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The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American
Carolyn Thomas de la Peña
New York: New York University Press, 2003.
$35.00, 352 pages, ISBN 0814719538.

Debra Boyle
California State University Long Beach

The book jacket describes The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American as “the first book to place changing ideas about fitness and gender in dialogue with the popular culture of technology.” While the book does an excellent job tracing the history of our common notions of the body, fitness and technology, it is less successful in applying those notions to gender. My impression is that—throughout the book—Carolyn Thomas de la Peña describes in detail how machines, electricity and radium were used to “conserve,” “unblock,” or “transfer” energy to the body generally. The author then adds phrases like “they [women] did use Health Lifts, and they are likely to have used other products, even if they were not the intended consumers” [p. 12]. Further, the book is a little difficult to “get into.” Although these are serious shortcomings, if the reader can stay with it until the first fifty pages or so, the book is worth the wait.

Carolyn Thomas de la Peña gives a brief synopsis of the “body as machine,” an ancient concept which survives to this day. In the nineteenth century, people began to move away from the belief that this “machine” was God-given and immutable [p. 3]. The mid-1850s were characterized by “technological enthusiasm” [p. 2] and “technological optimism” [p. 3]. New technologies which produced light, heat and entertainment could naturally be expected to produce a human body better able to cope with the demands of modern living.

By the late nineteenth century, though, technological optimism was replaced by technological and other fears. Experts worried about the physical decline of the modern American, especially in contrast to that of newly arrived immigrants from “less desirable” parts of southern and Eastern Europe.

According to contemporary theories, such people [immigrants] enjoyed better health and plentiful progeny because they avoided the “over-civilization” that frequently followed advanced education and white-collar work […]. For people like [Theodore] Roosevelt, the nation’s resulting prognosis appeared bleak: physical decline would lead to democratic decline, as members of what he saw as the superior class of individuals slowly died out through “race suicide” and were overtaken by intellectual inferiors with higher birth rates. [pp. 28-29]

What then, was the class-conscious white-collar urban dweller supposed to do to stay on top of his game? Why, expand his energy of course! Building “muscle could both expand energy production and increase the efficiency of energy consumption” [p. 30]. Unfortunately, this energy was not infinitely expandable. In thermodynamics, the law of entropy states that energy is never created but is rather constantly diminishing; so experts reconciled this old physics to the new beliefs by creating the concept of usable energy. Usable energy—or the energy available for use by the body—had to be increased in order to meet the ever-increasing demands of modern life.

What is astonishing is that this hypothesis has been recycled several times and is enjoying a new wave of popularity today. Back in the 1970s, when the latest fitness culture emerged, the focus was on cardio-vascular health achieved through aerobic sports. Running, jogging, and aerobic dance were the keys to physical and mental fitness. Presently, though, fitness experts claim that “resistance training” (muscle building) must be added to achieve true fitness. Lean muscle mass, apparently, burns more calories and hence produces more energy even at rest, creating a true 24-hour factory line. The means of building muscle haven’t changed much since the nineteenth century either. Fitness machines today are based on the same principles as fitness machines in the 1860s. Even Pilates, the “new” resistance training without machines, was invented nearly a century ago [p. 213].

As machine technology became more common in everyday life, it became possible for people to believe that their bodies could be improved by the same technological principles. It wasn’t too far of a jump, then, to believing that electric technology could also improve the health and fitness of the body was the next logical step. However, there were differences in the concepts surrounding machine and electric technology:

Electric devices differed as well in their reported impact on the body. Whereas health machines had claimed to harness “force” to unblock internal energy and free it for productive use, the [electric] devices promised to transfer energy directly from the device to body, actually increasing the total energy within the body itself. [p. 89, emphasis added]

Further, the process of transferring energy was less laborious and time-consuming than using machines. Again, this “get-fit-quick” idea has incredible staying power. Anyone who watches late-night TV has seen ads for electric devices which build muscle and reduce unsightly flab just by placing the adhesive discs to the abdomen and turning on the machine. Such devices usually don’t claim to transfer energy directly; the consumer has to make the connection that increased energy is a consequence of having a flatter stomach and being more sexually desirable. That would be great, if it worked. Then—as now—advertising helped to sell devices to a public looking for a quick and easy solution to their physical problems and emotional insecurities.

Once electricity had been established as a means to better health and fitness through energy transferal, radium was easier to accept.

In actuality, radium’s properties did lend themselves to a drastic shift in accepted thinking on the relationship between energy and the body. Even infinitesimally small amounts of the element seem capable of releasing great quantities of energy during exposure. [p. 174]

Between 1896 and 1900, radium technology—X-rays—was used for a variety of medical procedures, such as bone repair and bullet removal (alas, bullet removal was and is extremely important in American society). However, X-rays also captured the popular imagination:

Newspaper cartoons poked fun at those who feared that X-ray glasses would soon render people naked at will and that X-ray schemes would help pickpockets select better targets. [p. 176]

If only! Radium, also known as “liquid sunshine,” died out as its foremost promoter, William Hammer, died a slow and painful death due to its use. Like machine and electric fitness technology, radium has its modern equivalent, athletic steroids. They certainly work, but their side effects—shrinking testicles, hair loss, impotence, “roid rage” and sometimes death—probably aren’t worth it.

A lesser author and researcher would be tempted to use an ironic or judgmental tone when describing how mechanical, electrical and chemical principles were applied to the human body in search of increased energy, sexual vigor and endless youth. De la Peña successfully avoids applying twenty-first-century thinking and morality onto nineteenth-century scientists, promoters, and consumers. It is the reader who is likely to be amused or shocked, especially when studying the illustrations.

These are truly well chosen and shed light on what otherwise might be dry material. Figures 10 and 11 [pp. 76-77] show that modern gym equipment hasn’t changed all that much over the years. They are still based on a system of weights and pulleys in different configurations. The other interesting thing about these illustrations, however, is that the subjects in the pictures—though exercising—are in full Victorian costume. Some illustrations are a little disturbing, such as Figure 15 [p. 104] showing a man holding an electric wire while his feet are in a pan of water! Figure 26 [p. 155], though, is deeply upsetting: “Killing the Nineteenth Century with Edison’s Magno-Electric Vitalizer” depicts a sort of übermensch standing with his foot on the head of a dead Native American.

The most provocative illustrations are in Chapter 4, “Powering the Intimate Body.” Figure 22, “Pulvermacher’s Belt and Suspensory Appliance” [p. 139] shows a device which delivered galvanic current to the testicles. Figure 28, the “Thermalaid” [p. 164] shows an electric vibrator-like device which stimulated the prostrate from the inside. These appliances also have their modern-day counterparts which can be found in any “adult” shop. If you want to know more about them, well, you’ll just have to read the book.

To conclude, I would recommend this book to readers who like “historical non-fiction,” lay readers who have an interest in science and technology, and readers who want to read something while on the treadmill or stationary bike at the gym.




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