Sunday, August 2, 2015

John Harrison Curtis and His Acoustical Chair

by Geri Walton

Among those interested in the idea of acoustical aids was a man trained as a naval surgeon named John Harrison Curtis. Curtis believed that just as "the telescope is to the eye, acoustical tunnels [will] to the ear." He believed that it would not be any more amazing for someone to hear miles away aided by acoustical tunnels than it was for someone to see miles away using a telescope.

Although Curtis did not having any medical qualifications, he decided wanted to be an aurist, which was someone interested in treating and curing disorders of the ears. His interest occurred because of prejudices that deafness could not be cured and because he learned "aurual surgery was neglected by the Profession." Further, he decided the best way to earn a living as an aurist was to open a dispensary. The dispensary he founded was named the "Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear."

After Curtis's dispensary was in place, he established certain rigid techniques when dealing with patients. For instance, he strictly enforced the time he would consult with patients, meeting them only between 11am and 2pm and not 5 minutes before or after. He also always saw his patients in full dress: "His make-up was perfect. His hair was curled; his coat blue, with bright Wellington buttons; a white waistcoat, and black continuation, silk stocking and pumps." Moreover, supposedly, one of the first things Curtis did upon meeting a new patient was to clear out the affected ear using water and an immense syringe.

People felt that Curtis was a miracle worker and his fame spread. His fame was further enhanced by his clever newspaper and journal advertising that was "partly prosaic and partly poetical." Eventually, he attained international celebrity, and people "flocked to the Dispensary in Dean Street for advice and relief." Beside numerous members of the aristocracy that were his patients, there was also the King himself, George IV. Moreover, because Curtis's clientele was primarily wealthy, he supposedly earned upwards of 5000l. per year.

Curtis supplemented his wealth in several ways. First, Curtis wrote several books, including A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear that was published in 1817 and went through numerous editions. He also wrote The Present State of Ophthalmology in 1841 and, during the same year, also introduced a diagnostic tool known as a "cephaloscope." Lastly, Curtis invented various instruments for the deaf. One invention was a telescoping hearing-trumpet that could be carried in a small case and fit in a person's pocket and another was his acoustical chair.

Curtis's high back acoustical chair was about the size of a large library chair. On either side was affixed two sound barrels, and, attached to each barrel was a perforated plate that gathered the sound "into a paraboloid vase from any part of the room." The convex end served to reflect the voice, which was said to be distinct and not too loud. It was also similar to a chair created in 1706 by a M. Duguet, but Curtis's chair was designed so that a person did not have to get too close and the sounds heard by the person sitting in the chair came from the opposite side of where the person was addressed.

As shown in the picture of Curtis's acoustical chair, on the near side of the chair was the barrel for sound, and, attached to the barrel was the conductor. To convey the sound, a tunnel was placed beneath the chair, and within the chair was the tube applied to the ear. To complete the chair and convey sounds, another conductor and mouthpiece were also required for the speaker.

Curtis had big plans for his acoustical chair. He believed that with sufficient tubes his chair could help to convey messages from one Government office to another. He also had the idea to have chairs used "between the various official departments at Whitehall, from the Horse Guards to the Mansion House, &c." But nothing ever came of his ideas, partly because the outlay to fund such a scheme was enormous.

In the end, despite Curtis's fame and creativity, his fortunes declined due to more knowledgeable doctors and formidable competition in the aurist field. However, this did not stop Curtis from spending extravagantly. "He became bankrupt and was characterized in the Gazette as 'John Harrison Curtis, bookseller, Soho Square,'" and then with little left, Curtis retired to the "Isle of Man, broken in fortune, in constitution, and in spirit."

Clarke, James Fernandez, Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession, 1874
The Mechanics' Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette, Vol. 26, 1837
The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, 1837
Virdi-Dhesi, J., “Curtis's Cephaloscope: Deafness and Making of Surgical Authority in London, 1816-1845," in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 87, Issue 3, 2013


Geri Walton has long been fascinated by history and the people that create it. Their stories and the reasons why they did what they did encouraged her to receive a degree in History and to create a blog focusing on her favorite time period, the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, scheduled for publication in 2016, focuses on Princess de Lamballe, friend and confidante to Marie Antoinette.

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