It should come as no surprise that an archival search of the U.S. Patent Office yields an embarrassment of riches regarding various contraptions for guarding against “self-abuse” (masturbation) and “nocturnal seminal emissions” (wet dreams) in human males. We Americans, after all, have long been unrivaled in both our spirit of entrepreneurial inventiveness and our pathological prudery. The competition was fierce, but between the years 1856 and 1918, a total of 36 applications for such strange devices received patents. So without further ado, here are thirteen notable ones, listed in the order of their appearance.
1. Patent No. 22,796 (Feb 1, 1859). Dwight Gibbons, Rochester, NY
Gibbon’s “Spermatic Ring” may not look like much, but when it comes to the penis’s pain receptors, sometimes the most terrible things come in small packages. Here’s how Gibbons explained the logistical aspects of his austere anti-semen creation:
To apply the instrument the springs are adjusted and secured by the screw to make the ring of such size as to make it pass easily over the penis … and so remains until the organ commences to be distended and by its pressure outward against the spring, moves the end of the said spring off the roller and liberates the pin, which is then by the sudden contraction of the spring, made to prick the penis with sufficient force to produce pain enough to wake the patient.
There were some kinks in the operating system, however, that later inventors sought to improve upon. Here’s one: the design didn’t easily accommodate penises of different sizes, so if you were an especially endowed male, that painful “prick” meant to shake you out of your erotic somnambulism was more like a serious puncture wound. And another problem that came to light only after the fact: for a lot of men, the mere act of putting the spermatic ring on tended to cause, not stifle, erections.
2. Patent No. 32,842 (July 16, 1861). Hiram H. Reynolds, Buffalo, NY
It's not a fun accoutrement for BDSM aficionados of yore. Reynolds was in fact all business with this “Instrument for the Prevention and Cure of Spermatorrhea.” (I can only guess that’s like diarrhea, by the way, but I’d take it any day over the latter.)
The erection of the penis is prevented by the action of the coiled spring, which exerts a pressure upon the glands [sic] penis against an increase in length and by the action of the pressure plates, which exert a pressure against an increase in diameter. The strap also prevents the penis from rising … an erection makes but slow progress and soon dies away … a full erection is hindered and an involuntary emission of seminal fluid is effectually prevented.
Like the other inventors in this list, Reynolds wasn’t particularly focused on the fact that the male body produces an endless supply of gametes (roughly, 85 million sperm cells per day—per testicle). Instead, his sole objective was reducing catastrophic seminal loss.
3. Patent No. 104,117 (June 11, 1870). Daniel P. Cook, Hartford, CT
Cook’s invention simply sounds cruel. This was, essentially, a pair of heavy-duty underwear that presumably would be placed on an individual against his will.
My invention is a device for so covering up the sexual organs of a person addicted to the vice of masturbation, from his own touch and control, that he must refrain from the commission of the vicious and self-degrading act … It is well-known to those who have charge of prisons, reform schools, and the like, that the practice of masturbation becomes all but universal among those confined therein. [Also] multitudes of children … injure their moral and physical natures for life by the practice of this vice. My invention is designed to put it into the power of those who have the control of all such persons to entirely prevent the practice.
And how did Cook ensure with his device that the ‘master’ could gain such control? Why, he or she would carry the only key to the part containing the subject’s genitals.
4. Patent No. 397,106 (Feb 5, 1889). James H. Bowen, Philadelphia, PA
Filed under “Devices for Preventing or Checking Involuntary Spermatic Discharges,” this bizarre contraption offered a painful departure from former models.
When a discharge is likely to occur, the device is elevated with the organ, and the connections are drawn sufficiently taut as to pull the hair, the effect of which is to awaken the sleeper, who is thereby enabled to prevent or check the discharge.
In case that technical talk was a bit wooly for you, Bowen’s device was meant to thwart those pesky nighttime erections (and the devastation they often spewed) by having the system tethered to your pubic hair. Get a little too excited overnight by, say, the lascivious image of President Harrison’s wife in a revealing camisole, and you’d awaken to an unrelenting pair of metal pincers plucking out your pubes from their sensitive roots.
