Think the do-it-yourself transcranial direct current stimulation movement (DIY tDCS) is a technologically savvy and hip creation of 21st century neural engineering? MIT graduate student Anna Wexler has an excellent and fun review of late 19th and early 20th century electrical stimulation devices, namely the “medical battery” designed for home use.
Fig. 2 (Wexler, 2016). An advertisement for one of the few consumer medical batteries that used only direct current (1881, Frank Leslie's Newspaper). Courtesy of the Bakken.
Some highlights (Wexler, 2016):
- The use of a portable electrotherapy device known as the “medical battery” bears a number of striking similarities to the modern-day use of tDCS.
- Many features related to the home use tDCS—a do-it-yourself movement, anti-medical establishment themes, conflicts between lay and professional usage—are a repetition of themes that occurred a century ago with regard to the medical battery.
- Viewed in historical context, the contemporary use of electrical stimulation at home is not unusual, but rather the latest wave in a series of ongoing attempts by lay individuals to utilize electricity for therapeutic purposes.
One notable difference, however, is that contemporary devices make the distinction between cranial and non-cranial stimulation, whereas the medical battery could be applied to anything that ails you: headache, backache, kidney pain, “female weakness”, “premature decline” in men, indigestion, you name it.
Old timey devices designed specifically for the head were unusual, but here are some figures from the patent for a jaunty derby hat that houses a collection of medical batteries. Alas, it never went to market.
Fig. 7. (Wexler, 2016). A medical battery mounted into a hat as depicted in a 1904 patent by George. F. Webb.
Webb (1904): “My invention relates to batteries, my more particular object being to produce a light and compact battery suitable for medical use and capable of ready adjustment without regard to the amount of current to be supplied.”
Clearly, the precursors to Silicon Valley venture capitalists missed out on a great investment. OpenBCI Derby Kickstarter, anyone?
Wexler, A. (2016). Recurrent themes in the history of the home use of electrical stimulation: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and the medical battery (1870–1920) Brain Stimulation DOI: 10.1016/j.brs.2016.11.081
Sleek and stylish design, then and now.
Fig. 8. (Wexler, 2016). Left: advertisement for the Konzentrator, circa 1927–1928, courtesy of the American Medical Association. Right: Thync electrical stimulation device, 2015, courtesy of Thync, Inc.
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