Saturday 20 December 2014

Science, Sobriety and Snake Oil: The Electrifying Story of the Overbeck Rejuvenator by James Ormiston

Here’s a challenge for you: name an inventor of an electrical device from before the Second World War.  Who springs to mind? Thomas Edison? Graham Bell? Maybe William Sturgeon, Samuel Morse or Alessandro Volta? If you’ve been caught up in the recent surge of near-mythological interest in Nikola Tesla maybe you think of him? Well here’s one person on the list who you’ve probably never heard of: Otto Christoph Joseph Gerhardt Ludwig Overbeck. Overbeck was a man of many interests, and during his life he was a chemist, inventor, curio-collector, writer, artist and, most notably, a self-proclaimed discoverer of the key to youth and vitality. The device with which he believed he had unlocked the secret of a long and healthy life was the Overbeck Rejuvenator, and armed with a qualified fascination in science and a canny business mind he marketed one of the most commercially successful electrotherapy devices ever made.

Born in 1860, the son of a Vatican priest, Overbeck began his career as a chemist, studying the subject at University College London until 1881. After becoming a Fellow of the Chemical Society in 1888 he went on to work at a brewery in Grimsby as scientific director. Here he was responsible for a few interesting developments, including an early attempt at making alcohol-free beer and a food extract product called Carnos which was in fact a forerunner to Marmite.  Even at this stage he had begun a rigorous habit of patenting everything he thought would become a successful invention, Carnos being his first, which would become a staple of his approach for years to come. His broad interest in science was evident in his personal library, which included books not only on chemistry but biology and geology among numerous other subjects. Such was his enthusiasm that he claimed at one point to have discovered an element new to science.

 Self-portrait (1902)

In the following years leading up to the development of his most famous invention, the Rejuvenator, Overbeck became increasingly interested in the prospect of restoring youth, seeking a sort of “elixir” with which he could help people live longer with better health. His artistic side demonstrated this in a poem written in 1889 called “The Alchemist”…

“Yet one more drop, & now! What do I see!
The forms of early youth! Forgotten dreams to me;
Rise with the misty clouds from age’s wintry rime;
and boyhood’s joy & health & summer clime
With scent of roses fills the air!
Old age be-gone!
For eternal youth prepare!”

He was a strong believer in the idea that electricity was the unifying key to not only life but the entire universe, and whilst electrotherapy was not a new idea at the time Overbeck was very keen to demonstrate its benefits to human health.  In 1924 he took out a patent for an “Electric Multiple Body Comb for Use All Over the Body”, the first patent relating to the invention of the Overbeck Rejuvenator. The Rejuvenator consisted of insulated metal combs which, when connected to a battery, applied a weak electrical current to the area of the body the combs were in brought into contact with. The patent made no reference to rejuvenating properties, but nevertheless the product was intensely marketed as a medical miracle. Overbeck frequently backed up his advertising with testimonials from satisfied customers, with such whimsical quotes as:

“…elderly members of an east coast golf club have practised with the rejuvenator, and their handicap has been halved, and they can play three rounds as against two formerly.”

“I have been using your Rejuvenator for about five months…and have found it of great benefit. I was suffering from Neuritis, but [am] pleased to say I have scarcely felt any pain this winter. I have worn spectacles for 25 years, and now my eyes are wonderfully improved…my hair, which was white, is being replaced with new dark hair. I think your Rejuvenator is a wonderful invention.”

In 1925 he published a book on the subject, “A New Electronic Theory of Life”, in which he presented the importance of electricity in conventional medicine. He cited numerous eminent scientists of the time to back up his ideas, but he also frequently referred to the Rejuvenator itself throughout as a cunning marketing strategy. This was a rolling theme in the promotion of his device: using his position as a scientist as a role of authority through which he could persuade people to buy the Rejuvenator. Overbeck claimed it could treat all kinds of ailments from asthma to psoriasis, and the BMA (British Medical Association) was becoming increasingly concerned that the layman would start to ignore conventional medicine in favour of this “easy fix” which had so far not shown much, if any, quantifiable medical success. A model of the device was acquired for testing, and they found that whilst the device was not necessarily dangerous there was potential for its misuse to cause ulcers in the mouth. More worryingly, there was good reason to believe that people using this form of alternative treatment to treat chronic conditions like diabetes would put off seeking established medical advice until it was too late.

The Overbeck Rejuvenator was sold across the British Empire and had a number of variants at prices starting at around 6 guineas. Overbeck even adjusted his advertising campaigns depending on where it was being sold in order to further publicise it, encouraging users in the Colonies to write back to him about their experiences. One of the key parts of the Rejuvenator’s marketing was a focus on its ability to treat certain conditions that people felt embarrassed to talk about, such as hair loss. So successful was the device that he was able to buy a house in Salcombe, Devon (now a National Trust site dedicated to his work and collections), where he was able to engage in his other passions of curio-collecting, art, music, natural history and all other manners of hobbies and interests. But soon the Rejuvenator would begin to lose traction as Overbeck’s advertising strategies came under fire from the scientific community…

Demonstration of the Rejuvenator as a treatment for hair loss. 

Investigations were mounted by the BMA in the early 1930s to contact members who had been apparently quoted in the Rejuvenator’s advertising campaigns in Australia and elsewhere. Intriguingly many of the responses said that whilst they had bought the devices, they had not given permission for their opinions (genuine or not) to be published. Some outright denied any involvement with the company and demanded an official explanation. A number of attempts were made to ban the Rejuvenator on both medical and legal grounds, but none seemed to be successful (probably in part due to the ruthless patenting and numerous user testimonies which protected the device). Otto Overbeck died in 1937, but the device remained on the market up until the Second World War, when resources needed to build it became too difficult to acquire. Amazingly however, over 30 years after he filed the original patent for the product, in 1955 an order for a new battery to power an Overbeck Rejuvenator was received by one of his associates.

Whilst the Overbeck Rejuvenator was not proven to be of any real benefit to health (despite its inventor’s insistence), it was one of a number of early electrical devices to appear in British homes and elsewhere which aided the mainstream acceptance of a relatively new and revolutionary power source. It also provided a valuable lesson of the power of advertising, especially when coupled with the authority of science to persuade the public to buy a product. This is a theme that continues to this day, see how many toothpaste adverts feature an interview with dentists! Overbeck may have been mistaken in his faith of medicinal electricity, he may have even known it was of little use and was simply a very good seller of his contraption, but one thing remains certain: his multi-disciplinary life story is one of both eccentricity and intrigue.