These Outmoded Scientific Instruments Are Also Things of Beauty
For more than 30 years, Steve Erenberg has collected early scientific and medical instruments. Victorian medical masks, surreal anatomical models, and futuristic test prostheses pack the display cases of his store/museum in Peekskill, New York. While some of these items are pure quackery, others represent the best possible treatment for their time. And regardless of its effectiveness, each device has a unique aesthetic value.
Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.
IRA FLATOW: Imagine you’re walking down a street in Peekskill, New York, and a shop window catches your eye. Behind the glass are elaborate mechanisms made out of metal and rubber and leather. Are they torture devices? Are they movie props? Just what do these carefully crafted instruments do? Our video producer Luke Groskin stepped inside that curiosity shop to find out, and he brings us the story in our new Sci Fri video. Welcome, Luke.
LUKE GROSKIN: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Did you just stumble on this place?
LUKE GROSKIN: Well, kind of sort of. So I was walking along the Hudson River in Peekskill and there’s an old industrial building, very unassuming. And on the outside it says, Early Electrics. And I walk in and it looks like I’ve walked into a steampunk cabinet of curiosities. It’s musky. It’s got old mahogany cabinets filled with all sorts of incredible scientific equipment and medical devices. Instruments of quackery and anatomical models. All sorts of prosthetics and gas masks from all sorts of ages throughout time.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Luke Groskin about his find in the place called Early Electrics. So you go inside and you’re scooping around.
LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, and you walk upstairs and there’s just rack upon rack of old gas lamps that have been refurbished. And then there’s this horse. It’s a full-size horse.
IRA FLATOW: A real horse?
LUKE GROSKIN: No.
IRA FLATOW: No.
LUKE GROSKIN: No, no. It’s a papier mache horse.
IRA FLATOW: A papier mache horse.
LUKE GROSKIN: It’s absolutely gorgeous. Just to be clear, it’s really macabre as well. It looks like a skinned horse. So all the skin’s been taken off and you can see the muscles and the veins, and it’s extremely detailed and was made by this fellow in the 1900s named Doctor Auzoux who got tired of using cadavers to demonstrate to veterinary students how to dissect a horse or care for a horse. And so he started making it out of papier mache and it’s this puzzle that comes together. It’s many different pieces and it’s a constructed horse. Absolutely gorgeous.
IRA FLATOW: And, as you say, these are not just quacky devices but they’re beautifully designed pieces, right?
LUKE GROSKIN: Aesthetically, they have so much character. Some of these masks look like they’re right out of Metropolis the movie. You can see the art movement at which they were created– the art movements during which they were created in the actual pieces. So you can see expressionism in these dentistry practice anatomical models, these fantomes as they’re called. You can see Victorian clawed tables. You can see more modern tin and aluminum, very sleek, very, very simplistic designs. So you can get more out of it than just a whirlwind tour of past medical devices.
IRA FLATOW: Are some of these medical devices clearly quackery? You know, what is that thing? It plugs into your ear, that sort of thing.
LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, some of them are like that. There is one instrument that was used in the Victorian era that were two– you hold two metal rods and they crank electricity into your hands and it kind of catches you. Like, really, did they think that worked? And apparently they did. And there was this infamous chair from the Kellogg Sanitarium that would shake you. It’s like a vibrating chair that was supposed to loosen your bowels. I did not try it.
IRA FLATOW: I was going to ask you if–
LUKE GROSKIN: No. I did not.
IRA FLATOW: As a good reporter, you’ll sit down in that chair.
LUKE GROSKIN: No, I’m not that type of reporter. And I would definitely not try it.
IRA FLATOW: Well, it might go up in smoke if you plugged it in anyhow.
LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, it’s a little old. Some of these things are clearly quack devices. And then some of them– some of them you have to ask yourself, did they really know that this was quack? Did they think that this was the best at the time? And so that made me wonder. And I asked the owner of the shop, the collector, this man named Steve Erenberg who’s been collecting for 30 years. He has a lot of knowledge about these devices. What does he think? Are these– what does he think about our current-day devices based on this?
STEVE ERENBERG: I can’t help but think, when I see some of these new devices that are being used and the materials, that 100 years from now we’ll be looking back at them and laughing and calling them quack devices. But that’s what science is. We always think state of the art and that we’re ahead of our time and it’ll never get any more modern than that, but it’s always changing.
IRA FLATOW: Mm. You know, a few years from now– what? They used these little hand devices?
STEVE ERENBERG: Or they’re cutting into people for surgery? That sounds crazy. The telephone. We’re now on cellphones. You look at a rotary phone and you go, that’s ridiculous.
IRA FLATOW: So this is our video. It’s up on our video.
LUKE GROSKIN: It is. It’s called Things of Beauty– Scientific Instruments of Yore.
IRA FLATOW: And you can all watch it at sciencefriday.com. Thank you, Luke.
LUKE GROSKIN: Thank you, Ira.
Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.