Long before the era of plastic surgery, the history of medicine was littered with odd — and often ineffective — gadgets and procedures for bolstering our appearances. The Medical Device Amendments of 1976 — which for the first time gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to vet medical devices before they went on sale — helped curb some of the chicanery. Still, each wave of new technology has brought with it entrepreneurs using that technology to capitalize on our desire to look good and feel better.
A few of the creations proved useful. Here are five that didn’t.
1. Foot-operated bust enlarger
In the 1970s, blouses got tighter, necklines dropped, and posters of superstars such as Farrah Fawcett and Lynda Carter graced many a wall. So it’s no wonder the creators of foot-operated bust enlargers sold over 4 million of the things after they hit store shelves in 1977. To use the device, you placed a cup (available in three sizes) over each breast. Pumping the footpad then produced suction that was meant to enlarge the breasts. But users found that the main effect was some swelling — noticeable perhaps to the breasts’ owner, but not in an increased bra-cup size — and even sometimes bruising. Fortunately, both were temporary.
2. Violet ray generators
Nikola Tesla invented the violet ray generator around 1900. Suspecting that it might have “electrotherapeutic uses,” he is said to have used his invention on himself after being hit by a car, allegedly healing his bumps and bruises. With wires and vacuum tubes, these machines transformed everyday electricity into high-frequency electrical current, emitting ozone and purple light.
Between 1915 and 1950, companies selling the machine boasted long lists of conditions the machine could fix. Among them were cosmetic conditions such as baldness, bunions, and blackheads; uncomfortable ailments such as eczema, hay fever, and sciatica; and injuries like bruises and sprains. Now, the machines live in museums as scientific and historic curiosities.
3. McGregor Rejuvenator
This huge gadget pounded the body with magnetism, radio waves, infrared, and ultraviolet rays all at once. This action would reverse the aging process, claimed someone named M.E. Montrude in a 1932 patent. Whoever McGregor was has unfortunately been lost to history.
To use the device, you would lie inside the Rejuvenator with your head remaining outside, similar to an iron lung. While it’s not clear where the magnetism came in, radio waves supposedly came via leather pads. Red incandescent and blue ultraviolet bulbs provided the light, and also heated the chamber. When everything got humming, presumably you just laid there getting younger. Little is known about what became of Montrude or the folks who used the Rejuvenator, but most of the devices were scrapped or donated to museums.
4. The eye normalizer
The makers of these devices claimed that regular eyeball massage — via suction, pressure, or simple rubbing — would restore normal vision and cure near- and far-sightedness. The most common eye normalizer was a handheld chrome box with two metal stems that could be adjusted for wide- or narrow-set eyes. There was a rubber cup, or gasket, attached to each stem. Placing your closed eyes in the cups, you turned a knob on the side of the box to rotate the cups, essentially massaging your eyelids. There were also single versions used on one eye at a time and rotated by hand. Still other, much more complicated types applied pressure or suction to the eyes.
If you massaged your eyes often enough, the thinking went, you would gradually change the shape of your eyeball and eliminate the need for eyeglasses. It’s true that eyesight is affected by eyeball shape. For example, people with myopia, or nearsightedness, generally have longer eyeballs than normal. But rubbing, pushing, or squeezing won’t shorten them. After becoming popular in the mid-1800s, these eye fixers began falling out of favor after one seller, a lawyer named Urbane Barrett, was convicted of mail fraud in 1937.
5. The Relax-A-Cizor
This device used electricity to “exercise” muscles for you, so you could slim down without working out. Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, the Relax-A-Cizor sold for $200 to $400, and received praise from celebrities including Doris Day and even from The New Yorker.
A handy carrying case held a console with large dials for adjusting the intensity of stimulation. There were several cords attached to the console. The free ends of the cords had metal probes for attaching electrode pads. Charts showed users where to put the wired pads — belly, thighs, butt, hips, upper arms, and even the face. Then you plugged the power cord into a wall outlet and let the electricity pass through your body for 10 minutes to an hour.
But it wasn’t long before users began reporting ruptured blood vessels, cramps, vomiting, urinary discharge, and even miscarriages and paralysis. By the 1970s, the FDA had outlawed the sale of Relax-A-Cizors and recommended that owners destroy the ones they’d bought.Leah Samuel is a reporter for STAT, from which this article is adapted.