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Monday, October 11, 2021

Early British planchette, 1850s to 1860s

The History of the Ouija Board (Part 2)

In part one, we learned that the Ouija Board 'game' came to be after it was discovered being used in Spiritualist camps in Ohio. But where did the device come from? And who first designed it?

"Spirit Rapping" was first used in 1848. Questions were asked out loud and the spirits would answer through rapping, or tapping. It was a long and tedious process as the alphabet was recited until a rap was heard to choose a letter. Then the alphabet was begun again for the next letter. And so on.

Mediums began looking for quicker ways to communicate with the dead. Some of them began printing out the alphabet and numbers on a board or a card. They would then sweep a pencil over it while asking a question and wait for a knock to designate the letter. Some also resorted to "Table Tipping". The medium would have everyone gather around a small to medium-sized table and have them place their hands on it. Eventually, the table would start moving. Questions would be asked and the table would rap out responses to the called-out alphabet.

One man, Nahum Koons from Athens, Ohio decided to make things a little easier. Perhaps we can call this the first "Spirit Box" like what some ghost hunters like to use. In the early 1850s, Koons set out to prove mediums were all hoaxers but ended up being converted to a Believer. He invented the "Speaking Trumpet" which was used to transmit the voices of the spirits to those attending the seances.

Still in the 1850s, Automatic, or Passive Writing became a practice. A medium would sit with a pencil and paper and allow the spirits to write out messages for their loved ones using the medium's body. But spirits in Paris, France weren't satisfied with this practice.

June 10, 1853, it seems the spirits requested that a way be found where they could write their messages through more than one person. And so the planchette [French for "little plank"] was born. Alleged instructions from the spirits were to get a basket and turn it upside down. Then put a pencil in it. If everyone would then place their hands upon it, the spirits could write to them.

The basket soon evolved into an oval or heart-shaped board with two wheels and a hole to insert a pencil. A cottage planchette-making industry started in Paris, then moved to the United Kingdom and eventually to America in 1858. The planchette was slow to catch on in the U.S. but by 1868 there was widespread popularity. They were being made by several different companies and were the "in" thing to own. 

1860 ad for the Boston Planchette

However, people began to tire of the difficulty sometimes in deciphering the scribbles of the pencil planchette. This finally led to the talking board design. The "new" planchette became a "pointer". It would point at letters and numbers written on a board. This combined the best of "rapping" with the best features of a planchette.

Others came close to inventing the Ouija Board.

Isaac Pease had his "Spiritual Telegraph Dial" in the 1850s. It consisted of an eight-inch square box with a little dial clock hand in the middle. Letters numbers were printed around it. The device was placed on a table and everyone put their hands on the table. Table Tipping was used to move the hand around the dial to designate the letters. This device was used by serious spiritualists, never catching the fancy of the people.

German music professor Adolphus Theodore Wagner patented a device in London in 1854. [The first spirit communication device to be patented]. It had four crossbeams and four discs on each intersection. One arm would be stabilized on the edge of the table. The other end with the pointer was over an alphabet pad. Everyone would put their hands on the discs and the crossbeam would move and point to the letters.

Daniel Hornung invented the "Emanulector" during this same time in Berlin. It was more like Isaac Pease's Spirit Telegraph Dial. It was attached to a table and table tipping was used to make the disc revolve.

In the 1840s Dr. Robert Hare set about to prove through science that all mediums were fake. So he created a couple of tables with dials on them and had the medium sit behind the table where they could not see the dials. The table would tip and the device would turn and Dr. Hare would record the letters to see if actual words and sentences were produced. He called these "blind-test devices". Then he found an Isaac Pease Spirit Telegraph Dial, and liking how they looked and worked, he had a foundry make some up with his modifications. As these were smaller he could travel with them. He called them "Spiritoscopes."

Eventually, he came to believe in spirits talking to mediums, being unable to prove any deception. He wrote a book declaring spiritualism to have been proven by science. Scientists hated him for it and shunned him. The spiritualist community also disliked him since he started out trying to prove them hoaxers.

After a few years [once the community got over being debunked and the fakers revealed] interest again picked up in the 1880s. Hudson Tuttle invented his "Psychograph" which was similar to the Holmes & Co.'s "Aphabetic Planchette" dial of 1868. The Psychograph consisted of a square board with letters and numbers with a dial set in the middle of the board. Everyone would put their hands on the dial while it spun around pointing to letters or numbers. It was all one piece, with no separate planchette that could be lost or broken. Unfortunately, it gained little popularity beyond Spiritualist circles. There were several other devices designed that suffered the same fate.


antique Ouija Board
Although the Ouija Board was invented in Baltimore as a "game", it is still not really clear who came up with the idea of a talking board. Some researchers say there are records of a family engraving the alphabet on a table and rolling a dowel to point to the letters back in 1876. Some Spiritualists were using planchettes to point to letters and numbers in the 1870s. In 1886, the W.S. Reed Toy Company in Leominster, Massachusetts was said to have sent President Grover Cleveland a talking board called "The Witch Board" as a wedding present. He thanked them for the divination device but told them he wouldn't be using it to disclose the past or to read the future.

Other talking boards include :

"Espirito" The Ouija Novelty board by the W.S. Reed company.

"Genii: The Witches' Fortune Teller" by Milton Bradley in 1892 [which used a slide-rule].

"Aura: The Psychic Talking Board".

"Cablegraph" was patented by spiritualist George Pearson in 1900. [dial plate].

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the Ouija Board is the scary stories associated with them. People love it when TV shows and movies use the device to introduce demons and evil spirits into someone's life -- death and destruction ensue with lots of blood and horror.

In Part Three  I will relate the "Rules" of Ouija Boards as set forth on the Internet and then the posts after that will be retelling some of the stories from those who did not obey those rules.  If you have your own tale of spookiness concerning an Ouija Board, please do contact me via The Crypto Crew and I will include them in one of my posts.

Part 4


"I'll spark the thought; what you do with it is up to you."

This Post is By TCC Team Member Nancy Marietta. Nancy has had a lifelong interest in the paranormal and cryptids. Nancy is also a published author and her book, The Price of War, has been met with great reviews.

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