Quack Medicine: Collecting Violet Ray Wands

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It was while I was on Ebay searching for antique and unusual medical instruments and devices to use as props in a motion picture I was directing that I stumbled upon the strange world of Violet Ray Wands.

A violet ray or violet wand is a device used for the application of low current, high frequency electricity to the body. Violet ray devices first became popular in the early 1900s. These instruments were originally sold as medical devices that claimed to be useful in treating various skin conditions and for the minor relief of pain.

The basic Violet Ray machine was (and is) a portable form of a Tesla Coil.  It is based on some of the early coils Nikola Tesla built in his Houston Street Laboratory. Tesla (1856-1943) was a world-renowned inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer and electrical engineer. He is regarded as one of the most important inventors in history. His patents and theoretical work form the basis of modern alternating current electric power (AC) systems. Unfortunately, Tesla, because of bad business deals and a habit of never paying much attention to his own finances, died impoverished and forgotten at the age of 86. His life has been the focus of a PBS documentary and more recently, a feature film by Buffalo Nickel Productions.

Tesla's original design called for the operation of the coil to resonate at a particular frequency range and produce a magnetic field. The high frequency of the output was such that human nerves did not feel it once it entered the body. The devices also emitted a small amount of ultraviolet light at the point of spark and a large quantity of ozone. The combination of high frequency electrical energy, magnetic field, ultraviolet and ozone must have been quite a sight (and smell) back in the day, and this led to the many claims of medical cures.

During the depression, small violet ray sets became very popular for home use despite their expense. Physicians on the other hand used huge sets with up to 2 dozen different electrodes. The number of medical cures the violet wands were said to provide included insomnia, asthma, catarrh, gout, and even female hysteria. An added bonus for these machines was the ability to operate on both alternating and direct currents, so even if a patient's home did not have electricity (and many, if not most, did not), these devices could be powered from portable battery banks. In those homes that did have electricity, all that existed was often a single lamp socket hanging from the ceiling of the main room in the house.  This is why so many Violet Ray manuals mention things such as conveniently plugs into any lamp socket.  At the time, lamp sockets were the only form of outlet.

These early sets were hand made using the finest materials available including mahogany, marble, real silk and silk velvet linings, engraved brass plates, gold leaf and joined boxes with leather handles and high carbon steel fittings. Dozens of different types of glass electrodes (the wands) were manufactured for different uses, and built into the violet ray device sets.  These annealed glass tubes were constructed under low vaccuum and filled with different noble gasses that became excited by the electrical output, to glow in different colors depending upon the gas used.  The most popular gas was argon, which glowed a brilliant purple.  Since the glass electrodes were filled under low vacuum, and there was no specification as to the gas purity, an entire range of purple colors can be found in argon-filled electrodes.  Some manufacturers used Neon in their electrodes, but this was mainly limited to European devices from the 1930s and later. 

Eventually the cure-all claims were put to trial and in 1951, the Food and Drug Administration banned the manufacturers from claiming violet ray devices provided medical cures.  However, the FDA continued to approve their use for dermatological therapies for their oxygenating and anti-bacterial properties.  All but two American and Canadian manufacturer of the pre-wartime violet ray devices ended production at this time.  Cenco and Electro-Technic Products began marketing the devices as high frequency leak detectors for neon sign and related industries.  Today these companies also manufacturer apparatus for teaching science.

One major misconception about Violet Rays is that they emit ultraviolet radiation.  This is not the case.  Quartz Glass is the only glass that can transmit Ultraviolet Radiation, and most Violet Ray electrodes are made from Pyrex or Soda Lime Glass.  The only Ultraviolet Radiation emitted from these machines is from the actual sparks generated from them.  All electric sparks produce Ultraviolet Radiation.  Violet wands do not produce any significant amount of ultraviolet light and do not cause UV burns. However, the glass electrodes do generate ozone and nitrogen oxides, giving your skin the well known ozone smell.

Collecting Violet Wand Devices

The pre-war antique violet ray high frequency generator sets under original design are highly collectible. War-time violet ray sets continue to have some value in violet ray collections as earmarks of their history.  Post-WWII violet ray devices have no collectible value except as novelties or in their personal use as dermatological tools.

For those interested in collecting Violet Wand Devices, here are some key points in what to look for:

Look for well-maintained, working devices free of dry rot or rust, with clean leather handles that show no signs of mildew or rot. 
Hinges and clasps, if any, should be present and free of rust or discoloration. 
Signature ribbons made of silk, will probably have weakened, but look for those still in good condition and where the gold leaf has not been worn off. 
Interior linings should be free from fade or excessive wear marks. 
Electrodes should all be present, unbroken and in working condition. 
Check to be sure end caps on the electrodes are tight and free from rust.
Antique violet rays of fine materials and two-part design (handle attaches to a separate electrical box) have highest collectible value.
Vintage (transition of two-part design to single-part design, increased scarcity of materials in construction) have varying collectible value.
Modern single piece (post WWII) design violet ray devices have no collectible value except for personal or novelty use.

Keep in mind that the value of a violet wand is based upon condition, functionality, scarcity, accompanying literature and current markets.

Another oddity of these devices, I have found little difference in the prices whether you are purchasing antique or new. Both old and new sets typically start from the high $300’s up to the high $700’s. I guess it comes down to whether or not you plan on actually using them or not. Not matter how well preserved, I would not recommend plugging in and/or using any antique Violet Wand.

Modern Uses of Violet Wands

So, are there any authentic medical use for Violet Ray machines?  Strangely enough, there is. Their original use, as a device for treating minor skin conditions, is still valid. Ozone is germicidal and high frequency currents are dehydrating for the skin.  Acne or similar conditions are often improved by the nature of these applications.  They can also be used for the removing warts. The mild heating effects of these devices has the ability of relieving pain to a small extent.  Unlike external heating pads, Violet Ray electrode heat the body from the inside-out, which is often more beneficial. Used in this way they may be of use in relieving muscle aches and arthritis.

On the subject of applications of these currents, it should be noted that treatments rarely consist of electrical sparks being applied to the skin.  This can cause unpleasant burns.  Whenever early books mention 'a quarter inch spark' or 'a half inch spark' for various ailments, it is meant that the machine be adjusted to produce such a spark, and the glass electrode applied directly to the body thereafter. 

Of special note, no person with a pacemaker should be allowed near a Violet Ray machine, the effects could be fatal.  Violet Ray devices can and will interfere with nearby electronics.

I’m not sure what the fascination is with these devices. Perhaps, unlike many 'olde tyme' devices, the fact that so many are still in such good condition and that they are still made and used to this day, surrounds the devices with an aura of history. They are not just something that happened then disappeared from everywhere but the pages of some dusty tome. There is even a museum devoted to the subject called The Turn Of The Century Electrotherapy Museum which is located at 627 36TH ST ∙ WPB, FL 33407 ∙ USA. Phone:  954 253 3529 where one can find a collection of Violet Wand devices dated from the 1900s to the present day, many meticulously restored by the museum’s curator.

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