Civil War Artifact Across the Decades: Davis & Kidder’s Patent Magneto-Electric Machine
William T Campbell, Ed.D, RN
Originally published in 2017 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 22, No.2
Recently an ad aired on TV for the Aleve® Direct Therapy Drug Free TENS Device. TENS is short for “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation” and is today often used for the relief of lower back pain and other neuromuscular pain. New technology? No, this therapy has been around since the 1960’s either worn by the patient and under the supervision of a physician with a prescription regulated compact device or administered as therapy under the care and application of a chiropractor. A small box with batteries would generate an electrical current, often controlled by the patient and/or provider, with current transmitted to electrode patches adhered to the skin, and therefore delivering a small electric current to the underlying nerves. It is approved as safe and shown to be effective for the relief of some forms of pain.
This device however is not new and the technology has been around for decades. The older versions of these electrical nerve stimulation devices date back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and are often seen in antique shops or found on-line, sometimes with a tag or under the key words of “quack medicine.” These older versions are questionable and may have had a slightly different intended use. There is a fine line, yet different outcome, between the lower intensity TENS unit (for pain relief) of today that stimulates sensory nerves versus the higher intensity EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) which stimulates motor nerves. The goal of today’s TENS is to block pain transmission and to release endorphins, not to contract muscles as in EMS. Some of these machines operate by a manual crank, some by dry-cells, and rarely one is even seen with wet cells. The earliest ones were used in research in the 1830’s to stimulate muscles and were of the wet cell version (Duchenne, 1871). But, they all direct electricity towards nerves and produce stimulation.
Where did this device originate, based on what or whose theory, and was it available in the Civil War? The use of electricity for neuromuscular purposes was pioneered in France by Guillaume Duchenne. He disseminated his research, theories, uses, and compared machines in A Treatise on Localized Electrization, and its Application to Pathology and Therapeutics published in 1855, followed by a 2nd edition in 1861. Both were available only in French. It was then released in its 3rd edition in 1871 and transcribed into English by Herbert Tibbits. Duchenne discussed the theory, the types, the various uses, and many applications of electricity for neuromuscular diseases and research. He utilized static electricity (of little use), then wet cells, later manually generated current, and finally dry cells for his research. Some of the earliest batteries and machines were designed by Duchenne (1871). He is probably best known for the use of his name to identify the most common and worst form of muscular dystrophy.
Few physicians of the time in the US were aware of his research and findings. This field was virtually unknown in pre-war America (Adams, 1952). One with some knowledge of the field was S. Weir Mitchell who would later become a pioneer of neurology in the U. S. Doctors Mitchell, Morehouse, and Keen stated in Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of the Nerves (1864) “After a year of great experience in the use of electricity, we are still satisfied of the essential correctness of almost every proposition on the subject which this distinguished physician [Duchenne] has laid down” (p.136). Even so it remained controversial as Mitchell also said “…the most efficient, is perhaps the most overrated and underrated of all the medical armament. Need we add that we refer to electricity?” (p.136).
The artifact under examination here is the Davis & Kidder’s Patent Magneto-Electric Machine (see figure 1). It is an early type of a TENS/EMS unit. The mechanics are housed in a wooden box 10” x 4.5” x 4.5”. Two solenoids (fine wires tightly wrapped around a metal core) are rotated by a series of gears at 180 degrees to each other within the field of a very large magnet which measures 8” x 3.75”. The spinning and rotating of the solenoids is powered by a manual crank. There are 2 terminals passing external to the box as well as an adjustment knob which slides to change the power of the magnet. The device comes with 2 metal electrodes about 4” long which attach with insulated wires. Wet sponges are often secured to the electrodes for comfort and improved contact. When cranked the device generates alternating electrical current (AC).
Since the one shown in the photo is missing the required belt the electrical output cannot be measured, but an electrical engineer upon examining it stated that 100 volts and 50-100 mA are possible. Based on the projected electrical output it is most likely that this one was intended for nerve stimulation and muscle contraction (EMS), not for pain relief. The unit includes the original label in the lid (see figure 2) and states the patent date as Aug. 1st, 1854! The label also states that it is “for nervous diseases,” has 2 testimonies as to its effectiveness, has directions for its use, and an additional distributor’s label of H. W. Hunter, Optician, New York.
With a patent date of 1854, this device could have been around in the Civil War, but was this technology used? During the Civil War, Turner’s Lane Hospital in Philadelphia opened in August 1862 and was one of the first neurological specialty hospitals (Bollet, 2002; Devine, 2014). It followed Christian Street Hospital which was the first for nervous disorders (Devine, 2014). The surgeon in charge was Charles Alden, but it was the team of physicians located there that we often hear about. The very enthusiastic and motivated S. Wier Mitchell, George Read Morehouse, and W. W. Keen conducted research into neuromuscular diseases and injuries and various applications of electricity throughout most of the war. After the war Keen would help develop the field of neurosurgery and perfected many neurosurgical techniques (Bollet, 2002).
