Inside the EMPower Modulator!

Review date: 1 June 2002.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


About six years ago, I attended an interesting demonstration. You can read about it here. It was of a device called the EMPower Modulator, which by unclearly described means is meant to do all sorts of extraordinary things.

Plug an EMPower Modulator into the wall, and thanks to something called "non-Hertzian frequencies" it is alleged to eliminate harmful electromagnetic radiation, throughout the building. And increase the electrical efficiency of things plugged into it. And cause computer monitors and laser printers to start emitting negative ions instead of positive ones.

Oh, and small pieces of purple-anodised aluminium from the same manufacturer are, it seems, in touch with God, or the Universal Oneness, or something, and know when you're doing evil, and will protect you from harm in various ways (and improve your gas mileage!) if you aren't.

I don't know whether a Modulator has ever been claimed to be able to cure a rainy day, but I wouldn't be surprised. Someone thinks it's one of dozens of peculiar treatments that'll help you recover from cancer, after all.

The chief justification presented by the manufacturers for their various claims was a snowstorm of anecdotes. The hosts of the demonstration also claimed that an electrodiagnostic device called the "LISTEN System" - which, so far as I know, can't be legally sold in Australia, much less used in the practice of anything resembling medicine - validated at least some of their claims.

Read My Clash With The Quacks for the full spiel. It's quite entertaining. Come back here when you're done.

OK. Harmonic Products, the Queensland-based outfit that makes the Modulator and the purple aluminium things and sundry other oddities, wouldn't give me a Modulator for review. Well, they said they would, but only after I underwent brain wave and live blood cell analysis. I passed.

And there the matter rested, except for a censorship attempt, and an implausible legal threat, and another implausible legal threat, and a bit of associated amusement.

Until, out of the blue, a reader e-mailed me and told me that a friend of his had bought one of these things, and was now having second thoughts about it. Would I like to have a look inside it?

Yes. Yes I would.

EMPower Modulator

So here it is. One slightly used EMPower Modulator.

It looks like some sort of power filter gadget. An Australian three-pin plug cable on one end, an Australian three-pin socket cable on the other...

Modulator body

...and a mysterious aquamarine object in the middle. This object, I'd been told by Mr Noel Orchard of Harmonic Products, contains three special thingummies that only work their magic after they've been specially tuned by Mr Noel Orchard of Harmonic Products.

I presume that fooling with the inside of the Modulator will, according to Harmonic, cause it to stop working. They don't want their customers getting inside the box, anyway (not a bad idea, given that this is a mains power device); I can tell, because the thing's held together with six tri-wing screws. Most people don't have tri-wing drivers.

I, naturally, have several.

But before I cracked the case and poked around inside, I plugged the Modulator in to see if it actually did anything. It's got a ten amp rating, so you should be able to power anything through it that you can power through an ordinary extension cord.

I had a few tests in mind for the Modulator, because a while ago one Michael De Campo e-mailed me, made various claims about the Modulator, and dared me to publish his letter on-line.

Well, it got published all right, because I sent it to the Skeptic mailing list and it thence made its way to the North Texas Skeptics site. You can find it here.

Among other things, Michael claimed that "Our toaster ... burnt the toast very quickly" when the Modulator was plugged in; "We had to re-adjust it down to about 1/3 for normal and quick toast".

OK. That's easy enough to test.

Using an entirely unremarkable Sunbeam two-slice kitchen toaster, I toasted one slice of bread, without Modulator assistance. It took about three minutes, including one pop-up-and-turn event (this toaster doesn't toast very evenly without help), to get the toast fairly dark, the way I like it.

Now, if you toast one slice, then plug in a mystery widget and toast another one right away, it won't take as long. That's because the toaster's already hot. Duh.

So I put some marmalade on my toast and ate it, and wrote some stuff, and contemplated Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and came back to a stone cold toaster. I plugged in the Modulator, plugged the toaster into the Modulator's output, and toasted another slice.

Three minutes, including one turn.

OK, this time it was a bit darker towards one edge. But it was a bit paler towards the other one. So I don't think anything supernatural need be invoked to explain it.

I tried using the microwave oven while the Modulator was plugged into the toaster. The microwave behaved normally. I tried plugging the microwave in through the Modulator. Nothing changed. I left the Modulator plugged in, to see if any other appliances changed behaviour. So far as I can determine, none did.

Even assuming that the Modulator could affect appliance function, Mr De Campo's claim that it makes fridges or freezers colder is a strange one. You're not changing the compressor power when you turn the temperature dial in your fridge; you're changing the thermostat setting. Unless the Modulator somehow turns the thermostat down, the temperature inside the fridge won't change. If something magically increases the efficiency of the fridge compressor or insulation or refrigerant or whatever, that won't make a fridge any colder. It'll just save electricity, by requiring the motor to run less often to reach the temperature set on the thermostat.

Of course, the appliance-improving functions of the Modulator are not its main attraction, according to Harmonic Products. The Modulator's principal claim to fame is its "biological de-stressing" abilities.

Well, I felt normal before plugging in the Modulator, and I felt normal afterwards. No doubt a well trained LISTEN System operator could have seen a great change. But I'll bet anything you like that they couldn't tell the difference, if you set up a double blind test where neither the tester, nor the testee, knew when the Modulator was plugged in and when it wasn't.

To be fair, I must confess that late in the evening on the day of the test, I felt a wave of warmth pass over my body, bringing with it a sense of happiness and satisfaction, and a desire to annoy people thousands of miles away.

