For questions, comments, and inquiries please email Brandon

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mysterious Planchette on Coast to Coast AM

Late tonight (or early tomorrow morning, depending on how you look at it), your curator Brandon Hodge will appear alongside his collaborator and Ouija board historian Robert Murch on Coast to Coast AM, hosted by George Noory, on their Contacting the Dead program. Show runs 1am-4am CST, and we'll be on for the full stretch, so please join us as we explore the bizarre world of spirit communication and the history of seances, talking boards, planchettes, and Ouija!

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Auburn Company's "Kyro" Unveiled!

I love the end of long searches.

The Auburn Company of Providence, Rhode Island has already gotten a fair assessment of its known history and products in my previous Wanda Tipping Table blog, given there due to the fact that for years collectors and researchers had assumed that their Syco-Graf was somehow related to Grover Haffner's creation due to the similarity of facial design. Unfortunately, that theory doesn't look to be playing out any more now than it did when I first revealed that info on the Auburn Company and its owners, and no new company information has come to light since that time. So it goes.

Various Syco-Grafs and ads for same, 1920s.
But there's been a major discovery, nonetheless! We'll recall from our previous post that Whitfield J. Hainer of 227 Sackett St. registered “The Auburn Company" as a sole proprietorship manufacturing novelties in Rhode Island on March 1, 1920. He had a partner, C.H. Martineau, and duo's company was located at 64 North Main Street, in Room #2.

Beyond the company info, we have surviving ads for the Syco-Graf, or, the "Micro-Psychic Machine," and the search for them had led us to ads for another of Auburn Company's creations, the aforementioned Kyro, the Psychic Writer.

Kyro Psychic Writer advertisement, The Independent, March 1921
So, the hunt was on to uncover the Kyro. While I wish I could report the discovery of a flesh-and-blood specimen, for now we'll have to be content with images of the item as revealed through what is either a period sales pamphlet or instruction sheet. Thank you to my buddy Brian Altonen and his Amazing Cures, Astonishing Beliefs blog for uncovering this little gem, nestled as a bookmark between the pages of 1000 Years in Celestial Life. Introduction to Science and Key of Life. Manifestations of Divine Law. [Received through Psychic Telegraphy.] Autobiography of Clytina; Born in Athens 147 B.C. Passed to Celestial Life, 131 B.C. which is, as the title indicates, an autobiography of an ascended deific spirit channeled by the psychic W.E. Cole through a radio receiver. Pretty fitting, I'd say.

The pamphlet is a beautiful, petite little single-fold, expounding on the wonder of the Kyro psychic writer. We're blessed to finally, after this long search, to have a picture of the device, and in use, at that:

While we could have wished for a less-obscured view, the illustration and accompanying text tell us a lot about the Kyro. We know it is hexagonal and constructed of three-ply mahogany with a "birch inlay finish." This, of course, is also how the Syco-Graf is described, and as I've noted before, this isn't the most honest of descriptions. The "inlay" is actually stamped sections in the wood that are stained a lighter color. While is is an interesting touch, it becomes painfully obvious what the process of construction is, if the Syco-Graf is any frame of reference, when one sees the darker-stained areas surrounding the lighter "birch" sections, and the old towel marks left in the stain as the makers tried to deftly apply an even coat by mopping around the lighter sections without bleeding into them, with mixed results (the upper-lefthand Syco-Graf pictured above shows this inconsistent staining).

Operationally, the Kyro differs from other planchettes in that its aperture is centrally-placed, and  "consists of a pencil and a special receptacle processed from silicated xylonite. The receptacle is covered by a thin diaphragm which connects with the pencil through a sensitive composition styled a "float," the same composition in effect as is now used on the latest model SYCO-GRAF."  Xylonite is an early Bakelite-like celluloid substance, often used for knifes handle and imitation coral jewelry, so it seems we basically have a celluloid ring used as a retention for a thinner membrane in the window which holds the pencil, not unlike Fuld's classic clear-plastic-windowed planchettes from this period, only instead of holding a small needle as an indicator, the diaphragm is designed to hold the device's pencil. The illustration shows the planchette in use, and, sure enough, the young woman's hand is clasping the pencil, not the planchette's body--a possible clue into the potentially fragile nature of the celluloid diaphragm.

What is more mysterious is how this material is incorporated on the Syco-Graf, as the excerpt maintains. While the Syco-Graf in the Mysterious Planchette collection is admittedly missing its wooden indicator wheel, the remaining housing is brass, though it may be that the accompanying housing in the indicator itself was made of xylonite for "insulation" purposes, or the specimen I have wasn't the "latest" model incorporating this feature as the pamphlet hints.
Kyro detail.
The planchette's legs do not seem to be wheeled castors, and instead appear to be turned pegs, like earlier versions of Ouija's planchette. If there are wheels, they are tiny, and given that the pamphlet notes the legs are also made of this xylonite material, this is a possibility. Another interesting feature of the Kyro is a "domed pearl partly inset in the top...affording the visualizing properties of a gazing crystal when at rest, and diminishing self conscious mental interferences when used while the writing is in progress." They thought of EVERYTHING! An automatic writer AND a scrying crystal! Finally, it is noted that the Kyro contains no metal.

