7 weird mental health inventions, devices and gadgets
designed to shock and startle the mad back to their senses

The technological inventiveness of the Industrial Revolution extended to mental health inventions intended to shock and startle the mad back to their senses.

From revolving patients at 100 rotations a second to simulated drowning to orgasm therapy, I think you’ll agree these treatments are shocking indeed!

gyrating chair mental health invention


mental health inventions:

Spinning Chair

Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, came up with “rotation therapy,” and designed a sort of cubicle attached to a rotating pole.

While he never actually built the chair, nor did he use it on his patients, the device caught on.

The logic of the therapy was: mental patients are walking about the hospital, disoriented, confused, and dizzy in the mind. For these unfortunate patients, their world was spinning.

Doctors thought it stood to reason that if their minds were spinning, spin their bodies to match the outside world to their minds. Thus, when they stopped spinning, so will their brains.
William Hallaran, reveals a possible reason for the device’s popularity. He wrote:

 “since the commencement of its use, I have never been at a loss for establishing supreme authority over the most turbulent and unruly.”

Hallaran even “improved” rotation therapy, making the contraption fit four people at a time, and getting it fast enough to make a hundred rotations a minute.

Once nausea and shock had worn off and the patients were still mentally ill, that meant another session on the swing was in order!



mental health inventions:


Hydrotherapy involved many different methods – submerging the patient in an enclosed tub filled with cold water for hours, wrapping her in wet sheets, the use of enemas, and high powered hoses.

The logic behind Hydrotherapy was that the different uses of water on a mental patient would help cleanse the body as well as the mind, leading to a cured patient.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the most common use of psychiatric hydrotherapy was not curative but punitive.

In an age when physicians increasingly viewed binding and cuffing the insane as inhumane, hydrotherapy offered a way to coerce without physical restraint.

The douche, or shower bath, was an early hydrotherapeutic method. It consisted of pouring cold water from a height over a patient’s head to lessen the heat of madness or
rouse the melancholic. Warm or tepid baths were also used to calm overwrought nerves or to induce sleep.

In the 19th century, Elaborate hydrotherapy rooms began appearing in asylums, inspiring the development of a wide variety of hydrotherapeutic apparatus.

The case notes of Dr. William Handy, physician of New York Hospital’s asylum from 1817 to 1818 testify that in 15 of the 75 cases recorded by Dr. Handy, the ‘shower bath’ was explicitly used to punish infractions such as the tearing of clothing, ‘silly behavior and laughing’, soiling a cell or room, striking attendants, and attempted escape.

tranquilizing chair mental health inventions


mental health inventions:

Tranquilizing chair

In the 1790’s, the American mad-doctor, Benjamin Rush, created a special chair, one that “binds and confines every part of the body … Its effects have been truly delightful to me. It acts as a sedative to the tongue and temper as well as to the blood vessels. I have called it a Tranquillizer.”

The purpose of the tranquilizing chair was to control the flow of “infected” blood and, by lessening muscular action or reducing motor activity, reduced the force and frequency of the pulse.

Better than the straight jacket, I suppose.

pelvic massage mental health inventions


mental health inventions:

Pelvic Massage

The treatment of pelvic massage was the stimulation of the female genitals by hand, water, or other devices in order to reach “hysterical paroxysm” and alleviate the symptoms of female hysteria.

This cure for hysteria by reaching “hysterical paroxysm” was actually just bringing the patient to have an intense orgasm!

At various points in history, the massaging of a woman’s pelvis (i.e., her genitals) was embraced by many a health expert as the cure for female hysteria. Though the practice dates back to the renaissance, and even before, it became a money-maker for the medical establishment during the Victorian era. “By the early 19th century, physician-assisted paroxysm was firmly entrenched in Europe and the U.S. and proved a financial godsend for many doctors,” Psychology Today explains.

