A couple weeks ago when I went on a road trip to pick up my new amazing bedroom light fixture, I stopped by a nearby estate sale. It was not a good estate sale. To be honest, it wouldn’t have even been a terrific pile to find on the curb—you’d probably just keep on driving. But sometimes at sales like this—or even in those curbside piles of refuse—you’ll find an old, disheveled box that looks like this:
Most of the time there will be something terrible and moldy waiting for you inside that box. Occasionally, however, you’ll find something really unusual and cool. Like this:
It’s a violet ray machine produced by Master. The estate was that of a photographer and, quite understandably, the people holding the sale had mistaken this for a piece of dark room equipment. Having learned about these machines very early in my collecting career, I knew immediately what it was and I would never expect anyone else to.
Violet ray machines were once sold as medical devices. In the very early part of the last century these were developed for doctors to use in electrotherapy for the treatment of certain skin conditions and to temporarily relieve pain. Over time, they became mass-produced as home treatments for nearly every type of ailment. By the late 1940s the devices were falling under intense scrutiny for false claims and by the 1950s their production and sale in the U.S. was prohibited.
A violet ray machine utilizes a Tesla coil to discharge low current, high voltage, high frequency electricity through interchangeable glass attachments directly to the skin. A dial on the device allows the user to increase the current. The glass tubes were produced in many different shapes for different applications. The distinctive purple glow of the tubes is the namesake for the machine, but despite common belief, the tubes do not contain any special gases. The violet ray is simply the presence of sparks inside normal air under vacuum. Despite the terrifying zapping sounds it emits while running, the violet ray produces no shock when applied to the skin. Unfortunately it won’t do much to cure what ails you either.
So, just a reminder to check inside those terrible, filthy boxes when you’re out rummaging. More often than not it will be old greeting cards and sewing notions but you might just find yourself a delightful piece of historical medical quackery.