Is your wi-fi signal giving you a headache?
This week, a Canadian teachers’ union called for an end to the use of Wi-Fi in schools, arguing that the radio waves it generates “may present a potential Health and Safety risk” for students. Elsewhere, health officials are tracking reports of people who say they suffer acute headaches, skin irritation, and chronic pain due to wireless signals. A small group of “Wi-Fi refugees” even flocks to Green Bank, W. Va., the heart of a virtually radio-free area known as the US Radio Quiet Zone, to escape wireless devices.
Are Wi-Fi headaches a new and troubling medical scourge, or an imaginary epidemic triggered by the rise of a novel technology? Scientifically, the jury is out. Either way, the Wi-Fi headache can take its place in a long lineage of ailments that reliably erupt alongside new inventions, from the potter’s wheel to video games.
Some of these illnesses were no joke: “Telegrapher’s cramp,” for instance, was almost surely a form of repetitive strain injury. But there are plenty of other illnesses that now sound bizarre, even laughable, to those of us who ride elevators, cars, and bicycles on a daily basis with no ill effects. A quick tour through these long-vanished ailments is a gentle reminder that whatever problems technology causes, sometimes a disease says as much about our anxieties as it does about our gadgets.
In the 1890s, America went bicycle crazy. Mass production combined with technical innovations — equal-size wheels, brakes, rubber inflatable tires — made two-wheelers both the “rich man’s recreation” and the “poor man’s horse.”
The boom also saw an explosion in bicycle-specific diagnoses. Doctors of the time reported “bicycle stoop” and “bicycle hernia,” as well as a syndrome called “bicycle heart,” caused by too-rapid acceleration. “Cyclist’s sore throat” came from ingested dust.
Oddest of all was “bicycle face” — “an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony.” The description came from one Dr. A. Shadwell, who coined the term in popular periodicals like the National Review. “Nearly all [cyclists] have it ,” Shadwell claimed in Medical Age, since it results from the “severe nervous strain” of balancing on two wheels. He wondered, “Did ever [a] pastime wear a mien so sombre?”
Not all doctors agreed. Writing in the American Medico-Surgical Bulletin in 1895, one physician speculated that “bicycle face” might be nothing more than “a variety of horse-face or locomotive-face.” A different writer in the same publication joked that too much discussion on the matter might give rise to another illness: “bicycle-face face.”
Steam-powered elevators first appeared in the 1850s, but they moved slowly — not more than 50 feet (four floors) a minute. As elevators were electrified in the 1890s, they flew up shafts at over 600 feet a minute, enabling a new architectural juggernaut: the skyscraper.
In 1892, Scientific American warned “delicate persons” not to set foot on elevator cars. The problem wasn’t so much the ride up or down as it was the sudden stopping, when “the internal organs seem to rise into the throat.” Enough herky-jerky movement could cause dizziness, irregular sleep, and “a constant desire to void,” and render “motion of any kind . . . unbearable.”
“Hardly a week goes by [before] I am called upon to treat people who are suffering from it,” one physician wrote in a Lewiston, Maine, newspaper. Elevator operators were most susceptible of all to this “elevator sickness,” which was also categorized as a form of “mechanical vertigo.” Whether due to gentler brakes or increased familiarity with the contraption, the illness’s prevalence plummeted within a few short years.
Physicians marked the coming of the horseless carriage with a bevy of new pathologies, some less real than others. One running (driving?) joke within the medical community was the diagnosis of “automania,” also known as “motor fever,” “chauffeur mania,” or “automobiliousness.” In 1906 the Journal of the American Medical Association called it a “pandemic.”
The wealthy men afflicted with the syndrome suffered “dreams of speed, cylinders, [and] cooling devices,” fostered an intolerance of police officers, and harboured fantasies of making roadkill out of “chickens, dogs, cats, toads and sometimes babies.” Patients wore a facial expression “verging on the satanic” — variously dubbed “the sphinx-face,” and the “you-be-damned” expression. Although their goggles and eccentric dress made the ill men stick out, once hospitalized they could be difficult to find: “On entering the ward not a patient is visible — all are hidden under the beds working with the springs!”
These days, people tend to blame television for problems it causes indirectly, such as inactivity and obesity. But as the medium took off in the 1950s, some doctors thought sitting home watching reruns could be hazardous to your health in very direct ways. The American Medical Association warned teens not to sit still too long, lest they develop a “lack of flexibility” below their waist. The illness — known as “television legs” — was difficult to measure experimentally in Canada and the United States because it was “difficult to find a set of controls who do not view TV.”
Doctors warned of problems above the waist, too. Viewing your favorite show too intently could put you at risk of getting “television neck,” which — it was said — could permanently limit your range of head motion. According to a Bridgeport, Conn., clinician writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, couples suffered the affliction in complementary ways: When “each has a favorite chair and position for viewing television . . . discomfort occurs mainly on one side in the husband and on the other side in the wife.”
Around 2006, psychology graduate student David Laramie coined the term “ringxiety” to describe a curious “psycho-acoustic phenomenon” among habitual mobile phone users. Turns out, cellphone owners’ minds can be so attuned to their particular ringtone frequencies, and so conditioned to respond, that sometimes they commit false positives — that is, they mistakenly pick up when their phone hasn’t even rung. “My experience has been hearing just a few notes that are similar to my phone’s ring, my brain will fill in the rest,” said Laramie to The New York Times. A twin phenomenon, known as “vibranxiety,” was coined soon thereafter to account for imagined buzzes.
This trompe l’oreille is a milder version of the “phantom limb,” in which amputees still feel sensations in their missing appendage. Hence the illusion’s other name: phantom ring.
Latif Nasser is a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s History of Science department. He also contributes to WNYC’s Radiolab.