"I use it every day," John Travolta told Stern magazine in 1997, "I'm always totally refreshed by it." The actor is describing the Hubbard electrometer, electropsychometer or E-meter, the device at the heart of Scientology.
Essentially a Wheatstone Bridge, as developed by Samuel Hunter Christie and Sir Charles Wheatstone in the 19th century, the meter measures electrical resistance. In this case galvanic skin response (GSR), ie how sweaty one's hands are, and how well they conduct electricity. GSR is an important factor in lie detectors developed in the 1930s and is still used, controversially, by law enforcement and government authorities in the US and elsewhere.
Scientology founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard was granted a US patent in 1966 for a "device for measuring and indicating changes in resistance of a living body," but the original electropsychometer was developed in the 1950s by psychoanalyst Volney G Mathison. Hubbard adopted Mathison's device, but when he refused to relinquish the patent rights it was dropped until 1958 when a more efficient version was developed by Scientology-friendly engineers.
Since a 1963 US food and drug administration edict, Scientology can no longer refer to E-meters as having any medical use: they are now "religious artifacts" that continue to play a central role in scientological practice. The latest Mark VII Quantum model looks like two tin cans wired up to a Smart Car dashboard but, like its predecessors, it is integral to the process of becoming "clear" or "free from negative thoughts and emotions".
The subject or "pre-clear" holds a cylinder in each hand and is questioned by an "auditor". As it moves through the body, the device's electrical current is, according to Scientology's instructions, influenced by the subject's thoughts and emotions. "The pictures in the mind contain energy and mass" that generate electrical resistance, which is picked up by the E-meter. Ticks and twitches of its dials are interpreted as evidence of negative energies which, of course, Scientology can remove. Cheating is relatively easy: relaxing reduces the needles' movement, while squeezing the cylinders induces twitches.
Whether you consider its use sacred or profane, the meter itself is a fascinating technological "and religious" artefact.