So, what are we looking for? The Kyro is a red mahogany-stained hexagonal plywood planchette, with some sections stained in a lighter "birch color," so it probably looks a lot like the woodwork of its larger sibling, the Syco-Graf.  It is likely stamped with its name. It has bakelite-like legs that may or may not have tiny little wheels, and have the turned-wood appearance of early Ouija planchette legs. The aperture should have a retention ring of the same substance surrounding a celluloid film with a hole in the middle to hold a pencil. And, of course, somewhere on top is that essential faux-pearl.

Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure this thing couldn't be confused for anything else! So, eyes open, stalwart readers, and here's hoping that somewhere, a perfectly-preserved Kyro is lurking in a dark basement or attic, just waiting for its rediscovery.You just come whispering back to me...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Sturmberg Planchette

Sturmberg Planchette illustration, from 1876's Life Beyond the Grave.
One of the more enduring planchette ads that appears in the UK in the post-fad years shows up for the first time in 1876 in the pages of the anonymously-written Life Beyond the Grave, Described by a Spirit, Through a Writing Medium, itself purportedly written by automatic writing achieved through a planchette. The book's preface details the planchette (immediately pointing readers to J. Stormont's ad in the back of the book) as well as the writer's original failure to produce anything with the devices some 10 years prior to the publication:

"In myself I failed to develop the least trace of mediumship, either through table turning or planchette writing, until the summer of 1874, when I accidentally came in contact with an American medium who was reputed to have the power of developing mediumship in others. This person mesmerised my hand and arm—she never succeeded in mesmerising the brain— and the result was, that when I placed my hand on planchette I felt a dragging motion in the instrument, as if some invisible power were gently drawing it over the surface of the paper, uncontrolled by me." 

Thankfully for most users, professional mesmerism of one's limbs was not a usual prerequisite for planchette use, but we're glad this medium--a student of the developing medium Mrs. Woodforde--found her way. Unfortunately, what begins as a ringing endorsement for the planchette is quickly abandoned, as the medium writes:

"I soon found the planchette was an impediment rather than an advantage to my progress as a writing medium, and that I could get on much more rapidly by simply holding the pencil in the hand and keeping the mind and the muscles of the arm perfectly passive."

But, planchette-scripted or not, the book's contents are not our subject--that would be the advertised 'little plank': the Sturmberg.

The full Life Beyond the Grave ad, 1876.
The Sturmberg Planchette was the product of brassfounder James G. Stormont of 59 Constitution Hill, Birmingham, England. Stormont was perhaps more well-known for his patented "repeater call-bell," a desktop hotel bell that would selectively ring 2, 4, or 6 times at the push of a button. They are beautifully crafted items, if the illustrations are any indication, and it seems similar care and craftsmanship was undertaken with another of Stormont's signature items: the Sturmberg planchette.

Sturmberg Planchette Ad, The Medium & Daybreak, 1876.
The Sturmberg's advertisements here and elsewhere appeal to a wide audience, and one ad from the January 7, 1876 The Medium & Daybreak (found by our pal Marc Demarest, who is currently scanning 3 years of said volumes, with our sincere and enduring gratitude), appeals to subscribers of a wide swathe of beliefs, covering all of Stormont's bases, attributing the planchette's powers to Odic Force, "Psychic Force," "Unconscious Cerebration," (William B. Carpenter's early attempt at terminology to define subconscious and ideomotor response) and, of course, "spirit agency."

The planchette was available in 4 models: two full-size offerings in both high-grade finish and common grade, a "second size," and an intended-for-one-hand-use "small size." It had normal pantograph castors as was common for the planchettes of the period, and its closest relatives seems to be the Jaques & Son planchettes, or perhaps exceptionally similar Page & Co offerings, given its traditional blunt-nosed, flat-back design so indicative of British planks. 

The likeliest contender: note routed outer ridge.
We have a single possible recorded specimen tentatively identified as a Sturmberg planchette. Like the Page & Co. planchette which is identical in so many respects except finish, this planchette could just as easily been identified as a Jaques & Son, particularly given that its castors--typically the identifying quality of a planchette in absence of label--are distinctively of the Jaques & Son style. But the Sturmberg ad gives us a very distinctive clue to this plank's true heritage: that curious routed outer ridge. It is not only a nice touch, but also a quality not found on any other planchettes, with its closest comparison having rounded, smooth edges, and with many comparative specimens at that. And if we work from the assumption that the illustration is an accurate depiction (as has proven the case in so many instances), then it seems likely that this unlabeled piece is one of the Sturmberg offerings.

