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• January 29, 2013 • 4:00 AM

An inventor’s shocking solution for office doldrums

Science and Invention magazineAs American workers began migrating from fields and factories to offices in the 1920s, forward-thinking inventors got busy devising ways to squeeze more productivity out of deskbound drudges.

In this March 1923 issue of Science and Invention magazine, editor Hugo Gernsback—namesake of the prestigious Hugo Awards for science fiction—proposed a way to get rid of rest altogether: the electrical sleep eliminator.

Gernsback believed that sleep was little more than a habit picked up by ancient humans in reaction to the cycle of the sun’s rising and setting, one that was no longer necessary in an age of artificial light. Increased blood pressure caused by the stress of a day’s work, he posited, was also to blame for fatigue. He suggested that the impulse toward sloth could be overcome by sending electricity swirling through an office’s air, reinforced with a few jolts sent directly to each worker’s chair.

“The oxygen, as well as the ozone with which the air is charged in small quantities, helps to rejuvenate the system,” he wrote. “A secondary electrical system gives the nerves certain rhythmic shocks, almost imperceptible to the subject. These are used to stimulate the nerve cells that have become sluggish. It is thought that by these means sleep can and will be eliminated entirely.”

Apparently no one ever built one of these systems. The number of Americans working white-collar jobs has gone from 22 percent in 1918 to 60 percent today, and Gernsback’s machine seems a little redundant. Americans are sleeping less, and spending more of their waking hours working. Some 75 million people in the U.S. report having trouble getting to sleep at night. Meanwhile, Americans work more hours per year than their counterparts in virtually every other Western country. Who needs electricity when you’ve got stress?

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

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