Plug your snake oil into the wall:

The EMPower Modulator

Copyright Daniel Rutter 1996-1998

EMPower Modulator


I actually got a Modulator to play with - and take apart!

Read all about it!

This file's caused no end of excitement. Read about my censorship experience here!

Oh, and while you're at it, try this on for size.

Don't have time to read the whole thing? Try the executive summary of Harmonic Energy Products' claims for their device.

Every now and then, a product comes along that does something really amazing. Something which up until now was impossible. Something that nobody believes until they see it.

But usually, products like this are con jobs.

This story is about a product in the latter category.

Harmonic Energy Products is an outfit based in Queensland, Australia, which manufactures two basic lines of products - the EMPower Modulator and the No Risk Disk. More on the Disk later; the EMPower Modulator is the big news.

The EMPower Modulator is a device that looks vaguely like an aquamarine Toblerone with a strong Star Trek influence, with a cable coming out of each end. There's a three pin electrical plug on one cable and a three pin socket on the other. It costs $295.

The interesting things start happening when you plug it in. Once the EMPower Modulator is plugged into a power point, an appliance plugged into the socket and the chain turned on, all kinds of beneficial effects apparently occur, all over the building where the thing's plugged in - you only need one Modulator to cover a house, or office.

The purpose of the Modulator is (to quote the promotional literature) " alter or 'modulate' the electromagnetic fields generated by wiring, domestic or other appliances of all types, business machinery and equipment, particularly computers or VDUs! This creates a biologically stress-free environment in which physical functions are NOT subject to the normal interference and stress caused by the devices which surround us, and allows our natural energy to be utilised on a conscious level, rather than being wasted in coping with stress at a cellular level beyond our control..." and so on.

With the EMPower Modulator in effect, according to the makers, any and all damaging, stress-causing electromagnetic radiation is "modulated" in such a way that it no longer has any ill effects. The notion that low-level EMR actually has the ability to cause ill effects is still highly controversial to say the least, but have no fear - the Modulator will keep you safe from whatever might ail you.


How it doesn't work

The big question here is how this gadget works. And the big answer, or the big catchcry in any case, is "non-Hertzian frequencies."

Now, for those who didn't pay attention in high school science, the Hertz, abbreviated Hz, is the basic measure of frequency. If something has a frequency of 10Hz, it happens 10 times a second. A 90MHz computer has an internal clock that "ticks" 90 million times a second.

It is thus intuitively obvious that the term "non-Hertzian frequency" is akin to "circular square". A frequency, by definition, can be described in Hz. If it can't, it's not a frequency. There's no way around this. If you've discovered some other emanation unknown to science that does not have a frequency measurable in Hertz, then obviously you should not call it a frequency. It's not the right word.

Keen to find out more about this strange and mysterious area of parascience, I attended a demonstration of the product, where I saw something I just couldn't explain.


My metaphysical experience

I'm not the credulous type. I like hard evidence. But there it was, right in front of my face. It happened.

I parked in North Sydney for four hours in front of a No Standing sign and didn't get a ticket.

The EMPower Modulator, on the other hand, was as shonky as I expected it to be. The demonstration was the most fun I've had in a long time.


The small print

The first thing we got to do was sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). I've encountered these things before - they're generally handed out to the press to stop scoop reports on new products and the like before the official launch date. Nobody likes them much, and some people avoid them as a matter of principle, but they're a well known phenomenon.

This one was a corker. By signing it, I agreed not to disclose confidential information without written permission - a reasonable enough request - and furthermore agreed, in their words, that any report I made was to be "presented in such a way that the DEMONSTRABLE BIOLOGICAL DE-STRESSING EFFECTS AND UNIQUE NON-HERTZIAN characteristics of these products be prominently, accurately and professionally conveyed."

As it turned out, the non-disclosure agreement could have been compressed to "don't say anything unless it's nice, and agree with everything we say". In this document, I am confident that I indeed do "prominently, accurately and professionally convey" the "demonstrable biological de-stressing effects and unique non-hertzian characteristics" of the products. Well, I am at least confident I convey all of the demonstrable effects and characteristics that were, in fact, demonstrated to me - namely, none. I saw no evidence at the demonstration to support Harmonic Energy Products' claims. Mind you, I did see a bit of entertaining trickery.