1895 Sturmberg solicitation.
The Sturmberg planchette had a longer lifespan than most, its term rivaled in its long lifetime only by its near-twin in the Jaques & Son planchette on its own shores, and Selchow & Righter's long-term Scientific Planchette offering across the Atlantic. Ads appear as early as 1876, and persist well into 1895 when occult book dealer James Burns is advertising himself as the London agent for both the Sturmberg and the Ouija in the 1895 edition of Clegg's International Directory of the World Book Trade. This wasn't the crest of the planchette's wave, but some offerings did endure.  

Sturmberg ad from 1886's The Philosophy of Mesmerism and Electrical Psychology.
As always, eyes wide, dear readers. I close with another snippet from the anonymous writer of the 1876 volume in which the Sturmberg originally appeared, for no other reason than I think it is a beautiful reflection of the planchette's place in history and public sentiment of spirit communication in general:
It is, in consequence of this foolish notion, that many persons give up communicating through planchette, on the assumption that it is diabolical; because, having asked foolish questions, they have induced foolish replies.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Boards of Future Past: The Downe Patent Device Discovered!

One of the great pastimes we collectors and researchers play amongst ourselves is the occasional overview of the patent record. There, we find all manner of incredible and inventive devices designed to communicate with the spirit world--most masterfully drawn--and often with tantalizing clues on those people behind their invention. What we're regrettably short on are the physical results of these patent applications, and as most remain elusive of the 'this-thing-was-actually-made-and-existed' category, and it is a rare satisfaction to be able to confirm the existence of a product from the patent record that we haven't previously identified.

But recently I was able to confirm the existence of the product that resulted from Patent #1,280,424--the Albert E. Downe patent from October 1, 1918. But that moniker is so dull and pedestrian compared to the name its makers eventually dubbed it: the "Ouija Snitch Baby!"

Downe's 1918 "Game Device" Patent
The discovery is new enough that we have very little information on the item. We know, of course, that Albert E. Downe of St. Paul, Minnesota patented the item, and, from its backplate, we know the Goldman-Linehan Manufacturing Company produced the device. Who devised its clever name, "Snitch Baby," and what Downe's association with this lost-to-google company is unknown, so any snitching we can do on the Snitch Baby's history will have to wait until we can charge headlong over the trenches of talking board research and battle the archives the old fashion way! But first, a brief pictorial overview of similar slide-dial devices, with the Snitch Baby nestled conveniently there in the middle (but note how the patent variation above fits so much cleaner in the evolution):

An Evolution of Slide Dials, 1891-1950: Lee's 1891 "Psychorbrette," Braham's 1910 "Telepathic Spirit
Communicator," Downe's 1918 "Snitch Baby," Bigelow's 1921 "Ouija Board," Richmond's 1950
"Finger Pressure Actuated Message Interpreting Amusement Device."

"Slide Dials" have been a popular form of spirit communication device since the Ouija's introduction, particularly since inventors sought to capitalize on the ebbing and flowing talking board crazes without running afoul of competitor's patents. The "Snitch Baby" falls squarely in the middle of their evolution. I hope you'll enjoy the pictorial overview of the beautiful device. The story behind its discovery is pretty interesting, and, as is so often the case, began with flip-phone-quality photos that brought to mind the famously-fuzzy Patterson-Gimlin footage, but that's a tale for another day...

The Snitch Baby is bigger than it looks. At nearly 2-feet long and about 4-inches wide, it is a substantial communication device. Its indicator is fixed, but its rolling carriage is built with enough play to lilt toward one side or the other, indicating either individual letters on the slide's right-hand side, or days of the week, numbers, months, or punctuation to the left and middle.

The indicator includes the patent date, confirming its identity with the Downe patent. It also includes the "New and Improved" tagline, which opens up the intriguing possibility that this is a later version. Note that the patent drawing includes a horizontal version of the board more akin to the UK Braham Telepathic Spirit Communicator and its variants. Could it be that the other drawing represents an older model?

The undercarriage contains Snitch Baby's instructions, and the identity of its maker: Goldman-Linehan Manufacturing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. In a rare turn, it gives the Snitch Baby a definitively feminine sexuality, and the revelation that "Snitch Baby will also stand plenty of talking to, and will bring up any other guide you ask her for if such be possible" is an interesting reference to spirit guides for a device marketed at a time when so many companies preferred to leave such items' seance-invoking qualities ambiguous in order to market to a wider audience.

So, our watchful sentinel continues for the discovery of more devices that we wake every morning hoping will manifest on the record. Some we chase through the depths of time, and others elude our grasp like insubstantial time-shifting mutants sent to the present to warn us. Wait. What?*

*Bonus points for those who get the X-Men graphic reference and can name the issue and storyline.