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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.



  1. 'The "pentagraph" wheels should be...' ??? Have you ever heard a planchette referred to as a "pentagraph" before?

  2. While there are some pantograph-like spirit communication devices, most notably Wagner's "Psychograph" based on what the Germans coin a "cranesbill" (, I've never heard planchettes referred to as such. But the earliest castors for planchettes did, in fact, come from pantographs, arising as they did from the scientific instrument trade (which persisted from the early 1850s until the stationary and toy industries took over). In fact, there was one group of scientific instrument collectors who didn't believe me when I informed them that the pantograph-making company they all collected produced planchettes, until I showed them the ads.

    My favorite account of planchettes is an 1869 article that actually deals with a scientist who goes from scientific-instrument-maker-to-scientific-instrument-maker trying to get a piece of apparatus built, but he can't because they're all too busy making pantograph wheels for the newly-sparked planchette craze!

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