Dr. McLoughlin's Ramsden Electrifying Machine

Doctor operating electrifying machine which is a large glass wheel turning inside a brass frame with fur like brushes rubbing on glass wheelThe great era of medical electricity began with the development of the static-electricity machine in the latter part of the 17th century and culminated in the latter part of the 19th century. Although there was much quackery associated with medical electricity, there were some very useful applications.

By the late 1800s four distinct types of medical electricity were in use: electrostatic, galvanic, faradic, and high-frequency. Static electricity began to be applied in the early 1700s but more especially after 1745 when the Leyden jar (capacitor) was developed. Because of Franklin's studies with this agent, static electricity became known as franklinic electricity in medicine.

Fort William's electrifying machine used Leyden jars and franklinic electricity to cure a variety of aches and pains including rheumatism. It was also employed for insomnia, hysteria, and the improvement of vision, hearing, taste, and smell.

The electrifying machine was housed in the Fort's Hospital and was applied in three different ways:


  • 1. General electrification for general debility:

In this method, the patient sat on an insulating chair and was connected to the positive terminal of a static-electricity machine; the negative was connected to the ground. Soon, all of the exposed hair on the body rose. If the procedure was done in the dark, a blue halo (corona discharge) surrounded the patient, who experienced a feeling of warmth and exhilaration. The pulse quickened and often saliva and perspiration were secreted. After treatment, the patient usually desired to sleep, and usually did.


  • 2. Drawing sparks from an electrified patient to extract disease:

This mode of treatment was designed to localize the stimulus more effectively and involved holding a grounded conductor over the ailing region of the body.


  • 3. Discharging the Leyden jar through electrodes to stimulate nerves and muscles:

This therapy was applied by Benjamin Franklin to paralytics. This technique, of course, might cure hysterical paralysis but not paralysis due to nerve or muscle disease.

The use of electrotherapy today in CPR treatment (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) shows that the early practitioners of medical electricity had some scientific basis for the therapies they developed. The fact that Fort William had an electrifying machine indicates that medical treatment at North West Company post was able to incorporate some of the more recent advances in science for the benefit of the its inhabitants.

The information in this entry was taken from: Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer 1982) Electric Quarterly.