A New Look at an Old Phonograph:
The “Psycho-Phone” in Socio-Historical Context
by Tim Fabrizio
This article appeared in the June 2008 edition of The Sound Box, the publication of the California Antique Phonograph Society, Rene Rondeau, editor.
Copyright 2008, revised 2009, no permissions granted.
Every day, when I open my e-mail box, I am reminded of lost youth – notmy lost youth in particular, but certainly someone’s faded glory,
which the mavens of SPAM are trying to revive. Pills, herbal extracts, even mechanical contraptions guaranteed to return your sexual vigor,
or improve upon nature’s endowments altogether – the latest “quack medical” trash in a long, seamy history of pseudo-medical mummery.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the story of mankind’s search for the “fountain of youth” was already ages old. However, there
developed a particular variety of faux-scientific bamboozlement in the first few decades of the 1900s that set the stage for the introduction of
the “Psycho-Phone.” This newest wrinkle in the banner of vitality regained might simply have been viewed as the most ridiculous to date,
had it not been for certain ominously venal and potentially lethal elements.
Many worthless elixirs had been sold during the nineteenth century, and were still popular in the early 1900s. Clark Stanley had reaped
enormous benefit from the brilliant marketing ploy of having rattlesnakes publicly milked of their venom at the World’s Columbian Exposition
in Chicago, in 1893 – presumably supplying the key ingredient for his Snake Oil Liniment. In 1917 the United States government tested it,
and revealed its true contents: mineral oil, fatty oil, red pepper, turpentine and camphor. At least nothing it contained was particularly harmful,
unlike many nostrums meant to be taken internally that contained potentially poisonous substances such as sulphuric acid, or highly addictive
amounts of opium, cocaine or alcohol.
Many patent medicines claimed therapeutic results outrageously broad. For instance, Bonnore’s Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid purported
to cure neuralgia, cholera, rheumatism, paralysis, hip diseases, measles, female complaints, necrosis, chronic abscesses, mercurial eruptions,
epilepsy and scarlet fever. Buried among the other complaints, “mercurial eruptions” suggested relief for those already undergoing mercury
treatments for venereal disease (of which “necrosis,” also listed, is symptomatic). It was in fact the crackpots and mountebanks who specialized
in treating embarrassing social diseases, “youthful indiscretion” and “men’s ailments” that took the fakir’s cake for both the outlandishness of
their propositions, and the hurt and even death they caused.. Men had much to fear, but only a portion of the danger was from the disease – the
“cure” could be worse. The backs of magazines were crammed with panaceas for “youthful indiscretion,” which could mean anything from
imagined damage caused by adolescent high jinx to a full blown case of syphilis. At the turn of the twentieth century the otherwise sober Sears
catalogue contained an array of battery powered “suspensory” belts, intended to revive manly vigor by the continuous application of low voltage
to the sensitive area.
More startling was the steady rise of medical hacks offering to reverse the aging process by means of “transplantations.” Fake balms
were one thing, but con men began slicing people open to install animal organs, in the impossible hope of reclaiming youth, fertility
or banishing disease. Women received animal ovaries. Men got the gonads of monkeys or goats. Appalling, yes, but after the end of the
Great War the world began a long, slow tango with the dream of rejuvenation. Into this milieu would come the Psycho-Phone – part real
science, part poppycock. To be sure, it was not the only product or procedure to combine a modicum of sincerity with a healthy dose of
nonsense. A French surgeon of Russian extraction, Serge Voronoff, was convinced of the efficacy of his monkey gland transplants
as much as “Dr.” John R. Brinkley, an American humbug and ripoff artist, was disabused of any notion that sewing up goat glands inside his
patients had therapeutic value. Yet, thousands of men and women lined up during the 1920s and 30s to risk their financial security, the
happiness of their families and their very lives to recover their youth. Understood in the process of revitalization was a welcomed flood of
self-confidence, restorative physical changes such as the return of one’s original hair color, greatly improved mental acuity, success
in business and social situations, the sudden recognition of great opportunities without contemplation and energy to spare.
The “slice-and-dice” gland transplantation specialists may have been all the rage (Brinkley almost won the governorship of Kansas in 1930),
but other, subtler forces also were at work in the arena of human health. Psychological science came into its own, extending from the work
of fundamental practitioners such as Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) and Carl Jung (1875 - 1961). Freud’s theories delineated what he
perceived as the structure of human consciousness – the “Id,” the “Ego,” the “Superego” and the “Libido” – and were predicated on the
corollary that all psychic energy originated in the unconscious. In order to influence the conscious being, one might conclude, the
vastness of the unconscious mind must be accessed.