In any case, I signed the NDA. So did everyone else there (about eight people) save Brad Collins from Choice Magazine, who didn't want to be gagged in any way should the document turn out to be an obstacle to accurate reportage of the events.. I wasn't too sure of its meaning myself at the time - because the demonstration hadn't yet started - but I figured that if the agreement really was solid then I'd just keep my mouth shut. I'd still have had an afternoon's fun. Brad made his apologies and left, leaving me, as it turned out, as the Sole Bearer Of The Logical Light.

Our hosts for the afternoon were Noel and Liz Orchard, the proprietors of Harmonic Products. Liz only showed up later in the proceedings, and Noel was the master of ceremonies.


Poking and prodding

The New South Wales Ecological Testing Clinic (where the demonstration was held) provided us with an info sheet on the Listen System, the testing computer used to show the beneficial effects of the EMPower Modulator and, thus, the linchpin of the whole demo. The Listen isn't made by Harmonic - it's a separate business, and seems to be quite popular among practitioners of a variety of questionable therapies.

To be tested by the Listen, you hold a damp, cloth-covered electrode in one hand while the other is probed with a pointy thing by the trained operator. A graph is drawn on the computer screen in time with the probing, and the height of the peak and rate of fall and rise are interpreted to determine your state of health.

To quote the sheet, the Listen is "the most comprehensive electro dermal screening device available", which measures "the energy level reading of the body organs" by measuring electrical fields and currents induced in the acupuncture meridians by the "subtle energies" which constitute one's "life energy". Unusually low voltage readings may indicate degenerative disease, unusually high readings may indicate inflammation.

This might be a good juncture to mention that the interpretation of acupuncture used by the Listen holds that the hand can be used as an homunculus for the rest of the body - that is, measurements made on specific spots on one hand indicate the state of health of quite different parts of the body. This is as valid as any other acupunctural interpretation; different schools of acupuncturists cannot agree on the location of the all-important meridians and what you can do with them, and said meridians do not correspond to any physical body structure. Acupuncture has never been scientifically proven to have any actual curative effects - although the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence suggests to many that there is something more to the practice than the simple pain-deadening that has actually been demonstrated. Then again, the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence suggests that Elvis is still alive.


Miracle machine

Not only does the Listen tell you what's wrong with you in great detail - it also knows how to fix it. For "inside the computerised memory programme there is an energy reference bank containing the magnetically coded vibrational signatures of thousands of remedies." Whatever your "unbalanced energetic system" may be, the Listen can prescribe the treatment.

I regret to admit that I didn't read the data sheet well enough at the time - the Listen system is claimed to be able to determine what a person's allergies are. Had I been aware of this at the time, I would have seen if they could find out what my chief allergies are; the nice folk at the Royal North Shore Hospital (a stone's throw from the Ecological Testing Clinic, as it happens) diagnosed them some years ago, and I've still got 'em. I'd certainly prefer a little gentle probing with an electrode to the grid, prick and itch routine conventional medicine uses.

Listen can even "confirm the presence of illegal drugs"; if I ever partook of any, I'd be eager to try that feature out too. Unfortunately, I have far too few vices for a person in the journalistic profession.

It would appear that the United States National Institute of Health said "in clinical practice, BEM (LISTEN) offers the possibility of more economical and more effective diagnosis and non-invasive therapies for medical problems"; indeed it does offer this possibility, but it is my contention that it does not deliver.

Before I go on, I'd just like to mention that the United States National Institute of Health, while it sounds like an official government body, isn't. The USA has several National Institutes (note the plural) of Health, which deal with different disciplines. There is no single governmental Institute. This suggests strongly to me that the Institute is a private organisation trying to make itself sound important with a name so similar to that of a government body as to be actionable - if the Institute were big enough for the government to bother prosecuting. It is also, of course, possible that someone just made the quote up.


Yeah, right

What the Listen actually is, as far as I can tell, is a dressed up resistance meter. It measures the electrical resistance between its probe and the electrode you're clutching in the other hand. The better moistened the probed area is and the harder you push, the lower the resistance and the higher the graph. When the demonstrators (foolishly) let me play with the probe, I replicated to my satisfaction all of the results they managed, using incorrect parts of my body, like the palm of my hand and my forehead. Incorrect test locations are supposed to trigger an alarm, but I didn't notice one.