5. Patent No. 396,212 (Jan 15, 1889). John V. Long, Jersey City, NJ
True innovation was growing a bit flaccid when Long came along and developed his new “Electrical Body-Wear” device, enervating the limp industry. It hadn’t even been a decade since Edison’s light bulbs started brightening homes around the country, and here was Long’s unit—what was, in effect, the world’s first electrical tool for shocking disobedient tools into impotent submission. Here’s how this scary mechanism worked:
Upon retiring, the collar is placed in position … and the rings are placed upon two fingers of the wearer. The battery and induction-coil will be placed in a box beneath the bed or in other convenient situation. The movement of erection will force the arm back until the pin makes contact with the clasp, when the primary of the induction-coil will be closed and the user will receive a shock from the secondary through the rings sufficient to awaken him from sleep.
Long’s invention is shocking when considering that the average 13- to 79-year-old penis is erect for about 90 minutes each night, or 20 percent of overall sleep time.
6. Patent No. 494,437 (Mar 28, 1893). Frank Orth, Astoria, OR
If even a nasty shock weren’t enough to prevent a decent man’s sperm cells from escaping his body overnight, Orth’s new device offered a chilling solution. Literally.
My invention [is] a simple apparatus which may be easily applied and worn, and which is automatically operated by an erection so as to cause the parts affected to be embraced by a chilling envelope which causes the erection to subside without a discharge … if during the night an erection occurs, the dilation of the penis spreads the levers, thus separating the jaws, and permitting the cold water to flow through the tube to the sack or envelope … cool[ing] the organs of generation.
Not exactly my idea of a wet dream. Like the others in this category, Orth’s “apparatus for preventing nocturnal emissions”—complete with tubes, belts, sacks, hoses, and now even an ice-cold water supply—is not only complicated, but totally unnecessary.
7. Patent No. 641,979 (Jan 23, 1900). Joseph Lees, Summit Hill, PA
Calling any of the devices on this list “cute” doesn’t sound quite right, but if any were to fit this bill, it’s clearly Lee’s clever turn-of-the-century invention. The dubious purpose of this gadget was the same as before—to prevent those soul-depleting nocturnal seminal emissions. But arguably it had a sweet-natured side to it. Unhappy with electrical shocking devices, and displeased with other similar units that sounded a startling alarm upon a man’s erection (talk about awkward), Lees offered a decidedly kinder alternative.
The nerves of persons having need of a device of [this] character are usually weak and are more or less injuriously affected by sudden, sharp, loud, and especially unexpected sounds. Therefore it is desirable to awaken the sleeper by gentle means, so as not to startle him, and this may be obtained by strains of music or other pleasing medium.
Lees built his device to connect to a gramophone, such that the man’s unwanted nighttime erections summoned, for instance, Chopin or Bach to the rescue.
8. Patent No. 742,814 (Oct 27, 1903). Albert V. Todd, Denver, CO
Ouch. That sums up Todd’s anti-masturbation device. Just look at it, for God’s sake. From what I can gather, the idea behind this unholy machine was for the chronic masturbator to shock his own penis via the metal coils whenever that randy devil down below took the reins. “The instrument is intended for use until the habit is mastered or overcome,” Todd pointed out in his original patent application. Poor Todd. He’d roll over in his grave to learn that most educated men today have mastered the habit at hand, all right.
9. Patent No. 826,377 (July 1906). Raphael A. Sonn, Atlanta, GA
Sonn’s device was another cruel lock-and-key job, but unlike that sadistic iron diaper developed by Daniel Cook from Connecticut a few decades prior, the ‘keeper’ of the lock in this case didn’t have to unleash the man’s genitals whenever he had to urinate. And that made it so much more convenient for both. As Sonn explained:
The object of the invention is in a simple yet thoroughly effective and positive manner, without interference with the functions of nature, to prevent and cure the habit of self-abuse in males … When positioned, it will be impossible to remove the appliance without great physical pain and possible mutilation, and if removed it cannot be replaced without the key, so that detection will be inevitable.
Sonn pointed out that this was a humane device, given that the spring-pressed clamping mechanisms would yield to (and thus permit) full erections. It discouraged masturbation only because the male couldn’t get a decent grip on his own penis.
