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The eccentric engineer: James Graham, wannabe electrical engineer and doctor

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The ‘Celestial Bed’ made James Graham’s name, but unfortunately not his fortune - or many babies.

In the early days of any subject, it can be hard to tell science from snake-oil.

Development of a new field of engineering expertise is always likely to encourage the odd quack, but few have been as eccentric as James Graham.

Graham was born in England in 1745. The son of a saddler, he read medicine at Edinburgh University but never finished the course. Setting up in Doncaster as an apothecary, he took to calling himself ‘Doctor’, but business was slow and in 1770 he took the opportunity to move to the American colonies. He settled in Philadelphia, making a living performing cataract surgery and installing prosthetic eyes, and here he met Ebenezer Kinnersley.

Kinnersley was a scientist of a new type, an electrical engineer. As a friend and collaborator of Benjamin Franklin, he lectured across the young nation on ‘The Newly Discovered Electrical Fire’. As a scientist and inventor, Kinnersley was only interested in proving and measuring the effects of electricity, but for Graham it seemed there was nothing these magical ‘effluvia’ could not do and hence no limit to the commercial possibilities.

Graham set to work on his own great electrical device but, at the first intimations of the coming Revolution, he decided to return to England and try his luck there. For Graham, electricity wasn’t simply a force or phenomenon, it was a magical cure-all and he began offering treatments involving ‘Effluvia, Vapours and Applications ætherial, magnetic or electric’. Horace Walpole even consulted him about curing his gout, with limited success.

Having toured Europe meeting ‘fellow’ electrical engineers, Graham returned to England to set up practice in Bath, where fashionable patients, including the celebrated historian Catharine Macaulay, soon began taking his cures. She was so enamoured with the practice that she married Graham’s brother who was almost half her age. Graham’s therapy consisted of delivering a jolt of electricity to patients through a variety of electrical crowns and thrones.

Further travels followed, from which a new patron, Lady Spencer, emerged. She encouraged Graham to set up a ‘Temple of Health’ in London. He did this at the Adams Brothers’ Adelphi site. Here he not only sold ‘electrical Aether’ and offered therapies, but put on shows featuring electricity and magnetism which he performed with the help of scantily clad young ladies, ‘Goddesses of Health’, who were displayed as examples of physical perfection. These demonstrations proved very popular, particularly with men.  

Yet Graham’s pièce de résistance was still to come. In June 1781, he moved to Schomberg House on Pall Mall, which he christened the ‘Temple of Hymen’. Here he installed his greatest engineering wonder, the ‘Celestial Bed’, to help couples struggling to conceive. For those of limited means, a visit to the temple cost a mere two guineas, for which they could wander through ornately furnished rooms, breathe in the perfumed air (some claimed he piped nitrous oxide into the building), listen to music or hear Graham delivering lectures on health and reproduction (which he saw as a patriotic national duty), or watch scantily clad young women pose among the statues. Among them was one Emma Lyon, who in later years would marry Sir William Hamilton and become Lord Horatio Nelson’s lover.

For the staggeringly high sum of £50, a couple could spend the night in Graham’s high-tech bed, which he guaranteed would solve their problems. The bed was 12ft long and 9ft wide and could be tilted to any angle ‘to improve conception’. The mattress was filled with wheat or oat straw mingled with balm, rose leaves and lavender flowers, and hair from the tails of fine English stallions. Soft music played and doves fluttered under its domed canopy while huge magnets beneath apparently worked their magic. The headboard was inscribed with the words ‘Be Fruitful. Multiply and Replenish the Earth’ and crowned with a clockwork tableau celebrating the goddess of marriage, crackled with electricity, filling the air with ‘electrical fluvia’.  

Sadly for Graham, while the Celestial Bed made his name, it failed to make his fortune. Electrical research was, by now, moving on apace and many saw through the quackery of the bed. Forced to sell off his eletro-mechanical devices, he retired to Edinburgh, where he began advocating ‘mudbaths’ and extended fasting. In 1794 he was arrested for walking down the street naked having given his clothes to the poor. He died shortly afterwards.

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