Back in the mid-1800s, amid the frenzy of the California Gold Rush, scientists began to toy with the idea of a machine that could detect underground metal. But the first person to create such a machine was Alexander Graham Bell, better known as the inventor of the telephone. In 1881, Bell attempted to save the life of President James Garfield, who had been shot in the back by assassin Charles Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. Bell's crude metal detector wasn't able to locate the elusive bullet in Garfield's body, but the electromagnetic device turned out to be the prototype for all future metal detectors.
The bullet pierced Garfield’s vertebra but missed his spinal cord. It did not affect any major organs, arteries or veins. However, doctors searched the president's body with unsterile hands and instruments, leading to sepsis, a massive infection that led to his death.
The search for the missing bullet:
- Doctors severely limited Garfield's solid food intake, believing the lead bullet might have pierced his intestines. X-rays, which would have been helpful in the search, weren't discovered until the 1890s.
- During the autopsy, the bullet was found lodged in the adipose tissue on the left side of the president’s back, just below the pancreas.
- The metal springs in Garfield's bed may have confused Bell's metal detector, rendering it useless.