10. Patent No. 875,845 (Jan 7, 1908). Ellen E. Perkins, Beaver Bay, MN
What makes this particular male anti-masturbation apparatus so curious isn’t its design or function—it’s really just another elaborate master-slave sort of getup—but rather, the fact that a woman was its inventor. “It is a deplorable but well-known fact,” wrote Perkins, a nurse, “that one of the most common causes of insanity, imbecility, and feeble-mindedness, especially in youth, is due to masturbation or self-abuse.” Perkins’s “Sexual Armor” never really caught on, surprisingly enough, but a framed tribute on the wall of a popular bar in Beaver Bay, MN commemorates the town’s most famous female inventor. “With persons who have carried on such disastrous practices until serious ailments of the mind have resulted, there has been but little hope of cure,” she wrote ruefully in her patent application. Let’s have a drink to the fact that there’s still no cure for masturbation.
11. Patent No. 879,534 (Feb 18, 1908). Clarence W. Fraser, Buffalo, NY
At some point along the way, Americans got it in their heads that a man’s pajamas—specifically, fabric rubbing against the man’s genitals while the otherwise saintly fellow was sound asleep—were the source of his nocturnal emissions. Enter the contorted brainchild of Clarence Fraser. “The device is applied when the knees of the user are elevated,” Fraser clarified to avoid any confusion, “which assures an elevated position for the guard strap whereupon the bed clothing may be supported out of contact with the body between the knees and the chest of the user.” Right. Sounds really comfortable, Fraser. I have a bad feeling I’m going to wake up tomorrow with a neck ache just from looking at this.
12. Patent No. 995,600 (June 20, 1911). Jonas Edward Heyser, Philadelphia, PA
Heyser’s draconian invention was especially sad in that it was tailor-made for a vulnerable demographic: mentally ill male masturbators confined to asylums.
Not only are the penis and testicles entirely inclosed [sic] within the metal pockets formed for their reception, but the spermatic cord is likewise covered and the patient is likewise prevented access to this cord, which as is well known, if he could, he might defeat the very purpose for which the device is intended.
According to the inventor, the device was nearly impossible for the patient to remove:
This would require a vast amount of strength and unreasonably small hips … any ordinary patient [cannot] force it down over the hips when once adjusted in place.
All joking aside, I find this contraption disturbing, and I hope you do as well. I’ve no doubt that a patient’s habitual masturbation can be frustrating and uncomfortable to those who work in such institutional settings, and this is as true today as it was in Heyser’s day. But as I argue in my book Perv, when it comes to sexual deviance, no demonstrable harm, no foul. If fondling oneself is one of the few sources of pleasure that such an unfortunate person will ever have in life, let him have at it, I say.
13. Patent No. 1,136,396 (Apr 20, 1915). Bernát Gáspár, Miskolez, Hungary
Speaking of asylums, meet the full-body straightjacket, er, cozy anti-masturbatory PJs, introduced to middle class Americans by a savvy Hungarian. “The injury to health due to the practice of masturbation is so great,” wrote Gáspár, “that already various means have been devised to prevent [people] from committing such a crime against themselves.” But his new invention was different.
The device is so constructed as to absolutely prevent the person wearing [it] from either manipulating the sexual organs, or in any other way exciting them by the movement of feet or legs … My device consists of a shirt made of any suitable material, the sleeves being sewed to the body of the shirt, from which position [the arms] cannot be moved. The front of the shirt from the breast down to the feet is made stiff or rigid so that the wearer can neither draw up the legs nor in any way move them nor lie on the stomach, as in the latter case the rigid stiff portions of the shirt would create great discomfort or even pain.
That part about “great discomfort or even pain” didn’t stop Gáspár from touting the device as “moreover, conducive to quiet sleep.” In fact, he covered all the bases in his product description except for one minor detail: After passing a quiet, masturbation-free night in this thing, how the hell does one get out of it in the morning?
See also: Mountjoy, P. T. (1974). Some early attempts to modify penile erection in horse and human: an historical analysis. Psychological Record, 24, 291-308.