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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/February 1873/Is Electricity Life?

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 2‎ | February 1873


WE have had many specimens of electricity this summer—more, perhaps, than for fifty years previously. Those, particularly, who lived in the north and west of England, have had a greater demonstration of the powers of this extraordinary agent than in any ten years, rolled into one, of the last quarter of a century. The thunder season began with five days' successive storms in Liverpool and its neighborhood. The first arrived on Monday, soon after the fire which broke out at the Northwestern Hotel had frightened the people half out of their senses. The storms culminated on Thursday, when the fire literally "ran along upon the ground," and the thunder bellowed in the ears of the merchants, so that business was suspended and "high 'Change" was a desert at mid-day. Fortunately, the only serious result was the firing of a house at Birkenhead, stunning the lady inmates, knocking down the chimneys, fusing the bell-wires, and melting the gas-pipes. After a few discharges here and there, with more or less injury to life and property (notably in Manchester), the atmosphere became wonderfully settled, and Monday, the 17th of June, was one of the finest days, and one of the calmest and brightest evenings amid the usual long twilight of the North. Those particularly who were travelling at that time will not soon forget that extraordinary evening, when, by the most peculiar clearness of the atmosphere, every object was brought out with a sharpness which rendered the whole landscape a new sensation. It was the quiet rest of Nature before the battle of the elements which was to follow.

The 18th of June will long be remembered by all the people of the north of England. An Egyptian darkness came down upon the land at mid-day. While the sun was shining, the lightning fired the electric gun at Newcastle three minutes before its time, casting a slur on the chronometer of the best ship lying in the river; and then, like a pall, the clouds descended and literally walked through the town. There was no looking up at the lightning; it was on a level with the eye. The streets were a deluge, and old people and children and furniture were burled along in the torrent. At the height of the storm, twenty-one flashes were counted in a minute, and the thunder rolled without intermission, only enlivened by a loud discharge as from a sixty-four pounder. Wherever there was a window open, the lightning ran in and out in mad revel. Houses were struck in every direction, and windows of whole streets were smashed, though no one knew whether by the hail or the thunder. Families assembled for prayer, believing they had arrived at the final consummation; and all who witnessed this storm whether the population, scared out of their wits for many a day, or the fifteen people who were struck by the lightning, or the five who were killed by it (if they could have returned to give their testimony)—would have decided the question at the head of this paper, and said, "Electricity is death."

And yet "electricity is life." It is the very soul of the universe. It permeates all space, surrounds the earth, and is found in every part of it. Its pristine character is by no means what we have above described. It is naturally the most peaceful agent in creation. It is eminently social, and nestles round the form it inhabits. Unlike many human specimens, it never desires to keep all its good to itself, but is ever ready to diffuse its beneficence. It is only in abnormal conditions, and in unexpected rencontres, that it displays itself in that brilliant flash and that deafening roar with which its majestic force yields up its great spirit.

The ocean, for instance, is compounded of water and salt; one is an electric, the other not. The friction of these causes the phosphorescent appearance so often observed at sea. But, when clouds arise from the ocean and come inland, they are mostly highly charged with electricity, and, being naturally anxious to give up the good things they possess, when they meet clouds not so much electrified, they hand over their surplus commodity, and the deliverance makes the earth and all created things in the neighborhood tremble. Or, if clouds arise from fresh waters, or from land not having much electric fire, the sun himself warms them up in a friendly manner; and, as they become charged with the vital fluid, and, in a drunken sort of way, stumble against the sides of mountains or against other clouds, the same benignant tendency to part with what they have too much of induces them to give up their vital force, and the fire flashes across the sky, and all creation bows before the artillery of the heavens. And then they weep together over the kindly exchange, though their tears do sometimes swell the rivers and produce a number of catastrophes not originally in the programme, as at Manchester and throughout Yorkshire this season; and their friendly distribution of fire sometimes fails to reach the intended cloud, and strikes down towers, churches, trees, and houses, and occasionally destroys a human body not possessed of its proper quantity of electricity. For that is, most probably, the reason why we so often find one person struck by lightning in a place where several others are assembled and escape.

