Did the mysterious metallic gizmos really work?

Caricature of a quack treating a patient with Perkins Patent Tractors by James Gillray, 1801

Perkins insisted the tractors were magically drawing off the offending electrical fluid in the body.

Did you know that gout, epilepsy, and rheumatism are caused by a mysterious electrical fluid in the body?

Neither did I.

They aren’t, but that is what Connecticut surgeon, Elisha Perkins thought when he asked to have his amazing curative devices patented in 1796. He was a prominent man in medical circles and no one had any reason to doubt him. He was passionately convinced himself, that removing the strange electrical fluid from the bodies of the afflicted was the only way to go.

For months he worked on his invention, hoping to improve the quality of others’ lives. He was convinced he had come upon the solution when he applied for the first medical patent from the United States government and was granted just that.

His invention was made up of two three-inch rods, tapered at the ends. One of the rods was made of an alloy of gold, copper, and zinc. The other was an alloy of silver, platinum, and iron. He dubbed the rods tractors. To make them work, you passed them over the body, and even though you could see nothing going on, the tractors were magically drawing off the offending electrical fluid in the body—Perkins insisted.

People in high places, such as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, wanted them. They came in red morocco cases and were in. The fad lasted for a good while until Elisha Perkins made an elixir, a home remedy that he concocted to cure a yellow fever epidemic in NYC in 1799. Perkins died of the disease himself and this ended the public’s confidence in his abilities as a medical inventor.

At height of his work on the tractors, Perkins’s own son was in England trying to help out Papa. Benjamin Perkins was busy selling the tractors, and to do so he was drawing advertising cartoons, writing ballads about the tractors, writing odes glorifying the tractors to call attention to his personal supply of the products.

He made a fortune but was driven from the country after the death of his father.

Up until then, the satirists of the time were having a field day mocking the cartoons and the metallic gizmos in their own cartoons which were being published in prominent publications of the time.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, a collection of true stories about the bizarre and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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