I was told that the rise time had to be something like 33mS; I managed that. I was told the fall time had to be not much more than 0mS; I did that too. I was then told I was doing it wrong, but wasn't told how. Well, that settles that then.


Headline news - Plastic Not Magnetic

The demonstration was a cavalcade of claims, none of which appeared in writing and so none of which are useful as evidence for anything. But one, at least, provided me with considerable amusement.

While explaining his theory that plastic has around it a static field (or frequency, or something) which is harmful to organisms, Mr Noel Orchard mentioned that the banks didn't know what to do about the apparently epidemic problem of polymer banknotes (Australia has plastic "paper" money) rubbing on the magnetic strips on credit cards and erasing them. That's not exactly what he said - I had to explain the concept of the magnetic strip to him - but it's the gist. Joyously, I rubbed like billy-o with a polymer $50 on my Visa card. I warmed the thing up. If I'd rubbed any harder I'd have erased the signature. I then scurried downstairs in search of an automatic teller machine.

Ten minutes later I was back with the $50 I'd just withdrawn and my receipt. The Visa card worked perfectly until it expired, more than a year later.

Among the other claims made for the Empower Modulator that afternoon, by its manufacturers and the supposedly genuine satisfied customers:


The review product gauntlet

Now you'd think, after all the claims, that Harmonic Products would be enthusiastic for reptiles of the press to depart with review samples of their Modulator. After all, with all of these wonderful anecdotal examples of the Modulator's extraordinary abilities, one would suppose an actual working demonstration gadget couldn't help but bring plenty of good publicity.

Wrong. Before I could get a review Modulator, I needed to be tested on the Listen system (OK, done that), have a brain wave analysis and (get this) a Live Blood Analysis.

Live Blood Cell Analysis (as it's more usually called) is not as nasty as it sounds. I thought it might involve needles and tubes and therefore rate on my Desirable Experiences list just below Number 4723: Drowning In Spiders, but it actually needs only a drop of blood. It uses dark field microscopy, which is a valid method, but it uses it inappropriately for broad diagnostic purposes. There's more information on it here.

Of course, if I just put on a funny voice and called Harmonic up, I could order a Modulator for $AUS295, postage, handling and insurance included. Regular consumers don't need any sort of testing - just the willingness to part with the dosh. And, judging by the anecdote-laden promotional material, they don't need any fancy gadgets to show them how great the Modulator is.

It is something of an article of faith for journalists that Thou Shalt Not Pay For Thy Review Product. It's a hard habit to break. And I was danged if I was going to give my, or my magazine's, money to Harmonic Products, even for the privilege of savaging their product.


The irrelevant evidence

Harmonic have a great deal of literature about the harmful effects of radiation. Their chief sourcebook is "Fields of Conflict - The EMF Health Hazard Controversy", a document produced with the assistance of The Australian Democrats, who I'd like to stress are unassociated with Harmonic Products. The compiler of Fields of Conflict has actually contacted me and expressed his antipathy towards Harmonic Products and other purveyors of "wacko devices"; read about this communique here.

Fields of Conflict contains lots of interesting documents. Scientific studies, dissertations, letters, and comprehensive bibliographies. Much of it is highly plausible. Indeed, cellular phones - especially digital ones - may be harmful. As may non-ionising radiation from power lines, electrical appliances and so on.

The professional scientific jury is still very much out on the subject, however, thanks to the prevalence of poor and/or non-repeatable research on the subject. For example, more than one study has established a statistical correlation between living under high voltage power lines and a higher than normal incidence of cancer. But a correlation does not necessarily indicate a causative link; people who live under power lines are typically poorer, and poorer people have more cancer, no matter where they live. Do they have cancer because they're poor and eat cheap processed food full of artificial additives, or because they live under power lines, or because they smoke more cigarettes, or because of some other factor, or because of a combination of factors? This is the area where no reasonable conclusions have yet been reached. You need proper statistical analysis to find the truth in situations like this. Facile statement of correlations that may or may not signify a causative link is a popular strategy among people with no real evidence to support their views.

