Of Electric Belts and Bands Regent Street (West End)

01

During the late eighteenth century whilst teaching at the University of Bologna, Luigi Galvani investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals (frogs). He found that when an external charge was applied to the muscles, opposite electrical charges on the inside and outside surfaces would cause an attraction which in turn produced a muscle contraction. He summarized his observations in 1791 in an essay entitled ‘De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius’. Electricity sparked interest in European medical circles. Once again Italy seemed to be pointing the way in research.

02

On 18 January 1803 George Forster was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his wife and child by drowning them in London’s Paddington Canal. The fairness of the trial (in retrospect) has been questioned and it remains far from certain that Forster committed the crime. Shortly after his execution the body was taken to a nearby house and handed to Giovanni Aldini to be used for a scientific experiment. The Italian scientist and nephew of Luigi Galvani performed a public demonstration of the electro-stimulation technique on the corpse’s deceased limbs. He aimed at convincing sceptic colleagues of the scientific value of galvanism. The famous Newgate Calendar (a detailed account of public executions outside the prison) reported that life re-appeared in the dead body, one eye opened, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs were set in motion. Those present were shocked. As Forster was sentenced to hang until he was dead, it was assumed that a re-execution needed to be performed. Galvanism made a huge impact. The medical use of direct current became the rage of the day. Vocal members of the sect of ‘galvanists’ promised that the shocks and sparks of electricity would turn the long held dream of a miracle cure into reality. The technique was subsequently applied to needles, hence the first form of electro-acupuncture pioneered by Louis-Joseph Berlioz at the Paris medical school in 1810. It was inevitable that theories about the ‘spark of life’ would touch upon literature. The notion of bringing an organism to life by the use of electricity was explicitly stated in the 1831 revised edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. The novel reflects the interest in and uncertainty about the boundary between life and death by suggesting that this dividing line might be breached. By the time Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary in 1856, such fundamental questions had receded because electro-therapy had become an almost routine medical treatment. 

03

When the story was serialized in La Revue de Paris between October and December 1856, public prosecutors attacked it for being obscene. The author was taken to court. After Flaubert’s acquittal in February 1857 the novel became a bestseller when it was published in two volumes three months later. An intriguing character in the story is Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist, and rival of Charles Bovary. He is vehemently anti-clerical and practices medicine without a license. A rather pompous character, he is a man with a strong erotic appetite (shared by his bourgeois wife). In order to improve his performance Homais wears Pulvermacher chains (chapter 11):

‘Il s’éprit d’enthousiasme pour les chaînes hydro-électriques Pulvermacher ; il en portait une lui-même ; et, le soir, quand il retirait son gilet de flanelle, madame Homais restait tout éblouie devant la spirale d’or sous laquelle il disparaissait, et sentait redoubler ses ardeurs pour cet homme plus garrotté qu’un Scythe et splendide comme un mage.’

[He was enthusiastic about the hydro-electric Pulvermacher chains; he wore one himself, and when at night he took off his flannel vest, Madame Homais stood quite dazzled before the golden spiral beneath which he was hidden, and felt her ardour redouble for this man more bandaged than a Scythian, and splendid as one of the Magi].

04

Flaubert seems to assume in this passage that his readers would be familiar with this allusion to Pulvermacher. To the contemporary reader the name may be somewhat of a mystery. The reference nevertheless hides a fascinating aspect of European migration and assimilation in the later nineteenth century.

Electrical engineer Isaak Louis [Lewis] Pulvermacher was born Isak Löbl Pulvermacher on 15 March 1815 in Breslau into a Jewish family. He may have spent his younger years in Vienna and signed later documents with ‘from Vienna’; he certainly studied at the Technischen Universität Wien (1846/7). He too became an enthusiastic follower of the Galvanist school. By 1850 he had moved to London. He invented and marketed a string of new instruments and was famous for the Pulvermacher [hydro-electric] chain. The instrument was reported as a useful source of electricity for medical and scientific purposes (and particularly popular amongst quack practitioners). He established the firm J.L. Pulvermacher at no. 194 Regent Street from where he produced and sold electric belts for every part of the human anatomy: limbs, abdomen, chest, and neck – sometimes all worn at the same time. Among Charles Dickens’s late correspondence is a letter dated 3 June 1870 to Pulvermacher’s firm with the request for a ‘voltaic band across his right foot’ as a remedy against neuralgia. Pulvermacher even had a model designed to attach to the male genitals which was claimed to cure impotence and erectile dysfunction. He promoted a theory that loss of ‘male vigour’ was a consequence of masturbation in early life. Pulvermacher’s device was meant to address this shortcoming. Flaubert seemed to hint at this aspect of male potency when he describes Homais’s pride in his sexual prowess.

05

Pulvermacher made a fortune out of his belt and band business. The family home was Windmill House, located in one of the most exclusive spots in Hampstead. There he died in September 1884. The process of assimilation of this family of German-speaking Jewish immigrants was quick and profound.  was born in 1882. In the course of a career as an able journalist, he was appointed editor-in-chief and member of the Board of Directors of the Daily Mail. In 1933 he objected to the sympathetic leanings towards Hitler by the Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere and resigned. A month later he was engaged by the Daily Telegraph. It took a generation for the Pulvermachers to become part of the powerful matrix of official and social relations known as the British establishment.

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