The Electric Age

10 May 2017
Image of Lalita Kaplish
Lalita Kaplish

Electricity transformed the lives of the Victorians. Inspired by its spectacular properties, they devised some ingenious and bizarre ways to use it.

Human beings have always been aware of electrical phenomena, but the end of the 18th century saw a series of discoveries and inventions that led to a new scientific understanding of electricity.

In 1791 Luigi Galvani published his discovery that the nervous system used electricity to send signals to the muscles and organs. In 1800 Alessandro Volta’s battery, or voltaic pile, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, provided a more reliable, chemical source of electricity than earlier electrostatic machines. The realisation that electromagnetism was a unified phenomenon followed soon afterwards. In 1821 Michael Faraday demonstrated induction and the basic principle of the electric motor.

While the turn of the century saw rapid progress in electrical science, the late 19th century ushered in a new electrical age. Electricity was put to practical use in telegraphy, lighting, industry and medicine. And inventors, entrepreneurs and entertainers were ready to take full advantage of the public’s craze for all things electric, with spectactular public demonstrations, lectures and shows.

Electrical products flooded the market. Some stood the test of time, while others had little use other than to make their creators rich. In medicine, electrical products came with added concerns: some were useless but harmless, yet they took advantage of desperate and vulnerable people. Others were downright dangerous but a few went on to become genuine therapeutic tools.

Here’s a gallery of some of the weird and wonderful devices that the Electric Age inspired. Some of them might seem familiar….

Image of Lalita Kaplish
Lalita Kaplish
Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.