When the vibrator emerged in the late 19th century, explains technology historian Rachel Maines [technology historian] in her book “The Technology of Orgasm” explains, it was intended as an “electromechanical medical instrument” to provide more reliable and efficient physical therapy to women believed to be suffering from hysteria. And it was a welcome advance. Doctors “sought every opportunity to substitute other devices for their fingers,” Maines writes.

electricity mental health inventions


mental health inventions:

Electric Shock Therapy

In 1802, Luigi Aldini (1762-1834) did a number of bizarre experiments to see if the brain could be electrically stimulated.

In Bologna, London and elsewhere, he used the bodies of recently hanged and decapitated prisoners to apply electrical currents.

He carried out public shows to demonstrate how electrical stimulation evoked responses such as blinking and opening the eyes, facial grimaces, and tongue, eye and limb movements.

Many serious scientists became intrigued with this possibility and galvanism turned out to be a synonym of all sorts of attempts at resuscitating by electricity and as a way of curing everything, from gout to mental disease.

Charles Darwin himself, a serious naturalist, succumbed for a time to the quack “electrical treatment” prescribed by a doctor in Scotland, to treat his chronic gastrointestinal ills, by wearing on occasions a shock-giving belt.

By the 1850s, electricity was widely used to treat psychiatric ailments – and would eventually turn into electroconvulsive therapy nearly a century later.

The photo above shows a man receiving static sparks to the spine for psychosis from tabes dorsalis, a degenerative nerve condition brought on by syphilis.

Victorian_Electric_Shock_Therapy mental health inventions

This nineteenth-century electric shock machine has a mouthful of a name – “Improved Patent Magneto-Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases”.

The contraption comprises a brass handle, ornate brass wheel, a large magnet, two coils of wire, and two brass tubes attached to cables through which the current flows, all housed in a polished wooden case.

On the underside of the lid is the charming original label for the machine, which carries instructions for use, and also rather amusing illustrations of the machine in use.

The first practical machine of this type was made by M. Hippolyte of Paris in 1832. They were enormously popular in the second half of the nineteenth century, coinciding with the excitement generated by new discoveries in electricity, medicine, and science.

In the late nineteenth century, it was claimed that electricity could treat almost every conceivable ailment.

One could buy an electric helmet, an electric corset for ladies who wished to shed a few pounds. Gents could purchase “Dr Moffats Electropathic Belt for Extra Vigour”, electropathic socks, or even “Dr. Scott’s Electric hairbrush”.

trepanning mental health inventions


mental health inventions:


Just imagine: a hole of 2.5 to 5 cm of diameter, drilled by hand into the skull of a living person, without any anaesthesia or asepsis, during 30 to 60 long minutes.

This is maybe the most ancient form of brain surgery known to man: it is called trepanning. Evidence for it goes back as far as 40,000-year-old Cro-Magnon sites.

In the 1700s and 1800s, many believed insanity was caused by “demons” stuck in the brain. To rid the patient of these demons and cure insanity, doctors would drill large holes in the skull with a circular saw.

Repeated trepanning was common; for instance, it is related that Prince Philip of Orange was trepanned 17 times by his physician. De La Touche, a French physician trepanned one of his patients 52 times, within a two-month period!

Many physicians, from the Roman times on, also believed that the bone slabs taken from trepanned skulls were therapeutic when pulverized and mixed with beverages!

fullbodyfevermachine mental health inventions


mental health inventions:

Full body Fever Machine

Suffering from mental illness? Maybe you need a physical fever.

In 1927, Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Julius von Wagner-Jauregg won a Nobel Prize for discovering fever therapy when he “cured” a patient with late-stage syphilis 10 years earlier, by injecting him with malaria-tainted blood to induce a fever.

It was considered the first true cure that halted a psychotic disease.

Soon, all sorts of doctors were infecting their patients with malaria to cause a fever – until they realized many patients were dying from it.

So they turned to other ways to heat up their patients until the first report was published recommending ultrasound waves to therapeutically heat a person.

That led to the production of machines like this full-body fever machine (pictured) that was installed at the Fifth Avenue Hospital in New York City in the 1930s.

According to a press release at the time, the machine “heats the bloodstream and body tissue, much as does nature, killing off the alien germ.”