Robert McCoy was having problems with his Shocker Box. He flicked several of the switches that protruded from the large wooden cabinet, but instead of a buzzing sound, there was dead silence. A few people in the audience chuckled. For a moment I thought McCoy was going to kick the Shocker Box like my dad used to kick our old Magnavox when the vertical hold went on the blink. Instead McCoy bustled around the box, flipping switches back and forth, and finally the machine snapped to life and emitted a loud hum. "That's an electric current," McCoy said. "That gave you a real buzz--a good jump start in the morning." During the 20s and 30s people paid big money to have the Shocker Box send electricity through their bodies; electricity was thought to be a cure-all.
McCoy then passed around a vintage Electreat, a hand-held current generator that resembled a small flashlight. When I touched it, a tingling sensation shot through my hand--sort of the same feeling you get after your foot falls asleep. In 1939, the Electreat was the first quack medical device banned by the Food and Drug Administration.
McCoy, whose home base is Minnesota, is a collector of such devices. He was recently in Chicago for a meeting of the Midwest Committee for Rational Inquiry, an Oak Park-based group of skeptics and freethinkers, and he had brought along some of his favorite gizmos.
The Shocker Box was by no means the oddest, or even the largest, of McCoy's toys. A table was covered with pieces of scientific-looking equipment; off to one side was a large wood-and-metal device that consisted of a seat, a large wire headpiece, and a wooden cabinet containing a blue light bulb and a ticker tape.
This device turned out to be a Psycograph, a mechanical phrenologist. Phrenologists, who were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, claimed to determine a person's character from the bumps and depressions on his or her head. The wire helmet in the Psycograph contained a couple dozen sensors that moved over your head and measured the bumps. Based on those measurements, the machine printed out a series of statements about such aspects of your personality as "suavity," "amativeness," and "approbation."
The Psycograph was actually pretty sophisticated, considering that it was invented before the age of computers. "Mechanically it's good," McCoy said as he gave a reading to a woman from the audience. "The same person will get the same results each time. It may take a little leap of faith to accept the results, but it's amazing how many people say they fit them to a T." Not long ago McCoy took his Psycograph to a convention of psychologists. In four days he gave 700 readings. "They thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread and wanted to take one home for their offices," he said. McCoy promised us that after the lecture we could have our craniums probed.
McCoy had a bunch of other absurd gewgaws that he gleefully shared with us, including a Magnetic Belt that claimed it could make you "beautiful and healthy." McCoy said he picked it up at a garage sale for $15. "I asked [the owner] if he knew what it was, and he said 'Yeah, that's the magnetic belt my mother used to sit in.' He was so glad to get rid of it I heard him run into his house and tell his wife, 'Honey, I sold the magnetic belt!'"
He had a Vision Enhancer that was shaped like a pair of glasses and manipulated the eyeballs, allegedly strengthening the eye muscles and improving eyesight. For the thing to work properly, the instructions said, the wearer had to sleep outdoors in the nude and spend time every day walking around like a bear. "I feel like it's going to suck my eyeballs out," said the elderly gentleman who tried it on. McCoy also brought a Toffness Radiation Detector, a wide, white plastic tube containing six opaque lenses. The operator put talcum powder into the tube, explained McCoy, and then moved it over various body parts. When something was amiss, the operator would sense mysterious "radiation." He demonstrated on the same man who had tried the vision enhancer. "Are you having some problems in your left elbow, sir?" he asked. "I'm getting vibrations here."
"Nope," the man replied.
"Well, you may in the future," McCoy said to general laughter.
The laughter stopped when McCoy said the Radiation Detectors had only been seized in 1984. He said a young couple had recently asked him where he'd gotten his. "They're wonderful in the hands of a good healer," they told him. The detectors sold for $2,400 each.
McCoy also had an Ultraviolet Comb that emitted "ultraviolet static electricity" and allegedly cured baldness. One man reported that his comb was useless for growing hair, but it was great for getting back at noisy neighbors. "I just turn it on and their [television] picture goes all to hell," he chortled. A Prostate Gland Warmer went with the Ultraviolet Comb, but McCoy had left it home, along with his Solarama Board, one of whose powers was regrowing missing limbs.
After the demonstrations, the moderator asked if anyone had any questions. A shabbily dressed man in the back loudly questioned the group's objectivity, saying something about reality not being real for you until you've proved it in your own mind and ending up arguing for the validity of channeling. Several in the audience groaned at this point, and a couple of Rational Inquirers went back to reason with him.
Most of the rest of us lined up in front of the Psycograph to get our bumps read. When it was my turn, I sat down and McCoy adjusted the headpiece. He turned the machine on, and it felt as if ants were scurrying through my hair. The machine whirred and clacked; in 30 seconds a bell rang, and my personalized reading was ready. According to it, I am independent and self-reliant, "eminently respectful, deferential, and inclined to be quite religious," not inclined to leave my hometown, and a great lover of children. (My friend snickered as she read that last one.) It also said I have a fine sense of values and can acquire money easily.
Someone suggested that careers might still be made in the health-fraud industry with such impressive-looking machines. "You dont need to build these devices anymore," McCoy said. "It's easier to trick people just by telling them you can heal them."