A singular instance of the friendly interchange of civilities among clouds was observable at Bridlington Quay this summer. Those who know the place will remember the long stretch of table-land lying north and south, and facing the ocean. A large cloud over the sea lowered and approached the south point of the table-land. Immediately a flash ascended from the earth to the cloud, and this again occurred more than twenty times as the cloud sailed majestically over the fringe of the table-land from south to north. And now overhead might be seen a succession of minor clouds, arriving from all directions, but all evidently having their eye upon the big cloud that was approaching them, until they hovered round it like a parcel of school-boys round a newly-arrived cake. At length the cake was cut. A flash came out from the big cloud, then another and another; then the nearest clouds flashed out again to those which were farther removed. Down came a deluge of rain, the thunder rolled incessantly, till, the distribution of good things having been completed, the clouds sailed away, and the sun shone again merrily.

That all created living bodies are electric there can be no question; and as little that some persons, animals, and plants, are more electric than others. Two forms of the latter are familiar. Few school-boys are guiltless of experiments on poor puss, from whose much-enduring back electric sparks may be drawn, especially in dry, frosty weather; and most young ladies have admired the elegant sensitive-plant, whose leaves seem to move and feel,

"And with quick horror fly the neighboring hand"

that draws from it the electricity which it contains more than other plants; and its leaves at once fall flaccidly, until a new supply of electric force renders them once more turgid.

But bodies have not only electricity within them, but an electric atmosphere, of the form of the body which it surrounds, and which is attracted by it. Without this, we could not shake hands with a friend, or kiss a lip, without the danger of the excess of electricity flying off and destroying us, or the he or she that we would greet or kiss. Perhaps it is the commingling of these electric atmospheres that makes kissing so nice.

Two conditions of the human body are also illustrative of its varied electrical action. A person who has the small-pox cannot be electrified, while sparks of electricity may be drawn from the body of a patient dying of cholera. In the first instance, it appears that the body is fully charged with its own electricity, since it is impossible to electrify a body beyond a certain degree; in the latter, there seems to be a tendency to part with the electrical force which is essential to the support of life, and which may account for the distressing and rapid weakness of cholera patients.

We have hitherto spoken only of electricity of very high tension, which produces the lightning-spark; and which boys and girls know as the product of the frictional electrical machine, the shock of which their elbow-joints constantly remember. We wish now to refer to something infinitely more quiet and peaceful, and to which we are indebted for many of our greatest luxuries.

Galvani's boy-pupil, amusing himself in his master's laboratory, accidentally bringing the legs of a recently-killed frog into an electric current, the great philosopher perceived at once the manifestation of a new power. It remained only for Volta to invent his pile, consisting of a continued series of zinc and copper plates, with pieces of cloth between, and the foundation and general principles of electro-galvanism and voltaic electricity were laid down.

Frictional electricity has been compared to the high-pressure steam of a locomotive, and voltaic electricity to the steam rising quietly from an open boiler. The chemical action of frictional electricity is very feeble; it has great intensity but little quantity; while the voltaic pile will yield an enormous quantity of electricity but with feeble intensity. Faraday calculated that it would require a Leyden battery to be charged by 800,000 turns of a powerful plate machine to decompose a single grain of water, which by one of Pulvermacher's bands may be done in a few seconds.

It is to this latter agent, voltaic electricity, that we are indebted for electroplate, which has not only rendered our tables more decent, but has supplied real works of art, and statues and ornaments innumerable. That is also the power by which we are enabled to convey our thoughts thousands and thousands of miles, over mountains and through vast oceans, and to converse from our dining-room with our friends in almost every part of the world; while by its agency rocks are blasted, cannons and torpedoes are fired, and even the bells of some of our houses are run**.

