Cayce mentioned the violet ray machine almost 900 times. In case you doubt his status as an influencer, Cayce counted among his clients Thomas Edison, composer George Gershwin, and US President Woodrow Wilson.

Wasn’t there anything the violet ray machine couldn’t cure?

The popularity of violet-ray machines skyrocketed after 1915, once all the components of a portable device could be easily manufactured. They could be plugged into a lamp or wall outlet or connected to a battery; Remember that most homes and businesses in the early 20th century were not yet electrified, so most manufacturers offered AC and DC options. The machine’s hand wand consisted of a Tesla coil wrapped in an insulating material, such as Bakelite. The coil produced 1 to 2 kilovolts, which charged a capacitor and then discharged at a rate of between 4 and 10 kilohertz as they passed over the skin. A voltage selector controlled the intensity of the spark, creating anything from a mild sensation to something quite intense. This video shows the sparks coming out of an old machine:

Glass electrodes, partially evacuated glass tubes known as Geissler tubes, could be inserted into the wand. These came in different forms depending on their intended use. For example, a rake-like attachment worked to massage the scalp, while a narrow tube could be inserted into the mouth, nose, or other orifice. The high voltage ionized the gas inside the glass tube, creating the purple glow that gave the device its name.

Numerous manufacturers jumped in to produce the portable machines, including the one in Detroit.
Renulife Electric Co.. Founded by inventor James Henry Eastman in 1917, Renulife sold different models for different uses. According to companyliteraturethe Model M was their most popular general-use product, while the Model D was for dentistry and the modified Model R [pictured at top] it had finer current regulation and a built-in ozone generator to help with head and lung congestion.

In 1917, the editors of the
Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a violet ray generator would certainly not be able to treat “virtually every ailment known to mankind”, as one manufacturer had claimed.

Instructions for violet-ray machines manufactured by Charles A. Branston Ltd. contain an alphabetical list of conditions that could be treated, from abscesses to writer’s cramp, with dozens of other ailments in between. Like the Renulife products, the Branston machines also entered different flavors. The high-frequency mode of the Branston machine had germicidal effects and could supposedly be used to cure infections and relieve pain. Sine mode was used to gently massage nervousness and paralysis. The ozone mode was for inhalation, to treat lung disorders. Pricing for the Branston devices ranged from US$30 for the Model 5B (high-frequency mode only) to US$100 for the Model 29 (which had all three modes).

The violet ray machines manufactured by Charles A. Branston Ltd. had different modes for treating a wide variety of ailments.Historical Medical Library/Philadelphia College of Physicians

During the first half of the 20th century, manufacturers marketed the machines to both physicians and consumers. When Wonder Woman debuted in her own comic in June 1942, the violet-ray machine was a well-known household technology. So it wasn’t too surprising that the superheroine had a machine of her own.

In the first issue, Wonder Woman’s future love interest Steve Trevor is critically injured in a plane crash. Seeking to heal his wounds, Diana works tirelessly for five days to complete her Purple Ray machine, but it’s too late. Trevor is dead. Undeterred, Diana bathes her patient in the bright light of the machine. The result might have embarrassed even the publicists who wrote promotional copy for Branston’s products: Wonder Woman’s Purple Ray.
brings trevor back to life.

Science frowns on the violet-ray machine

Despite their popularity, the machines did not fare as well within the medical establishment. In 1917, the editors of the
Journal of the American Medical Association reported that a violet ray generator would certainly not be able to treat “virtually every ailment known to mankind”, as one manufacturer had claimed. Although the devices emitted a violet color, they did not in fact emit ultraviolet light, or at least not in amounts that would be beneficial. In 1951, a Maryland district court ruled against a company called Master Appliances in a libel suit. The charge was a labeling error and the court found that the device was not an effective treatment or capable of producing the claimed results. At the time, Master Appliances was one of the last manufacturers of violet-ray machines in the United States, and the ruling effectively ended production in this country.

And yet you can still buy violet ray machines today, both the old variety and its
modern equivalent. Current units are primarily marketed to estheticians or sold for home use, and some dermatologists aren’t ready to categorically dismiss their benefits. Although they probably won’t cure indigestion or gray hair, the high frequency can dry out your skin and the ozone kills bacteria, so the machines can help treat acne and other skin conditions. Also, there is the placebo effect. As with all consumer electronics for which outrageous claims are made, the buyer must beware.

part of a continuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the limitless potential of technology.

An abridged version of this article appears in the October 2022 print edition.


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