Although German Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815) gave his name to hypnotism (“mesmerizing”), what he actually practiced was
more akin to faith healing and the “laying on of hands.” A Scot, James Braid (1795 - 1860) rejected the notion that the power of the
administering physician caused a trance-like state in which the subject became particularly suggestible, and insisted that it was a
physiological condition caused by subjecting the patient to prolonged concentration on a bright, moving object. Braid tried ameliorating
various physical problems through hypnotic suggestion, but was largely unsuccessful except in alleviating pain.
Thus, the stage was set for the Psycho-Phone – a phonograph, the purpose of which was to influence the subconscious with the intention
of obtaining therapeutic effects both psychological and physical. Though Braid had failed to show such things were possible long before the
advent of the Psycho-Phone in the late 1920s and early 30s, the state of contemporary thinking, from Freud’s view of the unconscious as the
greater portion of the human mind, to “Dr.” Brinkley’s practice of diagnosing medical conditions over the radio, made a fertile environment in
which to introduce a device based on subliminal suggestion. In the words of Alois B. Saliger, inventor of the Psycho-Phone, “…it has been
proven that natural sleep is identical with hypnotic sleep and that during natural sleep the unconscious mind is most receptive to suggestions.”
Not much solid science here, but “it has been proven” always sounds convincing – about the same as saying that Crest toothpaste is a
“proven cavity fighter” (which tends to be more of an opinion than a fact).
The Psycho-Phone was designed to play a pre-recorded message to its slumbering user during the night. Mr. Saliger, a New York City
inventor of excavating and salvage equipment, who was connected with the Saliger Ship Salvage Corporation, registered the Psycho-Phone
trademark in 1927, and applied for a U.S. patent on October 20, 1928. He was granted the patent for the device (“Automatic
Time-Controlled Suggestion Machine,” No. 1,886,358, November 1, 1932), which specifically described the disc-playing “Psycho-Phone.”
The production model (with slight changes in the appearance of the decorative decals) consisted of an electrically-driven turntable that was
triggered by a clock, vaguely similar to the Peter Pan phono/alarm clock of the same period, which commenced an average 78 rpm record
to wake the user. Psycho-Phone records, however, were far from average. A soothing male voice (it turns out to be Mr. Saliger himself!),
often speaking in the first person, initially established that the clientwas asleep and that his or her subconscious mind would hear and obey,
before intoning the relevant information.
The soundbox of the instrument had a tiny horn appended, giving a soft, intimate quality to the acoustic reproduction, which had little chance
of waking the subject. In order for the mechanism to be activated, the soundbox had to be positioned at the beginning of the disc. The
mechanical clock was set to the hour, and an electric contact closed on the half hour, after the user had been given time to fall asleep,
starting the turntable. The same message was recorded twice in a row on each disc. The motor turned off when the second message finished.
There was no built-in automatic return of the soundbox to the opening track, so Saliger employed a simple expedient: he equipped each of
his disc Psycho-Phones with an inexpensive and effective "Gold Seal Record Repeater." Positioned atop the record, the Gold Seal returned
the needle to the start of the first track after the circuit was closed by the hourly passage of the clock.
There was also a cylinder record version of the Psycho-Phone. It was a close cousin of the Dictaphone and Ediphone dictating machines then
in use: an acoustic cylinder phonograph driven by an electric motor, intended for recording and playback. The disc Psycho-Phone was suitable
for playback only, however the cylinder format was chosen because it was easy for the user to record his own messages tailored to personal
life struggles, such as “I will play more records and collect more antique phonographs!” These custom messages were subsequently
reproduced during sleep. The cylinder Psycho-Phone was stoutly made, like an office machine, and was capable of being easily transported
in its carrying case, along with a nickel-plated horn/recording tube, support crane, recorder, reproducer, and blank cylinders. In this instance,
a built-in automatic return mechanism brought the reproducer back to the beginning of the record. The cylinder Psycho-Phone was the most
expensive of Saliger's contraptions -- costing a hefty $235. 00!
The Psycho-Phone’s messages to the sleeping mind, as evidenced by those discs that survive, were prosaic in many ways, stressing
financial success, social popularity and happiness (“Money wants me and comes to me. Business wants me and comes to me…I
am rich. I am success…”). Yet, lest one suspect that the Psycho-Phone was not designed as an avenue for the same kind of rejuvenation
flogged by the sociopathic “Dr.” Brinkley with his goat glands, or any number of quack medical devices and patent medicines, there were
references to the subject’s hair growing vigorously and returning to its original color (a claim Brinkley and Voronoff also made) and successful
daily bowel movements, among other signs of recaptured robustness and regularity. In other words, the Psycho-Phone, a rather overlooked
and quaint device that some would care to spend more than five minutes trying to understand, is in fact a fascinating (and fortunately benign)
visitor to our field of recorded sound from over the garden wall, where the mania for rejuvenation cost legions of suckers millions of dollars,
killed or maimed them by the score, and made shameless imposters wealthy beyond imagining, until the onset of the Second World War
and the efforts of the American Medical Association brought the greater part of this madness to an end.