Undoubtedly, however, the greatest marvels of this beneficent agent are to be found in its influence on the human frame, and in the cure of disease. But, like every thing that is destined eventually to be accepted by the public as a matter of course, it has had to pass through the usual three stages of contempt, controversy, and adoption. More than a hundred years ago John Wesley said: "How much sickness and pain may be prevented or removed, and how many lives saved, by this unparalleled remedy! And yet with what vehemence has it been opposed! Sometimes by treating it with contempt, as if it were of little or no use; sometimes by arguments, such as they were; and sometimes by such cautions against its ill-effects as made thousands afraid to meddle with it." And he thus sums up his opinion of the medical profession, and their opposition to the use of electricity in disease: "There cannot be in Nature any such thing as an absolute panacea, a medicine that will cure every disease incident to the human body. If there could, electricity would bid fairer for it than any thing in the world. Mr. Lovett is of opinion that the electrical method of treating disorders cannot be expected to arrive at any considerable degree of perfection till administered and applied by the gentlemen of the faculty. Nay, then, quantû de spe decide! all my hopes are at an end. For when will it be administered and applied by them? Truly ad Græcas calendas. Not till the gentlemen of the faculty have more regard to the interest of their neighbors than their own. Therefore, without waiting for what probably never will be, and what indeed we have no reason to expect, let men of sense do the best they can for themselves, as well as for their poor sick helpless neighbors. I doubt not but more nervous disorders would be cured in one year by this single remedy, than the whole English materia medica will cure by the end of the century."

This is hard upon the doctors, yet it only fairly expresses their conduct at that period. They alone, however, are not to be held responsible for the delay in adopting the curative powers of electricity.. Every thing worth having has to force its way to acceptance. A popular writer has well said: "If London could be lit, like the city in the fairy tale, with a single diamond, which rendered it brighter at mid-night than at mid-day, it would take ten years to smoothe away prejudices and conciliate self-interests, so as to admit of the illuminating gem being displayed." All the astonishing cures in the early period of electricity were effected by clumsy and importable machinery, with "shocks" of high-tension current, which are peculiarly disagreeable to some persons. They are indeed like the actual cautery—the hot iron to the wound—when compared with the modern appliances of chain batteries and bands, whose action is so tender that a baby would not wince at it, and which are so portable that the whole apparatus may be carried in the pocket. It has fallen to the man of science, and. not to the medical practitioner, to enforce a belief in the curative powers of electricity upon the public.

About the centre of the fashionable side of Regent Street may be seen the establishment of Mr. Pulvermacher. How many suffering from disease which has baffled the skill of physicians, how many whose nervous feelings render life a burden to them, how many afflicted with tic-douloureux or neuralgia, limping with gout or rheumatism, shivering with palsy, or bent with paralysis, pass that establishment, ignorant that therein most probably lies the mitigation of their suffering, if not their absolute cure!

There can be no question of the curative powers of electricity, since there is now extant a scientific literature, by the most eminent physiologists and thaumaturgists, affirming these powers; but, as we have said, electricity has been clumsy in its apparatus, and unpleasant in its action. These difficulties Mr. Pulvermacher has effectually overcome, to the satisfaction not only of most of the scientific men on the Continent, but also of such men as Sir C. Locock, Sir H. Holland, Sir William Ferguson, Sir J. R. Martin, Dr. Sieveking, Dr. Quain, Dr. Andrew Clarke, Dr. Golding Bird, Dr. Thompson, and a host of other English celebrities.