The fact that I'd just drunk a large gin had, I'm sure, nothing whatsoever to do with this phenomenon.

Looking inside

The next day, it was time to rip the thing apart. All that holds the Modulator together are the six screws; there's no glue or potting compound or other nastiness to deal with.

Modulator interior

Here's the inside of the Modulator. It's not very complex.

Here in Australia, our mains cables (well, modern ones anyway) have a brown active wire, a blue neutral wire, and a green and yellow striped earth wire. Inside the Modulator, the neutral and earth wires pass straight through, and the active conductor is made out of copper strip, for most of the Modulator's length.

Interior close-up

Clearly, the three magical items alluded to by Mr Orchard are these here aluminium plates.

Plate detached

As it turns out, the plates aren't actually electrically connected to the copper strip in any way. They sit over the top of it, gooped onto the strip with a blob of silicone, and supported at the corners by four little acrylic blocks, to which they are also glued. They're easy enough to pop off, though.


Here's the middle plate. It's a reasonably well cut, sharp-edged square, with the Harmonic Products logo engraved on one side, and a little hole that's probably there because Harmonic make their pendants out of these same plates. There are also some quite noticeable greasy fingerprints. Possibly Noel's.

Um - that's it, kids. Three aluminium squares, sitting near a copper strip.

Oh, sure, the squares are meant to be imbued with the psychic essence of Yoda, or they're things that Vorlons use to scrape ice off their windscreens, or whatever. Not just ordinary aluminium. Mm hm.

As far as I can see, though, the Modulator is a 1.4 metre extension cord, with some internal decorations, that costs $AU295.

That's about $US167, as I write this, and it's the price for which Harmonic Products were selling the thing when I talked with them. Harmonic don't have a Web site, but that doesn't mean Modulators have gone.

Check out, for instance, this page on the "Hippocrates Health Centre of Australia and Nature Refuge" site. According to them, the Modulator can somehow help prevent, or maybe cure, "headaches, eyestrain and stress ... cataracts, leukemia and various cancers". Cool.

Mind you, their first promotional quote straight-facedly claims that the efficacy of the Modulator was proved by dowsing. And the second one's from a chiropractor, and I bet I can tell you what kind.

The End Bit

So, that's the EMPower Modulator, inside and out. I don't think it does anything. I don't think it can do anything. But I don't think the people that buy it, and like it, are nuts.

If someone sells you a magic marble which, they say, will make you feel happier, and if you believe their claim, then you will probably feel happier with the marble in your pocket, or on your mantelpiece, or up your bottom, or wherever you're meant to put it. The thing's not promising to change anything quantifiable, after all; nobody said it'd make you a foot taller or immune to sunburn or able to fly.

Suggestion is a very powerful thing in situations like this. Bear in mind that people who are not raving loonies in their everyday life can, nonetheless, be persuaded that sorcerers are wandering around stealing people's penises.

Stare at someone long enough looking for an aura, and you'll see one. Wave your hands over someone long enough hunting for subtle energies, and you'll feel them. Hunt for backwards messages in speech and you'll find them; look for signs of fakery in Apollo moon program photos and you'll find them; search for corroboration for the idea that many of the world's celebrities are reptilian shape-shifting aliens and you'll find it.

Fraud is lying for money. If you're selling useless magic marbles but you think they really work, then you're not committing fraud by selling them. Your local consumer protection organisation probably still wants a word with you, but they're probably not going to get you for fraud.

Similarly, if you believe your EMPower Modulator works - as, I'm sorry to say, I suspect Harmonic Products actually do - then you're not committing fraud by selling it. There are other issues to do with the making of therapeutic claims and so on, but if the vendor doesn't know the product is rubbish, then it's not simple fraud.

There are quite a few products like the Modulator available here in Australia, and other equivalent products elsewhere in the world. They're not going away.

And it's not surprising that people of normal intelligence can believe that a device like the Modulator might work. We live in a world of atomic clocks, of ten dollar lasers you can hold in your hand, of supersonic passenger planes, space stations and ferrofluid. Holograms. Magnetic resonance imaging. Personal computers, for that matter. Compared with these real scientific miracles, the Modulator looks less out-there.

So that's an explanation of the popularity of weird stuff like this. But it's not an excuse. Not for people who buy Modulators and similar devices, and certainly not for people who make these things.

If you want to find the truth about the world - do science, in other words - rather than just gather possibly erroneous impressions supporting one idea, then you have to try to disprove your ideas, even if you really want your ideas to be true.

If auras exist, for instance, then you should be able to see them even if there's a partition stopping you from seeing the person themselves. Do a test where you don't know if there's a person on the other side of the partition or not; see if your idea holds up.

Or, indeed, just allow someone else to test your Modulator, to see if it works.

A number of people have offered their services to Harmonic Products, to help them do proper tests of their various claims; not once, to my knowledge, has a proper test been done. LISTEN System, live blood analysis, et cetera; yes. Tests that don't themselves need testing to see if they mean anything; no.

It's a free country. I think you should be free to spend $AU295 on a 1.4 metre extension cord if you want to.

But I don't think people should be able to get away with promising health benefits for things like the EMPower Modulator, when they haven't bothered to demonstrate that these benefits actually exist.

Everybody suffers, directly or indirectly, when the world is polluted with nonsense.

More on the Modulator

My Clash With The Quacks

The Quacks Strike Back

Legal Inaction 1

Legal Inaction 2

(Not) Testing The Modulator