But let's give Fields Of Conflict the benefit of the doubt and assume that every single word in it is the gospel truth. Even the part where it says the peak output of a digital mobile phone is 20mW, which is too small by a factor of 100. All Fields of Conflict establishes, even in this case, is that there is a need for a product that somehow does what the EMPower Modulator claims to do. Fields of Conflict does not in any way support the claim that the Modulator lives up to its specifications (or that any device, even in theory, could), and does not mention the device or any similar device at any point.

Harmonic also provided us with a selection of newspaper clippings on the subject of pollution in general and radiation in particular, and another paper on radiation effect coverups. But all of this is also irrelevant to the central question - do Harmonic Products' gadgets work?


The irrelevant official certification

Harmonic make much of the fact that their Modulator has been passed by the relevant electricity authorities, and that it is sales tax exempt. They fail to mention that the electricity authorities only care about making sure a product will not electrocute the public; there are plenty of ordinary, and much cheaper, power conditioners that are so passed. Power conditioners, more commonly called surge/spike filters, are passive devices that clean up nasty voltage spikes or lengthy voltage surges in the supposedly 240 volt AC supply. They don't save you from power cuts - for that you need a more expensive gadget called an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) - but they prevent distant lightning strikes, industrial equipment and the like from frying your electronic gear or wreaking more minor mischief, like rebooting your computer.

Some power conditioners are sales tax exempt, as safety devices. Some aren't, as well; the waters are a bit muddy on this subject and the Tax Office seems disturbingly willing to believe the claims of product makers in these cases. In any case, it doesn't matter, because the EMPower Modulator's exemption was not gained on the basis of the Modulator being a health-enhancing device. You see, it says in the small print that it is not so promoted.


We deny everything!

Throughout their literature, Harmonic Products carefully avoid making any explicit curative claims about their products. While allusions to "thousands of satisfied customers" are rife and attributed quotes about stress relief, alleviation of repetitive strain injury and the like are also common, there are no actual direct therapeutic claims. This doesn't, however, stop them from saying "you may experience an enhanced sense of wellbeing, better concentration, significant reductions in eyestrain, migraines and fatigue, little or no discomfort from RSI, and reduced hyperactivity or hypertension in children, adults and even pets" and claiming that "all living things function and grow better in an atmosphere free from electromagnetic and biological stress!!", with the obvious implication that said atmosphere can be created by the use of their products.

They even go so far as to state that "many users noticed increased efficiency in their appliance performance when the device is fitted", "reducing the wasteful leakage of electricity from the wiring", which apparently is the reason for the abovementioned spooky increase in refrigerator effectiveness. All this on top of the health benefits!

But in the small print on the order form, you'll find "These products ARE NOT LISTED UNDER the THERAPEUTIC GOODS ADMINISTRATION OF AUSTRALIA and must be accompanied by the literature provided. THEY ARE NOT CURATIVE providing continuing temporary relief only. Recurring symptoms of any kind should be treated by a practising physician."

So, in other words, despite the in-all-but-name therapeutic effects which, according to Harmonic Products, their products produce, they have not felt the need to bring said effects to the attention of the Government. It looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but it's definitely a hippopotamus.



Unfortunately, despite any protestations to the contrary, it seems to me that Harmonic Products ARE promoting the Modulator as a therapeutic device. Why? Glad you asked.

According to the Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia (the TGA), therapeutic devices "...are, represented in any way to be, or likely to be taken to be, for use, or in connection with ... preventing, diagnosing, curing or alleviating a disease, ailment, defect or injury in persons or animals; or influencing, inhibiting or modifying a physiological process in persons or animals". Now, no matter how hard Harmonic try to tell us all that they don't want the Modulator to be thought of as a therapeutic device, it appears to fall within this definition and so should be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). If it isn't, it cannot legally be supplied in Australia or exported from Australia. Full stop.

Well, that's what you'd think, anyway. In this matter I am indebted to John Foley of the Australian Skeptics. John runs the Qakatak section of the Australian Skeptics' site, and has a most excellent article on the subject of the TGA there.

