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Johann Wilhelm Ritter: The Man Who Married His Voltaic Pile

Johann Wilhelm Ritter
In 1800, Alessandro Volta announced his invention of the Voltaic pile — the world’s first electric battery that allowed for a continuous, steady, and strong flow of electric current. A young German physicist named Johann Wilhelm Ritter (most famous for his discovery of ultraviolet light) took advantage of this discovery to apply the poles of a Voltaic pile systematically to every part of his body.

Ritter applied current to his tongue where it produced an acidic flavor. Shoving the wires up his nose made him sneeze. Touching them to his eyeballs caused strange colors to swim in his vision. Ritter also applied the current to his genitals.

The latter experiment proved rather pleasurable. He wrapped his reproductive organ in a cloth moistened with lukewarm milk, then applied the current. Swelling soon occurred, followed by climax. He had become a pioneer of electro-orgasm. This experiment was made stranger by the fact that Ritter would occasionally tell people he was marrying his Voltaic pile, such as when he wrote to his publisher, "Tomorrow I marry — i.e., my battery!"

A Voltaic pile
If this were the entirety of Ritter's electrical self-experimentation, it might have been considered only slightly odd. But Ritter kept pushing onward — increasing the current to dangerous levels, forcing himself to endure longer periods of time, and using opium to dull the pain. As a result, his health suffered. Repeated electrocution caused his eyes to grow infected. He endured frequent headaches, muscle spasms, numbness, and stomach cramps. His lungs filled with mucus. He temporarily lost much of the sensation in his tongue. Dizzy spells overcame him, causing him to collapse. A feeling of crushing fatigue, sometimes lasting for weeks, often made it difficult for him to get out of bed. At one time, the current paralysed his arm for a week. And yet he continued on, boasting, "I have not shrunk from thoroughly assuring myself of the invariability of their results through frequent repetition."

His bizarre self-experiments shocked his colleagues. One reviewer of his work commented, "Never has a physicist experimented so carelessly with his body." Eventually the abuse took its toll. His weakened condition is believed to have contributed to his death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three.
  • Ritter, J.W. (1802), Beyträge zur nähern Kenntniss des Galvanismus under der Resultate seiner Untersuchung, Vol. 2, Jena: Friedrich Frommann.
Posted By: alex | Date: Sun Jul 31, 2011
Category: Medical Research, Physics, Electricity, Sexual Behavior, 1800s, Germany, Self-Experiments,
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