An internal front view of the vending machine, with the battery, circuitry, and top dial.

In the late 1800s, we still didn't know a great deal about electricity. One scientist was still attempting to figure out how electric shocks kill things in 1895, and found that when he delivered a 240-milliamp shock to dogs, their hearts were very damaged (for comparison, a taser puts out about 3 milliamps). In 1903, Thomas Edison was trying to prove alternating current was dangerous by electrocuting animals. But before these instances of using electricity for death, one inventor thought people would be interested in using quick jolts to improve health, like the green juice of his day.

"When electricity was in its infancy, the power was believed to have a beneficial effect on health. Why not vend a small measure of electricity by coin operation?" wrote Paul Braithwaite in his book, Arcades and Slot Machines. Braithwaite was describing an existing patented design: a coin-operated vending machine that would deliver an electrical shock to the customer in exchange for money.

The patent for a "coin operated electrical apparatus" was originally filed by Norman W. Russ and granted in England in 1886. Russ followed up with patents for his invention in France, Belgium, Canada, and the United States, which granted it on May 15, 1888.

The machine was a simple design, with a box mounted at waist-level atop a stand and a dial positioned above the box. The box had a treadle in the base, a meter on top, a coin slot, and two handles—one of which slides back and forth.

To operate the shock vending machine, the customer would insert a coin that would fall into an internal slot that would position it to complete a circuit when the treadle was pressed. While standing on the treadle, Russ wrote that the sliding handle "may be slid toward the [other] handle all according to the desired strength of the current," and the hand moving around the dial mounted on top of the box would "show the proportional increase of intensity of the current."

The patent does not suggest any parameters for the electric output of the device, safety shutoffs, or any specifications for the battery (the patent suggests that it be a "bichromate" battery, a type not in use anymore due to inefficiency). Nor does the patent elaborate on why anyone might be interested in an electric shock vending machine, beyond that it would allow "private houses to obtain an electric shock or a current of electricity without the aid of an attendant by the insertion of a coin."

The history of electricity as a medically beneficial treatment goes back further than Russ' machine. His vending apparatus was patented a few decades into a medical trend known as "galvanism," which purported to fix a bunch of different ailments by delivering electric shocks or currents to a patient.

In 1821, a surgeon wrote in an essay on the medical application of electricity and galvanism that "as a medical application there is not yet discovered in nature any which possess so much power and may be used with so much general advantage in all complaints to which main is subjected." In 1853, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette ran an advertisement for "galvanic electricity applicable to the cure of most diseases." A partial list of the problems electric shocks were purported to fix: "dyspepsia, indigestion, liver complaints, long-standing headaches, dimness of sight, deafness, stiff joints, bent knees, and recent cases of consumption." Bath, a destination known for its hot springs, periodically referenced "galvanic batteries" as treatment staples in its spas and baths in articles through the next few decades, including one at the local YMCA.

By 1886, the paper was making tongue-in-cheek references to the medical nature of galvanism. In describing a new spa, one author wrote in 1886, "The council have just provided, as already mentioned, a sweating room and vapour bath, but the galvanic apparatus is still lacking. The Baths Committee or the City Architect should take note of this and endeavour to discover what remedialaids [sic] are to be found in electricity when applied in conjunction with the Bath Waters. They would doubtless have great pleasure in experimentalizing with a galvanic battery on some of their modern critics free of charge."

However, the "art" of galvanism was still far from from losing its sheen as a treatment. The International Text-Book of Medical Electro-Physics and Galvanism, published in 1895, lists eight doctors with MDs as authors and states that the "ordinary methods of [electricity]'s therapeutic use" include "nerve and muscle irritants in all kinds of paralyses, heart-weaknesses from various forms of poison, as stimulant in cases of constipation, vesical weakness or relaxation or nerve- or muscle-fiber in any part, and as sedative in neuralgias, in hysterical and inflammatory pains."

Whether Russ' patented vending machine ever came to fruition is not clear; Braithwaite had no concrete examples or photos of an actual device in his book. But just as we can now get ten-minute neck massages at stands in a local farmer's market or street festival, there were, at one time, galvanism stands for temporary relief. An author wrote in the Bath Chronicle about a "fancy fair" to raise money to expand a local church, and said that among stands with sweets, strawberries and cream, tea and coffee, and pottery, there was a stand run by a Mr. Bligh Bond, who accommodated "those who believed in galvanism" with "as many shocks as they liked to pay [him] for."