Why isn't the Modulator listed? It's not because it's "alternative". The Compliance Branch of the TGA happily registers herbal products, which may well work, and homeopathic remedies, which have almost never been shown to do anything a placebo doesn't and rely at base on principles totally alien to all modern science, just like the Modulator. To be fair, the TGA only bothers with "the more concentrated homeopathic products"; since homeopathy insists that medicines become more potent as they become more dilute, to the point where many homeopathic remedies probably contain not one molecule of active ingredient, this is a bit like talking about "the shorter basketball players". But I digress.

All sorts of rubbish is, apparently, Listed on the ARTG, and has been ever since the current Therapeutic Goods Act was introduced in 1989. If you have evidence that your therapeutic product works, you "Register" it. If you don't, you just "List" it. Common sense would suggest that whacko products wouldn't just get rubber stamp approval, but common sense is, in this case, wrong.

Here, I quote John Foley's article:

"In 1996, Senator Woods commissioned a report into the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It was called the Woods Review. On page 53 of that review, it is stated that 'the Therapeutic Goods Administration...has rarely if ever...asked for evidence (of efficacy) and there is in fact little or no legislative backing for the Therapeutic Goods Administration to require evidence of efficacy for listed products'.

"How do get a product Listed? Just make some therapeutic claims about lawn clippings, Smarties or a children's toy, pay $220 and it is Listed in your name. Your next door neighbour can take exactly the same products, make different therapeutic claims about them and List them for the same price. I am thinking of listing steamed wombat droppings and claiming that they increase the intelligence. As soon as people find out what they are, they won't eat any more. Q.E.D."



There are lots of products which, like the Modulator, are sold with explicit or implicit therapeutic claims but are not Listed or Registered with the TGA. But that doesn't matter. If Harmonic Energy Products has sold ONE Modulator in this country, or exported ONE, they've broken the law. If the Modulator is genuine then it's a great shame that they're in this frightful situation - though one can only wonder why they didn't stump up the lousy $220 to List it - but since it seems enormously improbable that this product actually is genuine, then what we have here is a company selling snake oil that has conveniently given us a handle to grab them by.

Incidentally, the Listen diagnostic system obviously also comes under the purview of the TGA; I don't know if it's listed, but I'm willing to bet that it isn't, since it's readily testable yet singularly unlikely to work. If it's not approved, nobody had better try to sell the things in Australia.


It's a plot!

Maybe this is all a conspiracy. Maybe the Great Electromagnetic Radiation Cover-Up Committee wants to make sure nobody finds out we're all being fried by our computers, and my ridicule is all part of the plot.

To quote the late Carl Sagan: "But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."


Ancillary idiocy

As an ancillary note, not pertinent to direct discussion of Harmonic's products but indicative of the level of electrical knowledge they have, the section on the supposed efficiency-boosting qualities of the Modulator contains some eye-opening statements. As an example of wasted energy, they quote the phenomenon of "fluorescent tubes lighting up under high tension powerlines", which is something you can test for yourself if you've got such lines handy. Stand there holding one end of the tube and the considerable electromagnetic field (EMF) around the lines will indeed cause the tube to glow. Not to full brightness, but it'll be quite noticeable at night. And the power used to maintain this EMF is not being transmitted to the intended recipients of the electricity, and hence is indeed wasted energy.

But then Harmonic say "It has been estimated by some power company researchers that as much as 50% of power is `lost' through leakage from electrical wiring of all types," which might be true; I'm not an expert, and furthermore "high tension powerline wire are (sic) completely uninsulated!"


Well, Harmonic Products, I hate to tell you this, but insulation has nothing at all to do with reduced EMF (you're thinking about shielding, guys), and power lines ARE insulated - from their steel poles, with ceramic insulators. The wire itself is not sheathed in insulation - there's no reason for it to be, because it's well out of reach of anyone that might touch it while earthed and kill themselves. This means that when a power line falls thanks to lightning, a falling tree or whatever, a good length of uninsulated wire hits the ground, gets a good earth and pops a circuit breaker, with any luck. Result - nobody not under the thing at that exact moment should get hurt. If the wire were insulated all along (making it much more expensive and heavier), only the broken end would contact the ground, and it wouldn't draw that much power from the national grid's point of view - though it'd be perfectly capable of killing people and starting fires.

