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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. 

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