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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Vermont, 1869: The Blanchard Contrivance

Working with enthusiastic and knowledgeable collaborators is incredibly rewarding. From the threads Marc and I chase down in tandem, to Pat Deveny's heads-up on illustrations of the Emanulector, from my burgeoning friendship with Joe Citro over spirit trumpets and spirit-rapping machines in Vermont, to Bob Murch and I's constant unraveling of talking board history, there's always a certain assurance knowing that while you're always looking out for them, they're looking out for you, too.

Bob recently forwarded an interesting snippet of planchette history as he plumbed the depths of new newspaper archives that arrived online. As is so often the case, it was preceded with "I know you've probably already seen this buuuut," which these days always makes my ears perk up, because I know that when I hear this, someone's found something obscure enough that they think is noteworthy, and they know my research well enough to know when something's really noteworthy. And that's comforting, in and of itself.

That's the case here, a little snippet Murch ran across in the January 9, 1869 edition of the Weekly Journal Miner of Prescott, Arizona. The skeptical article is titled "Planchette--What Is It?" and has some interesting acknowledgements and footnotes of planchettes' history: the automatic writing experiments of Dr. Patton, mentions of Kirby's penultimate planchette models in the India rubber and glass models, and even an account of a wire planchette made by "bending wire into the shape of a triangle, with spiral twists of the same for the two legs." But it's the account of the "test planchette" of Dr. Virgil W. Blanchard of Bradford, Vermont, that caught Bob's attention, and subsequently mine:

Luckily, Bob's right up the street from the Boston Public Library, which houses a microfilm collection of the Watchman, so he's graciously going to chase this thread down for me and see if we can't get a better description. What we have is intriguing, though. It is a little hard to quite imagine what they are describing, but breaking it down, we have:
  • A balanced fingerboard that tilts between to upright supports
  • An attached cord mechanism that drives a wheel, and its pointer, around a dial
  • An alphabet dial with a "hundred divisions"
  • Tipping the fingerboard causes the wheel to revolve around the dial
  • The operator cannot see the dial, the account later mentions.
It is clear that we have, at least partially, a wheel-and-dial alphabet board in the same manner as, say, a Tuttle Psychograph. But then there's the whole balanced fingerboard and wheel-and-cord bit that makes the driving mechanism's description somewhat obscure and hard to reconstruct, even imaginatively. We await the original description in hopes of a better depiction or, dare we hope, and illustration?

The point of the device was to debunk the planchette as a method of spirit communication, and, according to the account, it was successful in that regard since the operator could not see the dial, in a test reminiscent, obviously, of Dr. Robert Hare. Dr. Blanchard himself was an interesting fellow, and worth following up, given the number of patent applications his name is attached to. It is also interesting to note that Blanchard wasn't the first to experiment with these so-called lever boards--we've seen them before, as well--again with Dr. Hare.
Dr. Hare's "Spiritoscope" 'lever-boards.'
Stay tuned! For now, we'll add Dr. Blanchard's contrivance to our list of lost test mechanisms, and graft yet another evolutionary branch on the tree of talking board history. Thanks, Murch! And head's up, Joe--we've got another mysterious device to track down in the wilds of Vermont!

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