Rio History: Coil Spring Mattress Contributes to President’s Death


Special to the PARADE

President James Garfield survived an assassination attempt on July 2, 1881 but his chances of recovery hinged on his doctors being able to locate and remove a bullet that was lodged somewhere in his chest.

The problem was simple; if the bullet had penetrated the liver or other major organs it would mean certain death without surgery to remove it.  If the bullet hadn’t penetrated an organ it would be ok to delay surgery until the president’s condition stabilized.

The x ray machine would not be invented for another 15 years so the doctors relied on manual probes with special instruments to determine the exact location of the bullet. They quickly realized they had no idea of where the bullet lie and continued probes to locate it increased the risk of infection.

Their dilemma made the headlines of every major newspaper and soon caught the attention of two distinguished inventors of the time.

Simon Newcomb told a reporter how had been experimenting with running electricity through wire coils and had found that when metal was placed near the coils a faint hum could be heard at that point in the coil. However, the hum was so faint that is was very difficult to hear.

After reading of Newcomb’s experiment Alexander Bell telegraphed Newcomb in Baltimore and offered to assist him with his own invention. Bell’s telephone amplified sound through wire!  The device the two managed to put together consisted of fine needle connected by wire to one terminal of a telephone while a metal plate (laid upon the skin) was connected to the other terminal. The needle was then inserted into the flesh near where the bullet was suspected to be. If all worked well, when the needle came close to the bullet an electric current created between it and the metal plate would produce sound.

As a final test, before using it on the president, they went to the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. where they asked for volunteers. The machine unfailingly identified those who still had bullets in their bodies. Now the two were ready to try the invention on the president.

Inexplicably there was a faint hum no matter where the wand was placed on the president’s body. Dejectedly, the two returned to Newcomb’s lab. There had to be an answer. It still worked just fine in the lab and on the old soldiers. The last day of July, they went back to the White House to try again. Like before, no matter where they placed the wand on the president’s body, a faint hum could be heard. When they moved the wand away from the president’s body, the hum could no longer be heard. The two inventors were stumped. The machine worked fine on everyone else but the president. Dejected, they again left the White House. For now, there were no further attempts to perfect the machine.

A few weeks after their last attempt, President Garfield was moved to his home in New Jersey and died on September 19, 1881.

So the question here is; why did the machine which worked fine on everyone except the president? The answer is simple, the machine did not fail. The problem was within the president’s bed. Coil spring mattresses had just been invented and The White House was one of the first to use them. Very few people had even heard of them. Thus, Bell and Newcomb’s invention was detecting metal — unfortunately they didn’t realize that it was the coil springs. If they had moved him off the bed and onto an examination table, their apparatus would have detected where the bullet was and likely, knowing this, the White House surgeons could have saved James Garfield’s life!

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