The history of the Actina, an “electric pocket battery” claimed to cure eye and ear diseases, rightly began in a manufacturing factory in Bristol, England. There, William C. Wilson, born in 1837 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, started a company in the 1870s selling “galvano-magnetic clothing.” After working as an apprentice cabinet maker and an auctioneer in London, Wilson recognized that the future resided in the remarkable benefits of electricity: galvanism was becoming medicine’s most powerful remedy. And everyone wanted to reap the benefits.
The company in Bristol employed upwards of fifty young girls. They sewed cotton and linen fabrics to the magnetized steel plates attached to strips of copper and zinc that made up Wilson’s “Magnetic Body Wear.” To protect his investments and assure his credibility as an inventor, Wilson filed a U.K. patent in 1879. Later, after immigrating to the United States and settling in New York City in 1880, he would place advertisements for his “Wilsonia” line of magnetic garments, which were protected by an 1881 U.S. patent.
Robert K. Waits, in The Medical Electricians, tells tale of Wilson’s legal battles in New York City.[i] Accusations of fraudulent testimonials, exaggerated advertised claims, and libel suits eventually resulted in Wilson losing his Wilsonia Magnetic Company by 1883, leaving him in serious debt with multiple creditors. To avoid the creditors, Wilson moved to Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia during February of 1886 when Wilson registered a trademark for a new product, the “Actina.”
The device was a small steel vial, 3inches long with screw stoppers at both ends—supposedly one end cured eye ailments, the other ear troubles, and the both worked simultaneously to cure a variety of irritable illnesses. The principal medicinal ingredients were housed inside the cylinder: oil of mustard, oil of sassafras, belladonna extract, ether, amyl nitrate, and even the alkaloid atropine. The vapor from these ingredients could open up deposits in the ear and eye that were causing disease(s).
One of the earliest advertisements for the Actina appeared in an 1885 issue of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly. Declaring the device the “Wonder of the 19th Century,” the advertisement promised a cure for cataracts, catarrh, as well as scores of other eye and ear diseases. Advertisements assured prospective consumers that the device was trademarked and that a patent was applied. Wilson, re-branding himself as “Professor,” though he had no medical training or qualifications, eventually relocated once again, this time to Kansas City in 1890. There, he renamed the company as “N.Y. & London Electric Association” and energetically advertised the Actina out of his large office. The device was a marvelous “pocket battery,” an “electric battery” and an “ozone battery,” that could serve both the young and the old. In addition to deafness and blindness, the Actina could cure a host of ailments, including hay-fever, headaches, and neuralgia. Wilson associated the device to the wonder of electricity, as the rims of the device were zinc and copper-plated; supposedly, the combination of these two metals caused a “bi-metallic” reaction, thus invoking a galvanic treatment.
Wilson was granted a patent for the Actina in 1886. Curiously, the patent makes no mention of electrical properties or the galvanic benefits of the device. It is described as a medicinal vaporizing device—i.e. an inhaler.
The N.Y. & London Electric Association prospered by the turn-of-the-century. The Actina was sold for $10, which, as Waits points out, was an enormous sum: men’s suits were selling in department stores at the time for $10-$15! $10 was also the average week’s pay for most men.[ii] Consumers could write to the company in response to an advertisement, and receive the Actina through mail-order. The firm’s output and income especially increased when the instruments were returned, as instructed, for “battery recharges” every four months at a cost of $1.00—i.e. reloading the cylinder with the oils.
By 1896, claims about the ability of Actina began to raise questions, particularly amongst ophthalmologists. During the 1900s, consumer complaints about the device also drew the attention of the American Medical Association (AMA). In his series, “The Great American Fraud,” published in Collier’s Magazine in 1905-06, Samuel Hopkins Adams criticized the American public’s reliance on patent medicine and the boastful claims of advertised medical goods. The Actina was declared as “[e]asily first amongst the mechanical fakes,” even though it was estimated by the AMA that over 1100,000 were sold since the N.Y. & London Electric Association was established.
Pressure from consumers, medical experts, and the AMA investigative staff resulted in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Wilson’s company was repeatedly cited in the legislation proceedings, as examples of quackery at its most notorious. Despite the negative press. Wilson continued to advertise and sell the Actina, though with minor changes, first renaming his firm as the “Actina Appliance Company,” and then advertising the Actina without claims to its electrical benefits.
Nevertheless, the company still drew complaints of fraud. On May 24, 1914, Judge W.H. Lamar recommended to the Postmaster-General to place a fraud order against the firm to prevent mail-order service. A year later, the U.S. Federal Government launched a case against the Actina Appliance Company. During the three-day hearing in Washington, D.C., testimony demonstrated the Actina had no electrical properties. Wilson never showed up for the trial, but the company’s president, John Foran, admitted that the device was not electric and neither he nor Wilson had the medical education they claimed to do so in advertisements.[iii]
Despite its 20-year success in the medical marketplace, the Actina was eventually deemed by the Federal Government as absolutely worthless. It eventually disappeared from advertised sections of periodicals after 1916.
[i] Robert K. Waits, The Medical Electricians: Dr. Scott and his Victorian Cohorts in Quackery (Sunnyvale, Cali.: J.IV.IX Publication, 2013).
[ii] A.P. Ferry, ““Professor” William C. Wilson and his Actina Electric Pocket Battery for Curing Ocular Disease,” Ophthalmology 105.2 (1998): 238-248.
[iii] Ferry, “”Professor” William C. Wilson,” 247.