The great advantage of electrical action is, that it brings relief in a large number of diseases confessedly beyond the reach of the ordinary remedies of the physician. How powerless, for instance, is ordinary medical skill in tic-douloureux! Tic, tic, tic; it is a recurring gentle monosyllable, suggestive of something peculiarly quiet and peaceful; but, madam, that tic shoots through your head like a shot from a nine-pounder, the only difference being that after the "tic" you have your head ready for another, while after the shot you would have no head worth mentioning. Or, see the tears rolling down the cheeks of that pretty girl, whose ideas of love and romance and sentiment are scared away by the wearing pain of neuralgia; or, racking with the pain of gout and rheumatism, the man of middle age passes his restless nights, gaining temporary respite from pain by colchicum, or a fitful repose from morphine, and buying present ease at the cost of an unhappy and painful old age. Why, madam, do you endure this tic? Why, dear young lady, do you pine under neuralgia? Why, old man, do you writhe in gouty or rheumatic agony, when help is so near? It is the vis inertiæ, the unbelief in the face of facts, the idiotic negligence of remedies which appear simple. If they had been bid to do some great thing, would they not have done it? But these little chains, that can be worn like a piece of ribbon, what are they in the face of tic, and neuralgia, and rheumatism? These chain-batteries, that look like pieces of jewelry, what can they do to strengthen the trembling hand, or revive the withering limb?

We will tell you what they are, and what we have seen them do. We have seen this little band, which you seem to think so little of—you, the sufferer from acute pain—we have seen it with only four or five elements—that is, about a foot long—dry and unexcited, placed for one second to the upper plate of an electroscope, and it has produced the phenomena of attraction and repulsion on the gold-leaf. We have seen a band half an inch wide prove the power of the electric current, by passing through two persons and decomposing water in a test-tube. We have seen the little glittering chain-battery, which could be carried in the waistcoat-pocket, produce a continuous current that diffused a perfect glow of warmth through the system; and with a little instrument, called a "contact-breaker," appended to the same chain, we have had the intermittent current, which can be regulated, from a gentle vibratory motion to shocks as powerful as could be gained from a huge or cumbrous battery, and far more powerful than we cared to endure.

But, if these chains and bands are small, they are not only powerful but valuable; and, as money is the great test of value in this eminently commercial country, it may be right to state that £10,000 was the penalty inflicted by the Imperial Court of Appeals in Paris, for the infringement of the patent.

Here, then, we have an electric source divested of all machinery and complication, which could be carried in a cigar-case, and which can be made to furnish both the interrupted and the continuous current in large quantities. It can be set in action by the simplest means—merely a little vinegar and a little water; and it can be applied not only, as in the old mode, to the extremities, but so as to surround the body of the patient.

Although we are not continually made sensible of it, men and women are electrical machines. The researches of Matteucci, Dubois-Reymond, Rutter, and Faraday, prove that there exists, both in the muscles and nerves of human beings and all animals, a natural electricity, independent of mechanical, physical, or chemical actions, exterior or interior; that this electricity is manifested under the form of closed currents circulating along the muscles or nerves; that the presence of this free electricity is subordinate to the state of the life of the animal, and disappears with the vital force; that all parts of the body furnish signs of free positive electricity, especially when the circulation is excited, which signs disappear under the action of cold and in rheumatic fever; that quantity currents of low tension are constantly acting throughout the vascular system, while currents of high tension, but of inferior quantity, are to be found in the cerebral, spinal, and nervous systems, flowing, in a state of rest of the individual, in directions defined by Nature, from the centre to the circumference.

The direction of this current is modified by voluntary muscular contractions, but its flow may be obstructed by hostile, poisonous influences. A deficiency of the powers of the body for this electro-generation, or a deficiency in the conducting powers of the vascular and nervous systems, is to be remedied by an artificial supply of electricity, precisely as we go to the fire to warm ourselves. But, precisely as we do not put ourselves on the fire, but take its heat steadily and lastingly, so we do not now take a dose of electricity sufficient to shake us to pieces, but, by these chains and bands, keep up and sustain a genial warmth of the parts affected, or of the whole system. Nor is there the slightest inconvenience in wearing: the bands, which are made to fit any part of the body, or to surround it altogether, as is advised in cases of general weakness. Having once been wetted with vinegar-and-water, the action commences, and the moisture of the body is sufficient to sustain the excitation of the chain or band for an indefinite time. That the current does exist, even in its dry state, we have already shown by the test of the electroscope.

