This week we’re coming back to the infamous war of the currents, which took over scientific and public debate in the 1880s and 90s. One of the things that happened during that time was “the wire panic” spread by the New York press with such headlines as “Death by Wire” and peculiar cartoons. The articles were aimed at George Westinghouse’s company, the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC), and the electrical wires taking over the city like a giant spider’s web. As we know, the war against Westinghouse and AC was mainly fueled by his rival, Thomas Edison, whose official aim was to protect the people’s lives, but in reality also to promote his electrical system and ruin competition.
Edison wasn’t completely wrong in his efforts though; the AC system at the time lacked appropriate regulations and led to several deadly incidents. The most known involved John Feeks, a Western Union lineman working in Manhattan. On October 11, 1889, Feeks died seconds after he touched a telegraph line that had been shorted with a high-voltage AC line. And even though the 19th century was an extremely dangerous time for industry workers (e.g., 1 out of 100 railroad brakemen died annually in the US), that accident was witnessed by hundreds of mortified people, who watched Fleek’s body smoldering for almost an hour. The incident was highly reported by the press, intensifying the public’s fear of the mysterious, inherently dangerous nature of electricity and electrical wires. A heated debate over the regulation of the electric industry ensued, along with several weeks of complete darkness in New York as the overhead AC lines were cut down.
Shout-out to Andrzej, who reprises his role as a Victorian hatter in our anti-wire poster inspired by a 1889 cartoon entitled “The Unrestrained Demon.”
In the early 1880s, an electric light revolution started to take over big American cities. Two electric power transmission systems were introduced: street lamps utilizing high-voltage alternating current (AC) and indoor lighting using low-voltage direct current (DC). The latter was heavily promoted by Thomas Edison, especially when his company was suddenly threatened by new competition: George Westinghouse and his transformers and wire system enabling AC to be used for indoor lighting. The introduction of this new system started the so-called war of the currents, in which the Edison Electric Light Company tried to besmirch Westinghouse’s name and solutions by sparking fear in the public. And while at the time it was true the AC system could be extremely dangerous, the actions taken by some of the people involved were questionable to say the least and involved lying to the press, blackmail, and even killing animals.
This comic was inspired by Andrzej who won the possibility to become one of the characters in a local charity event! If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on Veinity Fair Patreon.
Have you ever wondered where does the phrase “blowing smoke up your ass” come from? Unlike other sayings, this one is quite… literal. We have to go back a little bit further in time than usual, though.
In the eighteen century, it was quite common to attempt resuscitation of the “apparently drowned” by blowing tobacco smoke into the rectum, which was supposed to warm up the unlucky victim and stimulate their body. At the birth of the method, the smoke had to be blown through a tube by mouth, but, thankfully, later special bellows were introduced to help out with the task.
The Royal Humane Society of London (previously called The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning) provided tobacco smoke rescue kits which were distributed along the river Thames. At this point you may ask yourselves “Why didn’t they think about performing mouth-to-mouth”? As it turns out, the mouth-to-mouth method was known by many people, especially midwives, but was considered “vulgar” at the time.
Quackery is one of the books in which you can find this and many other morbid curiosities 🙂
In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:
“In the winter of 1889 and 1890, I cannot recall the month, the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial, these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. (…) After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.”
The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands, but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister.
The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.
On August 8, 1894, John and William Kellog were busy preparing granola for the patients of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where the older brother (John) was the superintendent. No sooner had they cooked a batch of wheat than they were called to attend some other pressing matters. After some time they discovered that the wheat had gone stale, but they decided to process it further anyway. The wheat broke into flakes, which was quite surprising, but the brothers didn’t want to waste any food so they roasted the pieces and served them to the sanitarium patients. The new flaked cereal quickly became a success, so much so that the patients would even buy it from the sanitarium to bring back home!
This marvelous turn of events encouraged the brothers to start mass production of the cereal. To increase the popularity of the product even further, William proposed adding sugar for taste. And that’s when the infamous family feud began. You see, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church of which doctor John Kellogg was a devout follower. He was especially focused on the church’s views on diet and health, which included promoting sexual abstinence. But what does it have to do with cereal? Well, John’s aim was to serve food that was as bland as possible so that it could serve as an anaphrodisiac and discourage any sexual activity, in particular masturbation which he saw as a deadly habit. He once even said that “neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism.” Now imagine how John could have responded to his brother’s idea of adding sweet sweet sugar to corn flakes! This event started a legal battle that ended in Will starting his own company which we know today as Kellogg’s.
I hope you’ll think of this tale of two brothers next time you enjoy your sweetened, mundane bowl of cereal.
If you want to learn more about the views and practices of John Kellogg, check out this Sawbones episode. Fair warning though, John was a eugenicist with very disturbing ideas for “treating” some of his patients.
It is said that the air transport of patients began during the siege of Paris in 1870, where wounded soldiers were supposed to be evacuated to safety by hot air balloons. However, some scholars aren’t convinced that that’s what really happened and link this historical rumor to the popularity of Jules Verne’s stories about balloons. Regardless of the truth, by the end of the nineteenth century there were at least a couple of people who proposed air transportation of patients.
One of them was a Dutchman called M. de Mooy, who designed a system in which a stretcher could be suspended from a balloon, which in turn could be gently steered by horses in the right direction. So, was this idea ever really applied outside of experiments? I’d love to see some primary sources on the subject, let me know if you know more about balloon ambulances. 🙂 In the meantime, check out this Sawbones episode on ambulance history.
Also, would you like to be transported this way in case of an emergency?
The summer of 1858 was exceptionally hot for Londoners – the temperatures averaged 34–36 °C (93–97 °F) in the shade, reaching even 48 °C (118 °F) in the sun. This unbearable weather was however overshadowed by something even more unbearable: the Great Stink. 🤢
The source of this unbelievable stink was the Thames, which served as a sewer for all human, factory, and slaughterhouse waste in the area. As the London population doubled in the first half of the 19th century, so did the problems surrounding the river that served as the main source of “fresh” water. Apart from the offensive smells, Thames was also the source of cholera outbreaks and other diseases. The situation was dire and many people, including journalists and scientists, urged the government to take appropriate action even before the events of 1858.
In 1848 the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was supposed to deal with the problem. A prominent engineer called Joseph Bazalgette created plans for a new sewerage system which was estimated to cost £5.4 million. These plans weren’t accepted by the government, which even suggested that cleaning up the river wasn’t really their problem, even though they had to use scented handkerchiefs, tobacco, and curtains covered with chloride of lime to protect themselves from the putrid smells in the Palace of Westminster. 💩
When the Great Stink of 1858 knocked at the House of Commons’ doors, there was no excuse to postpone dealing with it any longer. As the level of the river dropped because of the heatwave, “a huge pile of human waste was left piled up right next to Parliament.” Benjamin Disraeli described it as a “Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors” and proposed a bill supporting the modernization of the sewer system based on the Bazalgette’s plans. 🥰
👻👻👻 This comic was made thanks to Mateusz, who won the possibility of becoming the main character in a local charity event. Thanks! 💜