Believe It or Not!, in the early 1900s, it was popularly believed that small doses of electricity could cure many ailments, from rheumatism to baldness. Shock machines, like this one, were often bought by ailing persons so they could administer their own treatment without calling for the local doctor.
To “take the medicine,” handles were placed on the ailing part of the body, then the patient’s body was used as a conductor as electric current passed between the probes. Prominent at a time when electricity was hard to come by, these shock machines usually generated their own, or came with a battery. Existing far before the AA battery was standard, devices like the Sibley Voltamp came with a custom battery. Models with generators included a handle that would be cranked to stimulate current.
The tempting nature of these devices to sick and ailing people remained strong for some time, however. With easy to use instructions, a treatment they could feel, and grandiose promises of a cure, people in desperate need of medical attention were often bereft of skepticism and easily hoodwinked into anything that promised relief. One of the ways medical officials were able to destroy such machines, was by finding that they did not have an appropriate level of instruction on the use of the device, and could thus receive a court decree to destroy it. Quacks, however, were quickly able to combat this by ensuring the instructions were printed right on the machine.
Despite their popularity, shock machines eventually fell out of favor as regulators made them harder to make, and people finally started listening to real doctors. The mild shocks produced by the machine itself were harmless, but—as with any quack device—the real damage resulted in illnesses going without treatment. When a woman in Chicago refused breast cancer surgery in favor of using a shock machine, the device responsible was brought to court. Despite being defended by an education director and chiropractor, the court eventually found the manufacturer at fault, issuing the maximum fine of $1,000.