An interesting experiment, showing the electricity of the human frame, and bearing strongly on the importance of these inventions for restoring the lost or suspended electric powers, was made by Mr. Rutter, of Black Rock, Brighton. Having brought the two ends of the conducting wires of a galvanometer into two basins of water, a lady, acknowledged to be in consumption, placed a hand in each basin, and grasped two pieces of wood—with the left hand lightly to complete the contact, while her right pressed the wood firmly with muscular contraction. The needle of the galvanometer at once deflected from twelve to fifteen degrees, but in a few moments came back to zero; and no muscular effort on her part could deflect it. A stalwart black-smith was then brought in and the same experiment tried, but with all his muscular contraction the needle was only deflected about 5 degrees. He was then made to give 25 strokes on an anvil with his sledge-hammer, and when he afterward repeated the experiment the needle deflected at once 12 degrees.

By this experiment two things are shown—that, in a state of disease, the body readily parts with, or rather has not the power to retain, its electricity; and that, in a state of health, muscular exertion of considerable severity is requisite to cause it to pass out of the system. There is just room, however, in this experiment, for the captious spirit to object that some chemical action took place by the use of the water. Mr. Pulvermacher has improved on the experiment, by using simply two metallic handles of the same kind of metal, when precisely the same effect is produced upon the galvanometer.

It was suggested, in 1850, by the writer of this article, that the proximate cause of cholera might be found in the rapid passage of electricity from the human frame; the peculiarity of the atmosphere, known to exist during cholera, favoring the passage of that which is the life itself to the human system.

Since that time, wonderful cures of cholera have been recorded by Dr. Godwin, of Elboeuf, Dr. Defontaine, of Mons, Dr. Atkinson, and others. The latter, on one of his cases, remarks: "It was indeed singular to notice the visible quantity of electric fluid which continually discharged itself on the approach of any conducting body to the surface of the skin of a patient laboring under the collapse stage." M. Andraud states that at the height of the epidemic in Paris, in 1849, it was impossible to obtain from the electrical machine any thing but slight cracklings without sparks, and on the 7th of June it was quite dumb. He continued his observations, and on the 9th the machine at the least touch rendered with facility most lively sparks. It is remarkable that, in the six days following the 8th of June, the mortality in Paris fell regularly from 667 to 355. It is now only about 150 years since electricity was discovered, not more than 120 since the discovery of the Leyden jar enabled electricians to concentrate the vital fluid. What has it not done for us in that time! And while it was so decried at first, and has met with impediment after impediment, we now accept what it gives us, so quietly and so much as a matter of course, that a few days ago the announcement that electric communication was completed with the antipodes called forth nothing more than a short paragraph in the newspapers. May we not hope, then, the time has come when not only the scientific medical man, but every practitioner, will look for himself into the curative powers of electricity?

Every thing that is good, however, in the present day is sure to have a host of empirical imitators, and the inventions of which we have spoken are no exception to this rule. These chains and bands are really formed on scientific principles, giving the patient the benefit of the curative powers of electricity in a convenient form. There are many spurious appliances under the name of magnetic, electro-magnetic, and other high-sounding titles, that get confounded with the continuous current of electricity, which alone, in the opinion of the highest medical authorities, can have any effect on the diseases we have enumerated. The mischief done by these spurious imitations is incalculable, and they lead, not only to disappointment, but have a discouraging effect upon the public mind.

Judging by the extraordinary cases of cure by the use of these chains and bands, now well authenticated by the highest professional authorities, John Wesley was indeed prophetic when he wrote in 1759: "It is highly probable a timely use of this means might prevent, before they were thoroughly formed, and frequently even then remove, some of the most painful and dangerous distempers—cancers and scrofulous humors in particular—though they will yield to no other medicine yet discovered. It is certain nothing is so likely, by accelerating the contained fluids, to dilate and open the passages, as well as divide the coagulated particles of blood, that so the circulation may be again performed. And it is a doubt whether it would not be of more use, even in mortification, than either the bark or any other medicine in the world."—Belgravia.