Collections Corner: Electrostatic Generator

Electrostatic generator / X-ray machine, circa 1910. Accession #006030001.

In 2006 the Museum of Health Care received this fascinating artefact donation from Elizabeth McMahon, the granddaughter of Dr. Frank Mellow who used the machine in his home office in Uxbridge, Ontario.

The machine generated an electrical charge with the turn of a crank and could be used with various instruments for electrotherapy or to produce x-rays.  Here is a fantastic video overview by Tabitha Renaud.

In September 2011 Elizabeth returned to the Museum to visit the electrostatic generator, and she shared some wonderful anecdotes about her childhood memories of the machine:

You had to really crank long and hard to get a charge going and the ozone emission was something awful. The other instruments shown also were used for cauterization inserted into various orifices, the spiked gadget was really an electrostatic acupuncture device.

My Grandfather was fortunate not to get radiation burns on his hands. I think he spoke of wearing gloves of some sort. The static “breeze” was used to calm psych. patients both manic and depressed, and calm “hysteria” esp. in women (go figure). Grandpa said that electrostatic use was also used as a “parlour amusement.” Smaller table top machines in fancy wooden cases were turned on after a dinner party and guests amused themselves with static teases and games. It was unique.

My brother and I had more fun cranking the thing and playing steam engine, of all things, and we were never stopped from doing so.

Elizabeth added that the machine was situated on the second level of Dr. Mellow’s house, just outside his bedroom. His patients climbed the stairs for treatment and Elizabeth’s grandmother was frequently still in bed. The upstairs of their house constantly smelled of ozone from frequent use. The electrostatic generator stayed in the same location from the day Dr. Mellow purchased it in the 1910 to the day in 2006 when a crane was required to hoist it through the second level window in order to get it to Kingston.

Thank you to Elizabeth for sharing this incredible artefact and its history.

If anyone else has information or recollections about this artefact, please let us know in the comment section below.

Take a closer look at the electrostatic generator in the Museum’s web-based project “From the Collection.”

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