If you're in the electrical business you really should know this stuff - or at least remain silent and be thought a fool, in preference to speaking and removing all doubt.


Magic metal

If you still think Harmonic Products sound plausible, wait until you hear about the No Risk Disk. This is a piece of purple anodised aluminium, available in different shapes and sizes, which does ill-described pseudoscientific metaphysical things just like the EMPower Modulator. Its basic intent is to protect you from harmful radiation, but it has various other pyramid power-esque abilities, such as improving the flavour of beverages.

Part of the confidential, unpublished information I was privy to at the Modulator demonstration concerned the Disk, and was so openly and hilariously preposterous that I consider it my bounden duty to contribute to the gaiety of nations by disseminating it.

It would appear that when one wears the Disk, one can pass through airport metal detectors and not set them off, despite having a pocket full of spare change, a big metal belt buckle, a plate in one's head and a suit of chainmail on. But - and this is an important but - if one is attempting to do anything illegal, like smuggle guns, the Disk will cease to function, the detector will bleep, and you and your Disk will shortly be discussing bunk assignments with a large man called Spike. Even if one believes one is doing something good when one really is not - if one is, for example, a religious nut who believes one's god of choice is best served by blowing up this plane - the Disk will still not help you.

So what we have here is a piece of aluminium which defies all the precepts of electromagnetic physics, responds to psychic impulses and is directly linked to a Universal Oneness that cares for the wellbeing of the human race. And it'll make your beer taste better. And improve your gas mileage. And reduce tyre wear. And if you stick a weeny one on your mobile phone you won't broil your head.

Uh huh.



I have a sneaking suspicion that the Orchard duo at Harmonic Products really believe their product works. The best evidence I have for this is that they're really lousy at conning people into believing it does. A cynical snake-oil salesman who knows he's ripping off the punters will have a nice line of patter, some convincingly faked demonstrations and a fine armoury of lies and exaggerations to counter any hecklers. Noel and Liz, however, couldn't argue their way out of a well moistened ricepaper lampshade. If they're deliberate con artists, they're very bad ones; it looks to me as if they really think their products can stand on their own.

Mind you, I can't be unreservedly generous to them in even this department, because they persist in some patterns of behaviour that imply either deliberate twisting of the truth or remarkable obtuseness. For example, they either do not understand or do not wish to mention that their much-prized electrical approval and sales tax exemption do not in fact signify that their products work. Whenever somebody mentions this, they just parrot back that the Modulator's approved and exempt, and expect the topic to be closed. Honestly, if the Orchards ran the pubs in Alice Springs, I'd seriously expect Australia's beer consumption to halve.

But the Orchards' poor salesmanship doesn't seem to matter. Everyone else at the demonstration, a few of whom were showing their allegiance by wearing No Risk Disks in one shape or another, lapped it all up. They weren't all blithering idiots; they followed my lines of argument when I questioned various aspects of the presentation. But when Noel came up with a blistering bit of repartee like "no, that's wrong", all questions were apparently settled beyond reasonable doubt.

People want to believe things. Some people want to believe everything. If you are one of these people, with an unshakable religious faith in dowsing, acupuncture, astrology, homeopathy, Tarot, ancient astronauts, Atlantis, pyramid power, Uri Geller's lucky orange dots, ghosties, ghoulies, long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night, then the EMPower Modulator is another fine belief for your collection.

I'm not saying that any of the things in the above list is false. I personally believe them all to be in some or all important respects, but I don't tell the universe how to behave; what the heck do I know?

Given all of the available evidence, though, Harmonic Products' products seem to me to be a waste of money. Don't take my word for it, though; check out their literature for yourself, or even buy a Modulator under their "90 day no risk unconditional moneyback guarantee". But I wouldn't be surprised if this guarantee proves to be as tangible as a non-Hertzian frequency.


Harmonic Energy Products don't have a Web site of their own, but their address is:

35 Price St Nerang
Queensland 4211

They also have a Freecall number for Australian callers; it's 1800-248-144. Their regular phone number is Australia (07) 5596-6726; this is +617 5596-6726 for foreign callers.

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