Jacob DaCosta was also there at the same time but was occupied with his cardiac studies (Bollet, 2002; Devine, 2014; Taylor, 1913). They used electricity for diagnosis, prognosis, rating severity, and treatment. Treatment included preventing or reducing muscle atrophy and strengthening or retraining muscles after injury, prolonged immobilization, or surgery. Mitchell was using it regularly and detailed its use in their book and in his case studies. Their patients were soldiers who had suffered some form of neuromuscular injury often related to gunshot wounds or blunt force trauma caused by shot or shell, some had amputations, and many were partially to totally paralyzed. Many case studies were recorded and a number of castings and specimens were preserved for the Army Medical Museum. Not only did Mitchell personally conduct research, but he strongly encouraged through his book and with Circular #6 that other physicians engage in, document, and collect to enrich the profession since there was no guide for treatment (Devine, 2014).
Mitchell et al (1864) relates one such case study: Sgt. A. D. Marks of Co. C, 3rd Maryland Volunteers who was shot in the neck and in the chest at Chancellorsville. When Mitchell examined him his left arm was cold, mottled, swollen, paralyzed below the elbow, atrophied, had some sensation, but also an intense burning pain. Initially examinations with electricity caused great pain and the need for injections of morphine. After eleven months of electrical treatments, morphine injections, and physical therapy he was discharged pain free and with partial use of the arm and hand (p.148). Devine (2014) also related and discusses a number of the Turner’s Lane Hospital neuro and electrical cases, many with positive outcomes.
In the book Mitchell et al (1864) even critique the state of the equipment available for this new science. For hospital use the electro-magnetic instruments (AC) are preferred while for private practice the electro-galvanic machines (DC) are better. The Chloride of Silver Dry Cell Battery Company of Baltimore made one such DC version (see figure 3). Duchenne (1871) discussed the chloride of silver battery in his book. The patent dates of 1886-1896 noted on the label (see figure 4) indicate this example is post-war. Mitchell mentions they use Duchenne batteries which are too costly, but American ones do not have enough power. He states that machines made by Neff of Philadelphia and Hall of Boston are cheaper, but less efficient, and are their choice.
Other first-person accounts of the use of electricity for medical treatments are noted for this time period. Mrs. Hill in her Journal – Civil War Reminiscences (1980) tells of her husband, Major E. M. Hill, a Union Engineer in the action at Corinth, who comes home on a thirty day furlough before the summer campaign of 1862 because he was “not at all well.” “After two weeks of electrical treatment, which then is in its infancy, and salt water baths, and the perfect quiet and rest, great improvement was manifested” (p.100). His diagnosis is never revealed.
The electrical nerve stimulation was successfully used by Mitchell, Morehouse, and Keen at Turner’s Lane Hospital, where they are acknowledged as the founders of the medical specialty of Neurology and Neurosurgery. Then, falling out of favor in the 1880’s and labeled as quack medicine into the 20th century, it returned to favor in the 1960’s as a treatment option used by physicians and chiropractors for pain relief, and now in the 21st century as an over the counter readily available treatment for lower back pain.
Disclaimer: The author is neither employed by, on contract with, speaking for, prescribes, sells, or uses this or any of these devices, nor has any connection or relationship with Aleve® or Bayer.
Adams, G. W. (1952). Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War. New York: H. Schuman.
Bollet, A. (2002). Civil War Medicine: Challenges and Triumphs. Tucson, AZ: Galen Press.
Devine, S. (2014). Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Science. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Duchenne, G. B. and Tibbits, H. (translator). (1871). A Treatise on Localized Electrization, and Its Application to Pathology and Therapeutics. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston.
Hill, S. and Krug, M. M. (Ed.). (1980). Mrs. Hill’s Journal – Civil War Reminiscences. Chicago: R. R. Donnelly & Sons.
Mitchell, S. W., Morehouse, G., and Keen, W. (1864). Gunshot Wounds and other Injuries of Nerves. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
Taylor, F. (1913). Philadelphia in the Civil War 1861-1865. Published by the City.
About the Author
Dr. William Campbell is a board member of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Dr. Campbell is also a RN and an Associate Professor at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD, where he teaches pediatrics and the history of nursing. He holds a Doctor of Education and 3 undergraduate degrees from the University of Delaware. A member of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, he has served as a volunteer, a docent at the Pry House, and has spoken at several workshops and conferences. He lives in Delaware with his wife, also a RN and nursing instructor.